China and Political Name Calling

May 26, 2008

I pride myself on being open and honest, and I therefore readily admit that I detest Michael Ledeen, one of the chief foreign policy chest-thumpers at the American Enterprise Institute. It therefore saddens me to no end when I reluctantly say that his latest article in FEER, although kinda scary, has some elements of truth to it. He starts off with the following:

In 2002, I speculated that China may be something we have never seen before: a mature fascist state. Recent events there, especially the mass rage in response to Western criticism, seem to confirm that theory. More significantly, over the intervening six years China’s leaders have consolidated their hold on the organs of control—political, economic and cultural. Instead of gradually embracing pluralism as many expected, China’s corporatist elite has become even more entrenched.

OK, use of the term "fascist" is a bad thing, right? Well, yes, but only if you buy into the layman’s definition of the term (frightening images of inter-war Europe come to mind). On the other hand, if we look at the term as descriptive of a certain kind of economic and political system (value neutral), then we can use it to talk about any country without freaking out about Nazis and so forth.

To the extent that Ledeen points out that large corporations are gaining power in the PRC, which still remains a closed political system in a variety of ways, then he has a point. He goes a bit too far in his article (he is a nut-case, after all – check out his earlier stuff on China), but I can’t argue with some of the basics. Whether the system here as it evolves turns out to be stable, unstable, good, bad, or whatever – that’s a debate for another day. Just for the record, Ledeen thinks everyone here is evil.

Do I win any points for being reasonable in the face of extreme Right-wing whack-jobs?

16 thoughts on “China and Political Name Calling

  1. Laurentius Metaal

    ON the definition of a fascist state: I have followed the primaries and was confronted with the donations that either of the candidates was having in the kitty. Now how is that for a step towards a fascist state? Big business buying presedential candidates, even as early as the primaries must be a bad thing right? It is time that candidates get a budget from the state to run their election campaigns. In the end it will save the taxpayer a ton of money.

  2. Kaiser Kuo

    Mussolini’s and to a lesser extent Franco’s regimes were the ones that defined it; whether Nazism, though first to mind for most people, counts as “real Fascism,” is surprisingly a matter of some debate. The “classic” book on the subject was A. James Gregor’s _Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship_ (1979), which strikes many as uncomfortably sympathetic with the ideology because he sees it, as the title suggests, as mainly a “mass-mobilizing, developmental dictatorship.” But let’s face it: The term’s working definition, used as it is by the overwhelming majority of lay people as well as, I would hazard to guess, by trained political scientists, can’t be stripped so neatly and easily of its associations, and to invoke the term can only be deliberately sensationalist. Nazism is close enough to count, and that makes the label even more value-laden. Too few people can throw the label around “without freaking out about Nazis and so forth” to make it a useful term.

    The working definition of Fascism layers onto this “developmental dictatorship” foundation two things at the very least: The glorification of a past heroic martial tradition; and overt paeans to the greatness of one ethnic group — nativism, a belief in ethnic or racial superiority, national destiny, what have you.

    I’ll grant that the Chinese state certainly appears at times to do both these things. But it deliberately dilutes the former with heavy doses of Marxist shame about China’s stubbornly backward feudal condition, and waters down the latter by frequently decrying great Han chauvinism and being very careful with language in its treatment of minority nationalities. Doubtless some people will take issue with this, dismissing it as boilerplate rhetoric barely masking a nakedly nativist ideology, but I believe that behind closed doors the CCP is neither celebrating the grand conquests of its dynastic predecessors and cherishing a secret plan to repeat them, nor are they privately extolling the greatness of the Han nationality. If it’s cautious now about wholesale repudiation of the past like we saw in the May Fourth/New Culture Movement era, it’s because it’s seen how dangerous that motif can be in reiteration–the Cultural Revolution. Fascist states may have been developmental in focus, but they embraced their histories without ambivalence, certainly without shame. China, on the other hand, has a love-hate relationship with its pre-modern history.

    Sure, China shares certain features with Fascism. Many discrete ideologies have considerable overlap, though, but they define themselves in their differences, right? China is better understood as a technocratic authoritarian state. Like many such states, it will run the flag up and play the ethnic pride card when it thinks people need rallying, But use of this “mature Fascist state” label says much more about Leeden than about the system he believes he’s describing.

  3. Stan Post author

    No doubt Ledeen revels in being able to use any negative label in connection with China. He has a very long history of doing so.

    What is an interesting political economy trend is the relationship between powerful corporations and the political process – in all countries. China is on the way up, so we can track this process as it occurs. Moreover, as Beijing transparently tells us all what industries are “key” to the next phase of its development, we can focus further on those flagship firms in those industries and see what their effect on policy is. Very cool stuff.

  4. Paul Denlinger

    Ledeen seems to deliberately mix the word “nationalism”, replacing it with the word “fascism”. But nationalism is not filled with as much bugaboo scaremongering as fascism, and since Ledeen wants to scare Americans into another froth about China, which he sees as the next great challenge to American superiority, it does not fit his agenda well. Besides, when it comes to chest-thumping nationalism, China probably is not much different from post 9/11 Bush administration US.

    But if he admitted that, then the US would be fascist too, wouldn’t it? Hmmm….

  5. BOB

    Stan,

    You wrote:

    “OK, use of the term “fascist” is a bad thing, right? Well, yes, but only if you buy into the laymanís definition of the term (frightening images of inter-war Europe come to mind). On the other hand, if we look at the term as descriptive of a certain kind of economic and political system (value neutral), then we can use it to talk about any country without freaking out about Nazis and so forth.”

    Sorry—the feel-good, I’m o.k.-you’re o.k., cultural relativism argument doesn’t work in the case of fascism. (Incidently, Fox Butterfield of “Alive in the Bitter Sea” fame and others have described China as fascist. ) Fascism is inherently unstable, xenophobic and warlike as fascist ideology values war, racial/ethnic competition, the idea of a hostile foreign conspiracy. A totalitarian system by definition seeks total domination. This means the domination of you, me, everything. You just become a mindless drone, a jobholder in the social hierarchy. The social psychology of fascism is dominant-submissive, i.e., sado-masochism.

    Before you go around repeating the fascism-ain’t-so-bad line, you should do some indept research into fascism. Particularly as a foreigner in China. You don’t want to be a racial/ethnic minority in a fascist country. You don’t want to be one of those Jews in the early 1930s that supported Hitler.

  6. Dale Andersen

    China isn’t fascist, and no amount of bullshit from Western Think Tank Assholes will make it so.

    The anger we see and hear of in the Chinese streets is nothing more than expressions of national pride and rallying around the flag.

    My advice to Chinese is: don’t listen to Westerners. They can tell you nothing of value. They ruined their own countries and they’re more than eager to start on yours.

    Do it your way. In your own time.

    Dale Andersen
    http://playwrighter.blogspot.com/

  7. Stan Post author

    Just want to reiterate: a political or economic system is not necessarily “evil” just because past attempts didn’t work, although if the system is predicated on racial or national conflict, then this breaks down somewhat.

    Look at Communism from a purely economic sense. Many people still think that Communism would work in some sort of funky future utopian society. You could say that is highly unlikely (I think so too), but at the theoretical level, it is very useful to be able to compare these types of systems from a value neutral basis.

    You can do the same with fascism, analyzing the merits of a pure corporatist state, leaving aside the nationalism and other messy bits. Once we start bringing Hitler and Mussolini into the picture, however, then all interesting discussion ceases.

    Ledeen wasn’t interested in the theoretical, of course. He was interested in tarring China with an ugly label. Doesn’t mean that a couple of his points weren’t interesting, however.

  8. BOB

    Stan wrote: “Just want to reiterate: a political or economic system is not necessarily ďevilĒ just because past attempts didnít work,…”

    This statement is dead wrong. It is the system that makes people evil. Read Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect”.

    It is the system that makes people evil. The US soldier guards in Abu Graib were not bad people. In all respects, they were normal, good people. Similarly, the Nazis in Auschwitz were otherwise “normal”, good people.

    There’s a disturbing tendency for people to think that only “bad” people do bad things. It doesn’t work that way. Example after example, study after study confirm that “friends” will murder “friends” if the system provides the appropriate situations. In many respects, relations between the Jews and the Germans, Hutus and Tutsis, Sunni and Shia were better before their respective blood baths than between foreigners and Chinese now in China.

    There is substantial research that if a leadership wants to get one group of people to slaughter another group the formula is rather simple: (1) create an us vs them mentalility; and (2) dehumanize the other group. The trigger, it seems, is step (2). In Rwanda, the time gap between when the leadership started to refer to the Tutsis as “cockroaches” to the slaughter was very, very short.

  9. Stan Post author

    Agreed that a system can be designed to get people to do bad things, and I’ve read enough about this stuff (e.g. Milgram study) to know what folks are capable of.

    However, the examples you give do not at all refute, for example, the suggestion that a Communist system is theoretically workable. I already suggested that human nature makes this highly unlikely, but that’s not good enough to throw away all debate on the subject from a political or economic point of view.

    If people are capable of anything, then an economic or political system can be designed in a good or bad way. This should hold true for a socialist, corporatist, or capitalist state.

    Suggesting that a certain economic system necessarily leads to murder and genocide does not help us in debating the relative merits.

  10. Michael Turton

    I think it is a position that many people have quietly reached. I have the same problem with Michael Ledeen, another war-crazed lying NeoCon sack of shit, that you do, but here he is mostly dead on in this case. I’ve talked to many people who say the same things, from across the political spectrum. But it has now become politically incorrect to say so out loud and in print. Of course, the development of a class of defenders of China among westerners who should know better is also another parallel with the rise of both Fascism and Communism in Europe after WWII.

    I don’t think Fascism is the end state, however. I think what China is aiming for is a ‘soft landing’ into what will essentially be Singapore on a galactic scale, where, as James Mann pointed out in his excellent work, _The China Fantasy_, the middle classes will ally themselves with the authoritarian state because that state suppresses the poor and prevents them from competing with the middle class, or if it goes past that, into the patron-and-client, one-party constructional-industrial state of Japan or Taiwan.

    Michael

  11. tommydickfingers

    Dale: My advice to Chinese is: donít listen to Westerners. They can tell you nothing of value. They ruined their own countries and theyíre more than eager to start on yours.

    By your own logic, your advice is a little pointless as you would prefer Chinese don’t listen to you.

    And by Westerners, do you mean everyone who lives in the western hemisphere or would you prefer to be less general?

  12. dedlam

    This seems to be an incredibly learned audience you have and I hesitate to display my ignorance (but will proceed to do it anyway).

    I am uncertain how out of context Ledeen’s comments are but I equate facism to authoritarianism. So how does “mass rage” (which did not come from the government but by the people) represent a “fascist state”, mature or otherwise?

    If he is implying that public rage was about skillfully manipulating public opinion to react in a way that is aligned with official stances on domestic and international issues then it’s really no more fascist than …. Washington

  13. ferin

    be Singapore on a galactic scale, where, as James Mann pointed out in his excellent work, _The China Fantasy_, the middle classes will ally themselves with the authoritarian state

    That’s my position too, only Singapore doesn’t “oppress its people”, it just doesn’t coddle incompetents and imbeciles to the point of self-destruction.

    Singapore isn’t awash with blood money or vast tracts of colonial farmland so it has to make do with very little- so does China.

  14. The Humanaught

    @Dedlam: You mean “no less fascist”, no? ;-)

    Excellent topic and discussion.

    One thing that’s not being touched on is the external debate/opinion itself sowing the seeds of fascist action. Has ever there been a fascist or quasi-fascist movement in a country based solely on internal factors? I would hazard a “no”, and there in lies the circular problem with people like Ledeen – he may state that he is “observing” fascism in China, but he’s not admitting fault to helping create and promote the global “us ‘n’ them” mentality required to stoke the fascist furnace.

  15. J-Ng

    Michael Ledeen’s piece in FEER is simply a rehash of his 2002 Wall Street Journal article with the same idea. I’ll get to his in a moment. But first, Chinese’ outpouring of nationalism had a triggering point if you had followed the Olympic Torch protests. At first, Chinese inside and outside China had been keeping their heads down and going about their daily business. I truly believe the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as the Chinese populace were concerned, was the powerful image that a disabled Chinese athlete on a wheelchair was roughed up by a protester on French soil and her courageous response to the attacker. Frankly, Chinese are not unique in their outrage. Unlike people in the democratic West, if you are not happy, you can always blame it on the government; justified or not. People in China and many other countries that have a long tradition of strong central government don’t have that kind of experience and do not exercise their citizenship that way. They tend to associate a bad government with “bad apples” in the government, not the government itself. And the long the short of it is that when foreigners attack the government, they feel the nation is attacked, because there has never been a distinction in ordinary people’s mind between the government and the nation. Is this changing? Yes, but slowly. But is it a sin to love your country and to openly show your emotions when you feel your country is under attack? To expect 1.4 billion people to sit tight and let other people pound on you is totally unreasonable. And now comes another war monger called Michael Ledeen who is clearly part of the neo-cons who just won’t let up in their incessant hawkish maneuvers in internal American and global politics. In politics, you just can’t separate ideas from motives, you just can’t separate what’s being said and who’s saying it. The neo-cons have brought the Iraq tragedy to the American people, and they are moving on to their next project in Iran and in the meantime laying the groundwork for their even bigger project which is China.