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China isn’t fascist, and that is a good thing!

February 6, 2022

About half a dozen times I have set my magnificent, unquestionably-knows-everything-about-China-and-probably-also-the-world mind on comparisons of the country to Nazi Germany. The comparison often comes from the right, but I have always been surprised by progressives who insist that while "Xitler" and "ChiNazi" might be gauche, it’s actually not that far-fetched.

The argument as I encounter it on Twitter is not usually very complex, because Twitter. But it has recently made it to the pages of The Washington Post in an opinion piece by reporter Melissa Chan. Chan is not the first to make this comparison, but her essay serves as a useful tool for explaining why I think the label “fascist” is inapplicable to China. Moreover, the essay inadvertently reveals the hazards of this application, particularly considering Chan’s argument that media should adopt the term instead of “authoritarian.”

Fascism, though, is not just a bigger, badder authoritarianism. Fascism is a unique disease that emerged in the 20th century, and it differs in many important ways from other forms of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism need not be a whole-of-society endeavor, but one of the core features of fascism is that it is based on mass politics. Fascism emerges from dysfunctional liberal democracies; it is a political movement that claims to represent the people democratically through the destruction of democratic institutions.

Chan’s essay is not an attempt to actually examine fascism in depth, nor explore in any serious sense the authoritarianism of the CCP in that light. Rather, it is an attempt to justify the assertion of the CCP as fascist, and Nazi in particular (a single mention of Mussolini notwithstanding). Even accounting for China’s reprehensible actions in Xinjiang, however, those comparisons are mistaken, and the examples Chan uses — like the South China Sea as lebensraum — are often simply absurd.

If this were just nitpicking, though, I wouldn’t write a rambling essay about it (that’s not true). Not only does China not convincingly accord with an informed understanding of fascism, but there are two specific risks when mass media obliges to this shoehorning of the CCP’s China into a fascist state. First, that we create a priori justification for military action; second, that we dilute the term and dismiss the greater threat it poses domestically to liberal democracies (something Chan does very explicitly).

I’ll go ahead and make the first point here, because it’s not complicated, and nor is it my main concern, and because this is my blog there’s no editor to tell me I can’t just plop whatever I want into the introduction.

It seems fairly uncontroversial that that the word fascist occupies a special position in the public’s moral compass, namely, that it’s wholly evil and true fascism, like Nazism, must be wiped out. Which is true! Mass media adopting the term to apply to China — inaccurately, as I’ll demonstrate below — would only serve to legitimize war with China regardless of the its actual behavior.

For context, here is an excerpt from Hoover Institution senior fellow and Stanford professor of comparative literature Russel A. Berman, who wrote the hilarious Anti-Americanism in Europe (2004) trying to elucidate why Europeans so unjustly hate us good and righteous Americans:

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As noted, the Iraq wars are the primary casus belli of the anti-Americans against the foreign policy of the United States. On a deeper level, however, the metaphor of Saddam as Hitler can lead us to a better understanding of what is at stake. For large parts of the American public, a war against totalitarianism remains just and worthwhile. For large parts of the public in Europe... a preference for appeasement prevails, and this difference turns into anti-Americanism. ...

So it is not surprising that George W. Bush’s characterization of the Ba’ath regime as “evil” could be viewed as simplistic by a contemporary sensibility reluctant to distinguish between right and wrong, especially in Europe. It is not that anyone mounted much of a positive defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but there was clearly reluctance to challenge it: Would it not be more comfortable just to ignore brutal regimes? Not everyone supported a war against Hitler, so it is not surprising to find an appeasement camp with regard to the metaphoric Hitler. (pp. 84–85)

(Berman assiduously avoids the term fascist because, like a handful of right-wing hacks, he denies that Nazism was a right-wing ideology and rejects the validity of fascism as a discrete category. But the point here is that these analogies to Hitler etc. lend themselves to war.)

Michael Ledeen, a celebrated proponent of regime change, the invasion of Iraq, and participant in the Iran-Contra affair, argued China was fascist over ten years ago. He is now a scholar at both the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the American Enterprise Institute, both highly influential conservative think tanks. Ledeen, writing in 2011, states:

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It follows that the West must prepare for war with China, hoping thereby to deter it. A great Roman once said that if you want peace, prepare for war. This is sound advice with regard to a fascist Chinese state that wants to play a global role.

Alright. Back to point two: Chan’s call for mass media to refer to China as fascist risks a flippancy about fascism that is dangerous for us living in a dysfunctional liberal democracy, because it obscures how fascism is generally the product of liberal democracy gone awry. For America, fascism will not be a threat because it is Chinese, but because it is American. The same can be said for France, Hungary, or wherever else a resurgent, radical right is pressuring democratic institutions.

In her rush to paint China as fascist, Chan offhandedly dismisses the idea that Hungary may be sliding into fascism, revealing the danger of her position. Her dismissal highlights an ignorance of fascism that is dangerous because it is precisely circumstances like Hungary’s that are most prone to the development of a modern fascist movement. Instead, Chan prefers to keep the f-word trained on China.

So what is fascism?

Fascism is not just authoritarianism+

Fascism is notoriously tricky to define and is often about as meaningful in conversation as terms like "critical race theory" or “microaggression” — existing phenomena with ample conceptual grounding that popular Internet discourse warps into complete caricatures. To quote Robert Paxton, one of the foremost scholars of fascism, whose book The Anatomy of Fascism has profoundly affected my view of the subject:

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The term fascism needs to be rescued from sloppy usage, not thrown out because of it. It remains indispensable. We need a generic term for what is a general phenomenon, indeed the most important political novelty of the twentieth century: a popular movement against the Left and against liberal individualism.

If we take as axiomatic that the Nazi Party and the Italian National Fascist Party were indeed fascist, however, we can easily see how the understanding of fascism Chan’s article relies on is superficial, even before we arrive at a formal definition. Chan feels authoritarianism in China is indeed of a very different kind than in, say, Saudi Arabia or Russia or Hungary; authoritarian "hardly feels enough” to describe China.

Fascism, for Chan, is just a worse form of authoritarianism. In her words, it is marked by “a surveillance state with a strongman invoking racism, nationalism and traditional family values at home, while building up a military for expansion abroad.”

This definition is, frankly, useless. Technically speaking, it would exclude Nazis and the Italian Fascists before they seized power, because they did not have a surveillance state established, nor did they have formal militaries to build up. None of the traits she lists in themselves are unique to fascism, moreover, and it’s unclear why they suddenly become fascist once mixed together.

We might argue, moreover, that Stalin met all of above features in some form, save nationalism in favor of the USSR’s pan-ethnic unity deal (not so dissimilar from the rhetoric of the CCP regarding the country’s recognized minorities). That is why Hannah Arendt used the word totalitarian to describe both the USSR and Nazi Germany. In fact, she did not particularly see a strong reason to examine Mussolini and Hitler as a singular phenomenon.

Chan, like many others who advocate for the use of the term “fascist” to describe today’s China, are doing so because they have a strong opposition to the Chinese party-state and desire to frame it in the direst terms possible. The word “totalitarian” isn’t sufficient because “totalitarian” does not adequately convey the desired metaphor of the CCP as the modern Nazi Party. Nazism is for obvious reasons an ultimate evil in the popular consciousness, and the ability to link 2021 Beijing with 1939 Berlin is a deep-seated desire for a broad spectrum of commentators and analysts. See also: Godwin’s Law.

The problem, though, is that fascism is its own real and serious danger, and however condemnable Chinese authoritarianism is in practice, it represents a different beast entirely. We do ourselves no favors in trying to justify the tenuous link to Nazism. If you personally want to make the comparison, go for it, but we do not need to pretend that is grounded in any intellectual basis beyond “I think that both are very evil.”

Is China fascist?

This and other similar imagery popped up as a result of the Hong Kong protests. If I were a young person getting blasted by water cannons in response to demands for universal suffrage, I’d be angry, too, but we should not entertain the false metaphor solely out of sympathy.
This and other similar imagery popped up as a result of the Hong Kong protests. If I were a young person getting blasted by water cannons in response to demands for universal suffrage, I’d be angry, too, but we should not entertain the false metaphor solely out of sympathy.

We can relegate an actual definition of fascism even further down in this post because like I said, Chan’s essay is not a serious examination of fascism, but just an attempt to link China to the most morally unconscionable regimes in modern consciousness. The goal is to substantiate the idea that the CCP is a modern Nazi Party. So, is China like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy?

No. And you do not need to make it into Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy to be able to critique it and recognize the dangers of Chinese authoritarianism. What follows is an examination of some of the traits of classical fascism that Chan claims are present in present-day China.

Militarization and expansionism

From Chan’s article:

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Taiwan has become [Xi’s] Alsace-Lorraine, the Himalayan border with India his Polish Corridor, and Hong Kong his Sudetenland. With military or strong-arm tactics, he has made clear that moves to control these areas are not off the table. In addition, Beijing has reportedly moved into Bhutanese territory. China also claims most of the South China Sea, where it has built military outposts marked by its own “nine-dash line” that, on a map, protrudes far beyond Chinese land borders in a Lebensraum-like expansion.

Fascism in Italy and Germany entailed an expressed expansionist agenda that was largely untethered from historical claims. The Germans did not pretend there was casus belli in taking Ukraine beyond the needs of the Aryan Race; the Italians did not think Ethiopia was rightfully theirs based on Roman history, but because Italy needed space and could govern lesser races accordingly.

It is difficult to imagine how China’s current foreign policy at all resembles that of the fascists. One can denounce China’s stated desire for reunification of Taiwan — extremely unlikely to be peaceful, should it occur — and its unilateral assertion in the South China Sea without pretending that they are inherently fascist. Even if we imagine for the sake of argument that China invades Taiwan and achieves a functionally exclusive control of the South China Sea, to view either case as seriously analogous to lebensraum or spazio vitale is asinine.

An occupation of Taiwan would be tragic and reprehensible, of course, but not everything tragic and reprehensible is Nazism. Sometimes, things can be bad in their own right. If China starts to declare a national right to annex Siberia or Kazakhstan for the sake of the Chinese people, we can revisit this point.

(I’m not going to talk about e.g. Hong Kong as Sudetenland or the Himalayan Border as the Polish Corridor because those are ridiculous comparisons and do not merit further mention.)

That the underlying ideology and goals of China’s alleged expansionism completely differs from those of the fascists is shown in military spending. When Chan and others refer to China’s “military buildup” as fascist, they are making a scarcely imaginable comparison to the juggernaut of the German war machine. (Italy similar devoted a massive huge of its GDP and general budget to the armed forces.) China’s military budget is far lower as a percentage of GDP than the United States’, and certainly lower than fascist Italy and Germany’s ever were. On this count, Chan’s argument fails.

On a side note, “expansionism” is also a very tenuous term. If we just take it to mean any case where a country seeks to expand its controlled territory, then China is certainly expansionist. But is Argentina’s claim to the Falklands expansionist? Are Pakistan and India expansionist on the basis of their various contested territorial claims? The word expansionism, to me, implies an extension of territory for its own sake, be it through conquest like the Nazis or settler colonialism like American Manifest Destiny. Territorial disputes — even ones that involve the lives of possibly millions of people, like Taiwan or Jammu and Kashmir — are serious, but seem to represent different phenomena from expanionist aims.

Corporatist economics

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No entity operates freely from the CCP, including these technology champions. Companies may chase profit margins like other capitalist enterprises, but party officials step in when they see an overriding state interest. Those who fail to fall in line are felled — the most spectacular example being billionaire tech magnate Jack Ma, who disappeared for months after criticizing the country’s financial regulators. Together with Beijing’s anti-union, anti-labor stance, the Chinese economy today recalls Mussolini’s corporatist fascism.

Chan invokes China’s state capitalist model as evidence of fascist alignment. This shows a misunderstanding of the political economy of fascist states, simply opting for the most superficial understanding of “fascism as control of things”.

What Chan is describing with respect to the tech giants is — wait for it — regulation. You can say it’s heavy-handed, but the goal is to make the regulatory bodies of the state less of a joke and the curb the power of these companies.

Yet fascist movements, while railing against financial capitalism in their nascent, pre-government stages, quickly came to realize the acquiescence of industrialists was critical to advance their cause. To that end, both Italy and Germany under the fascists privatized state-owned industries (a reversal of the wave of nationalizations seen in Europe during the Depression), silenced labor unions, and had very little problem with monopolistic behavior.

Both the German economy, and to a lesser extent the Italian one, were substantially geared toward rearmament and conquest. (Even so, the extent to which the Germans were able to compel industry to participate in war production is much more limited than you might think — see Buchheim & Scherner.) Yet There is no conceivable reading of the Chinese economy that would suggest China is approaching any sort of similar policy. The fascists tended to view economics as a subordinate science to the will of the nation, and their policies often appeared ad hoc. Say what you want about Chinese policy, but it is far from improvised, and its economics are no Juche.

The Chinese suppression of independent labor organization in indeed highly reactionary. China long ago decided that it was willing to sacrifice industrial workers for the sake of GDP growth, something that unions are antithetical to. The suppression of independent labor unions, however, is hardly a unique trait of fascism. We see it in other leftist authoritarian states like Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Racism

The ongoing repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang is deplorable. It represents a particularly disturbing realization of racism against Uyghurs that has pervaded Chinese policy and society for decades.

Racism, of course, is not unique to fascism, nor is it necessarily a core feature. While the Nazis were viciously racist, of course, the Italian fascists were less so, only acceding to official anti-Semitism under the pressure of Hitler and with hardly a fraction of the fervor (see the Manifesto of Race). As a colonial power, though, racism was still a matter of policy by definition.

What Chan and many others who make the comparison to Nazi Germany are relying on are parallels, real and imagined, between the atrocities being committed against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and the Holocaust.

Thus, her incredibly daring and completely unsubstantiated assertion that Beijing views the Han Chinese as “the ‘master race’.” Han chauvinism is real — even Mao readily told us as much — and by extension, so is Han racism. But to assert that the Han are the master race in the eyes of the party-state requires a lot of evidence. If the CCP truly views the Han as the master race, then why have the Han not instituted similar policies against the other ethnic groups besides the Uyghurs, and why does it actively shun the expressly supremacist rhetoric of the Nazis?

Even if we believe that what China is doing to the Uyghurs qualifies as genocide (which is not a settled debate; see e.g. the Human Rights Watch April 2021 report; my view on the issue can be seen here) it is a novel form thereof, based primarily on the coerced suppression of birthrates — which, to be clear, is a crime against humanity. What is absent are the death camps, mass executions, and similar forms of widespread murder that have characterized every other genocide, from Armenians in Turkey to the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The reeducation camps and coerced sterilizations are atrocious, but again, not all atrocious and evil things are Nazism. In the case of the oppression of Uyghurs, comparisons to the Holocaust are baseless. The need to equate the two betrays either an ignorance of the plight of the Uyghurs borne out of naivety, or for those who proclaim themselves to be more knowledgeable, a hyperbolic ploy.

That the Holocaust did not happen instantaneously is not a counter-argument here; the Nazi’s antecedent ideology and violence against Jews is not mirrored in the Chinese state’s chauvinism, Islamophobia, and racism against Uyghurs. It is not a racism of extermination, but of colonialist “civilizing”. That is not an excuse — this “civilizing” is in itself barbaric — but it is indeed different, most palpably for Uyghurs, who, despite their unquestionable suffering, are not at risk of being deported or gassed.

What is fascism? Why should we care about calling China fascist anyways?

Having covered why it is an empirical mistake to color China as fascist (or, more accurately, Nazi), let’s get into what fascism is. The above is rather restrictive, and might seem to place fascism as only a product of the very specific period of interwar Europe.

A more nuanced understanding beyond “it’s what the Nazis and Italians were” is needed to grasp the sort of threat it poses to democracy today, and why I think essays like Chan’s, from an experienced journalist in a reputable newspaper, are deeply irresponsible.

Authoritarianism has existed for millennia, but the political movements that emerged in Europe following World War I— successful in Germany and Italy, and largely thwarted in Romania, France, and Hungary — were novel innovations in the field of dictatorship. The reason we do not see fascism arise until the early 20th century is because fascism and parliamentary politics were inextricably linked. Fascism needed the Petri dish of a dysfunctional liberal democracy.

There are many competing and overlapping definitions of fascism. Paxton’s is one of the best, in my opinion:

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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 constraints goals of cleansing and external expansion. (219)

Those familiar with Chinese Communist Party and Chinese politics more generally may think phenomena like the century of humiliation discourse, the prevalence of nationalists within the Party justify China as fascist. But Paxton’s account of fascism is in a way path-dependent, as is the case for many scholars, in that it stresses the conditions of its rise in failing democracies as key to understanding its trajectory. In this light, the similarities between the CCP and fascism are superficial.

To understand this path, let’s return to the interwar year, massively simplified. The shock and destabilization of World War I, and the subsequent economic crisis combined with the failure of liberal democracies in several nations to adequately govern were key conditions facilitating the rise of fascism.

Fascism presented a seductive offer to deliver a nation from besiegement of enemies internal and external by bulldozing through decrepit, dysfunctional liberal democratic institutions at risk of capture by the increasingly formidable left. Dissatisfied with the status quo but rejecting Marxism, the fascists found support particularly in the middle class.

Liberal democracy is intrinsically incapable of representing the people; this can only be done through the strength of a leader who embodies their collective will, fascism argues. It eschews democracy as procedure in favor of democracy as this embodiment, fashioning what sociologist Dylan Riley terms “authoritarian democracy” in The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe.

The fascist leader and his party make lofty, ambitious promises — of national unification and purification, of destruction of enemies internal and external, of a return to a more perfect tradition, and of protection from the ravages of Marxism and the rot of liberalism. In the words of Robert Paxton:

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Fascist regimes had to produce an impression of driving momentum — ”permanent revolution” — in order to fulfill these promises. They could not survive without that headline, inebriating rush forward. Without an ever-mounting spiral of ever more daring challenges, fascist regimes risked decaying into something resembling a tepid authoritarianism. (148)

This is the route that Spain’s Francisco Franco and eventually Fascist Italy went down (with the Fascists deposing Mussolini in favor of the King in 1943); the Nazis were the only regime that fully surrendered to radicalization in Paxton’s telling. The easiest way to enact this driving momentum, of course, is war. War — or more accurately, successful war — enables the regime to continue the frenzy and stave off entropy (part of Fascist Italy’s problem was that it just, well, kind of sucked at war).

While commanding significant popular support in its early stages, fascism in interwar Europe relied on acquiescence of conservative elites fearful of the rise of the left but incapable of wresting newly expanded mass electorates from socialist parties. In the view of Riley, drawing heavily on Gramsci, the elites to establish sufficiently hegemonic politics, and civil society groups that otherwise would be coopted into the universe of parliamentary politics became driving forces of violent fascism instead.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, then, the fascists gained power through democratic mechanisms (coupled with significant violence, but far short of civil war or revolution) that they then dismantled. Indigenous fascist movements existed in places like France and Romania, but they were ultimately thwarted — in France, by the relative strength of the left and the lack of dysfunctional gridlock of the kind seen in Germany and Italy, and in Romania, by the conservative elite who succeeded where the German and Italian conservatives failed, corralling and neutralizing the fascists after they had served their purpose.

There are contrasts between the CCP and fascist movements that we can examine with a fuller definition of fascism, most notably the glorification of violence. Violence is the blade needed to slice through the sclerotic liberal institutions enabling societal decay. Paxton argues that a foundational feature of fascism was the emphasis on “beauty of violence and the efficacy of will” when used for the nation; Umberto Eco, himself a youth in fascist Italy and novelist prone to poetic license, echoed this sentiment, writing that for fascism in its purest form, “Action [is] beautiful in itself, [and] must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation... and pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.” This overt love of violence is largely absent from Chinese political discourse.

The primacy of action and will over deliberation, while exaggerated by Eco, is still reflected in how Nazis and Italian Fascists went about governance and politics compared to their Russian nemesis. Unlike the Communists, obsessed with theory and the doctrinal justification of their action, the Führer and il Duce did not discourse day in and day out on their decisions. Stalin produced treatise after treatise seeking to justify the scientific and theoretical bases for his policies (as does Xi, often in the form of his lengthy speeches), and read voraciously; Hitler did not.

There are plenty of other salient differences between fascism and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics to highlight, but you get the point. On the other hand, how many of these fascist traits apply to certain movements within the United States?

The fascism is coming from inside the house!

From the very outset, we cannot take seriously the idea that China is lurching towards fascism, in no small part because China simply is not a crisis-ridden liberal democracy. This might seem fastidious, but the context of fascism’s rise is relevant to its behavior and character as a regime, and more importantly, is a relevant consideration for those of us living in similarly dysfunctional democracies today.

Recall that Chan rather flippantly implies that fascism is too powerful a term for everyday authoritarianism like that of Hungary. Therein lies the problem: while trying to shoehorn Chinese authoritarianism into fascism, Chan discounts the more realistic threat of fascism that has made inroads in the West.

It is not universally agreed upon that Fidesz’s Hungary is marching towards fascism as opposed to a more generic right-wing authoritarianism. If anything, it seems to be more the latter. There is a similar debate among the left on whether or not Trumpism is a truly fascist movement. Riley, for his part, rejected the comparisons back in 2018 in the New Left Review.

I will not get into the details of where I fall on that debate because I’ve been typing for a while, my fingers hurt, and I seriously doubt that many people have read up to this point anyways. Suffice to say, though, that the threat of fascism here is far greater than it is in China.

With that in mind, here is a list of fascist traits outlined by Paxton. I encourage you, dear reader to reflect on how many of these traits we see in the extreme reaches of QAnon movement and its cousins today.

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These ‘mobilizing passions,’ mostly taken for granted and not always overtly argued as intellectual propositions, form the emotional lava that set fascism’s foundations:

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • the belief that the group is the victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;
  • the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess within a Darwinian struggle. (41)

Paxton, for what it’s worth was generally hesitant to describe Trumpism as fascist. He changed his mind 13 months ago today, give or take.

Bibliography

Or, a list of the relevant things I have read at least some solid chunk of, so you think I’m smart enough to get away with whatever I’m saying