I wake up this morning to the sun slicing warm, golden slits through the barred windows of my little apartment in Dali Old Town, one of southern China's most beautiful and relaxing cities. It isn't the ample sunshine that wakes me up, however, it's the rousing military band music that wafts in from across several courtyards and makes its way into our otherwise quiet corner of existence. The music itself wouldn't be so remarkable, even given its oddly archaic marching-band sound, like some fragment of mid-20th century authoritarianism that got trapped in the stratosphere and recently settled down back into my ear.
What is remarkable is its ubiquity. It is the same music I battle to suppress from my on-campus apartment in one of China's major cities. It is the same music that blasts every morning at precisely 7 AM and again at 4 PM on my top-level university campus. To me, it is increasingly the sound of China.
Accompanying the music is a voice calling out callisthenic exercises in a cadence that would be almost cheery if it didn't carry such grim undertones of mindless conformity. “Yi, Er, San, Si, Wu, Liu, Qi, Ba, Er, Er, San, Si, Wu, Liu, Qi, Ba,” the high-pitched male voice encourages the often-absent students. This is a real-life equivalent of the “physical jerks” in Orwell's “1984.” Twice a day, on the mark, speakers across the campus blast out this music. Students at my university are obliged to participate at least once a week. There seems to be a club for those who want to show particular enthusiasm. I am told that these exercises along with their uniform marching music are obligatory daily routines on all school campuses up until the end of high school. Failure to show sufficient enthusiasm in one's daily jerks is grounds for academic penalties. This aspect of living and studying in China is something that it seems is often missed in the excessively positive and business-oriented coverage given by the mainstream media, and it is part of a troubling trend that I am most able to witness in the education system – but which extends to every facet of life in the Middle Kingdom.
There was a time when China was referred to as a society which was Communist or Post-Communist; today, the terms Authoritarian Capitalist or Capitalist with Asian/Chinese Characteristics are more common. However, there is a new term that appears to be increasingly applicable to the operation of the Chinese state and its impact on the lives of Chinese people and, above all, the education of Chinese youth born in the 1990s. It is increasingly clear that China is the most powerful, mature and internationally accepted fascist state in global history and its status as such should cause us all a great deal of concern.
To call China a fascist state is nothing particularly novel. In March 2010, the Taipei Times published an editorial by a J. Michael Cole, which refers to the writings of Umberto Eco and Robert Paxton to match accepted definitions of fascism with the socio-political realities in China. Cole points to the realities of emphasizing the role of the nation in all matters, including sports; a sense of national grievance as the core of national identity; the paranoid control of any potential opposition; and the rise of Han Chinese racism. Cole is right in much of his analysis. But for all its correctness, his analysis from Taipei cannot compare to the horror that is the lived reality of watching this fascist state unfold before one's very eyes in the center of Chinese power in Beijing.
Paxton provides a useful definition of fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
As an educator trying to inculcate a sense of global citizenship in young Chinese, these characteristics are far too common in my encounters with the minds of Chinese youth. The most succinct example of such indoctrination came when one of my “International Education” students became angry about a discussion concerning global environmental degradation. Despite the fact that the documentary which framed our discussion focused on a wide range of global environmental issues and that it in fact made no reference to China, she insisted that I was shaming Chinese people by talking about the environment. She followed on to insist that since China had been humiliated by foreign powers with advanced weaponry, they had no choice but to develop as quickly as possible better weapons so that they could regain their dignity and territorial integrity. The rapidity with which a discussion of global environmental issues jumped to a rant on Chinese national humiliation is telling: As anyone who has spent time face to face with regular Chinese people is aware, one never knows exactly what will trigger such mental leaps.
It becomes clear very early on to those who venture outside the venues of the rich, powerful and tactful, that the education system is rife with lessons in national humiliation, social Darwinism and the cult of the nation. Students are taught that, prior to recent history, China was the dominant power in the world, with 5,000 years of uninterrupted power and prosperity. Any attempt to engage in a discussion concerning the correctness of referring to the various pre-national ethno-cultural entities that contended for the territory of what is now called the People's Republic of China in nation-state terms is met with hostility. Never mind that, until 1949, the geographic nation-state known as “China” today had not really existed, that a series of different ethnic and cultural groups, coexisting in separate kingdoms, speaking different languages and carrying on different customs, competed for supremacy much the same way that various European nations competed until recent times. When I try to impress that arguing for an imagined 5,000-year-old Chinese empire which must be re-established is akin to Italians insisting on the restoration of the Roman Empire, I am met with a wall of stubborn and often hostile refusal.
Social Darwinism has reached the level of state religion in modern Chinese society, with the ubiquitous phrases expounding the importance of “developing oneself” and “using one's advantage” to prove one's fitness over others. There is usually a racial overtone to such talk, with the Han Chinese cast as the dominant race in the globe that – due to national complacency – were recently overtaken by hairy barbarians from the West, but will eventually reinstate their domination over the globe. Those of other ethnic origins, particularly of African descent, are often spoken of in condescending, almost sub-human terms, as a kind of hapless helper race to be valued for their physical strength and musical talents, but otherwise to be “managed” by one of the superior, more “developed” races. Such views are not implicitly conveyed, but explicitly, in the form of an overtly racist natural history taught in the school system wherein Chinese physical characteristics of reduced body hair and physical size are taken to indicate a higher level of racial development over hairier and supposedly more physically robust Europeans and Africans who only recently became civilized and so bear the characteristics of a harsher lifestyle. My students unflinchingly express a condescending affection for Africans, with statements such as, “I like black people, because, since they are closer to animals, they are really good at sports.” There is a widespread belief among average Chinese that Africans and Chinese are not able to produce offspring together and, therefore, effectively constitute separate species.
Another key indicator of fascist state organization is the militarization of the youth, which is an integral part of the Chinese education system – and indeed of Chinese working life. All university students in their freshman year are obliged to enroll in five weeks of military training and indoctrination, most of which consists in standing still for long periods of time, marching for hours on end from 5 AM until 1 AM, shouting, “Yi! Er!” over and over and mass-rehearsed and largely useless hand-to-hand combat drills. While some schools provide riflery and first-aid training, the purpose of the training is largely to inculcate in the students a sense that their education is part of the nation's strength rather than their individual personal aspirations. Such training begins in middle school and is a yearly event all the way up until the first year of university, after which it ceases. There truly is nothing scarier than 18-year-old boys dressed up in ill-fitting military uniforms running around with plastic truncheons.
While Chinese rarely express an open desire for imperialist expansion, an ideological sense of the inevitability of such expansion is a hidden part of national political consciousness. Rather than being self-admitted expansionists, Chinese expansion is instead expressed by characterizing foreign nations as “part of China” which must one day be reconquered and brought into the fold of the motherland to redress the historic injustices of foreign domination by restoring territorial integrity. The fact that these Asian nations are not part of the People's Republic of China (PRC), as they are supposed to be, is yet further ammunition for a sense of national grievance and humiliation. Press university students on the matter and one will quite easily be told that not only Taiwan and Tibet, but Mongolia, the Koreas, much or all of South-East Asia, Japan and most of the Philippines are somehow “part of China.” The argument relies on obscure racial and cultural connections that somehow make these independent nations part of a larger Han empire that – while never having existed in the past as a national entity and, even on a cultural level, has no basis in linguistic and genetic links – must one day be re-established for Chinese dignity and territorial integrity. So, while Chinese will say that China is a “peaceful country” which does not have imperialist aims, such peace and nonaggression is contingent upon the restoration of the territorial integrity of an imagined (Han) Chinese empire that would consume a significant amount of the nations surrounding the PRC. I learned of this while discussing Chinese history with some students, who, after vigorously extolling the truth of what they were taught, then insisted they were “not nationalists,” since such desire for “reintegration” is a return to an (imagined) historic norm rather than a national expansion into new territory.
Fascist states have long relied upon their competitive advantage in attracting foreign investment. Authoritarian control of the labor force and national policymaking makes good business sense. Such was the case with Italy and Germany during the inter-war period and such is the case with China's dizzyingly rapid rise today. The ability of a totalitarian fascist state to control the labor force, suppress dissent and put investment over social welfare makes such states highly attractive to businesses. Such is the case today with China. Coca-Cola's CEO inadvertently demonstrated the fascist nature of the Chinese state when he lauded the “one-stop shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency,” wherein the federal and local Chinese government agencies are competing for investment, with their population paying the cost in terms of reduced labor rights and environmental protections.
Chinese will often accept this as a necessary part of their national development, a development which seems increasingly to benefit only those with power and connections and to increasingly marginalize the common people. One need not look merely at the statements of business leaders, but much mainstream media attention has praised the “efficiency” of the Chinese fascist regime while deriding the clumsiness and inconvenience of states which remain nominal liberal democracies.
The issue of Chinese fascism is one which the people of the world must pay much greater attention than they have to date. Too much emphasis is placed on the economic power of China without thought to the origins of this power and the long-term sociopolitical consequences it may have for the globe. The very effective media and information control mechanisms of the CCP, yet another indicator of a fascist state, exacerbates this issue. Only those such as myself, who operate in the education system and other front-line social roles, have the contact with life in China to see through the smoke and mirrors deployed by the government against any legitimate mainstream information-collection system, be it journalists or business people. Both of these groups are carefully watched and have their information pre-packaged, with stringent and well-documented efforts to prevent access to undesirable information and coercive measures to discourage its dissemination where it is found. Only those teachers, students and volunteers unimportant enough to go under the radar, such as myself, are able to get the real story and get it out without significant danger to ourselves. It is high time the world started paying attention to these stories below the gloss and sheen of state-sponsored and state-monitored mainstream media outlets which, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to suffer the consequences of getting and reporting the truth about the Chinese state.
If the Chinese fascist regime is permitted by the international community to continue its rise to prominence, then the consequences will be borne by the people of democratic nations and we have already seen the early stages of this global trend. A powerful fascist state of such maturity and size in the world will increasingly come to determine political debate in nominally democratic countries as the economic advantages of such a regime draws more and more financial resources away from less “efficient” political systems. If China continues to be able to use its fascist state apparatus to attract investment at the cost of liberal democratic nations, then the characteristics of these nations will tend toward increasing fascism in an imitative defensive response.
This trend is already far advanced and if it remains unchecked by the active engagement and protest of constituent peoples in the form of actively entrenching our essential social and political norms of individual rights and egalitarian application of the rule of law, then we will witness the slow erosion of the democratic freedoms that were fought for nearly 70 years ago. It is no longer adequate to harp on about “human rights.” The necessity of economically isolating regimes which fail to meet certain normative political and legal standards is of paramount importance to the long-term survival of the idea of pluralist government which protects a measure of individual freedom.
Failure to do so will result in an inevitable process of socio-cultural decline which will prove hard to reverse in the short to medium term. Democracy is messy and individual freedoms are inconvenient for the operation of the socioeconomic system we use to organize the globe. That we recognize this does not logically lead to the conclusion that we should submit to the dilution of those freedoms out of a misplaced desire for expediency. The reason we pursued increasing market freedoms in the past 70 years was ostensibly to spread democratic and individual freedoms. If we now find that the means have come into conflict with the end, it is time to come back to the drawing board, lest in our pursuit of the material well-being that underpins a society which can afford educated, independent individual life, we end up creating the conditions for subsuming all individual freedom and development to fascist ideals of national power and undo all the achievements of 70 years of struggle and sacrifice.