In the article “The Evolution of American Contemporary China Studies,” David Shambaugh characterizes post-2012 China as a “neo-totalitarian era”. Remarkably, this article was republished in December 2023 on Guozheng xueren, a scholarly compilation platform in China. In a display of intriguing black humor, the Chinese version translates “neo-totalitarian era” as “New Era” (新时代), a term officially linked with President Xi Jinping. This translation, ostensibly a tactic to avoid state censorship, subtly points to a profound shift in governance and state-society relations in contemporary China.
Recent events appear to corroborate Shambaugh’s depiction of the Chinese state as being increasingly centralized, intrusive, and capricious. In December, state security authorities issued explicit warnings against any critical commentary on China’s economy. Just last week, a top university in Beijing announced the merge of the University Party Committee Office with the President’s Office, forming a new Party and Administrative Office. There is also noticeable intensification in the state’s oversight of social organizations, hindering civil society’s growth. In my interviews with leaders of community-based organizations that focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and control, I observed a stagnation (and even a shrinkage) in the growth of these organizations—most of the individuals I spoke with were the same ones I had encountered or heard of about a decade earlier.
Those seeking evidence of free expression will probably find their expectations unmet. In a telling incident, a Tsinghua University professor from the School of Marxism attempted to disprove his students’ claims about police detentions at the Sitong Bridge—the site of the “Bridge Man” protesting against zero-Covid policy in October 2022—only to find himself detained by police shortly after taking photographs at the location. The fusion of the Party, state, and society conjures images of totalitarianism. Franz Schurmann, in his 1968 book Ideology and Organization in Communist China, observed that under Mao, the Party-state established an omnipresent organizational network enveloping and penetrating China society. In a similar vein, the “New Era” is characterized by highly concentrated political power and the rise of a state that aims to dominate, if not dictate, the social lives of its citizens.
Essentially a static analytical concept, however, the neototalitarian model does not fully capture the complexities and dynamics within Chinese society. The state control over society does not necessarily increase in sync with the surge in state autonomy. Furthermore, the degree and form of state reach fluctuate over time and across different policy areas. The pursuit of zero-Covid policy during 2020-2022 exemplified the state’s reach at its extreme. Still, the policy ultimately fell apart after its implementation sparked the largest protests in decades. Even today, liberal-minded intellectuals remain active on social media platforms. For instance, I am aware of a WeChat group with nearly 500 members, mostly liberal scholars, journalists, and entrepreneurs. Within this group, members openly mock wolf-warrior diplomacy, challenge unreasonable public policies, and engage in debates about democracy and the market. Being banned sixteen times, the group is resurrected each time under a new name. While most ordinary Chinese are cautious about discussing sensitive topics, some still voice their opinions. On one occasion in Beijing, a taxi driver, fully cognizant of the car’s recording devices, openly criticized the government. He concluded a conversation on a sensitive topic with a sarcastic remark, “firmly support the leadership of the Party.” At a reunion with former classmates, a staunch nationalist admitted that the country was undergoing some form of “regression” (daotui).
Despite the lack of press freedom, a certain degree of media oversight still exists and can be effective. For instance, last month, a retired government official was arrested after exposing corruption of the party boss in his county. However, following a newspaper’s exposure of the case, which triggered a public outcry and intervention by higher authorities, the local government withdrew its prosecution against him. As Jon Elster noted years ago, “Even when government is not constrained from below, by the people, it may try to constrain itself by adopting a form of rule-utilitarianism.” This emphasis on moral rules in governance can lead to outcomes that enhance overall welfare. In my hometown, for instance, the local government has recently expanded services of “Loving Heart Canteens” that offer at least one free meal a week to the city’s needy. Nationwide, there are over six thousand such community canteens in operation.
These deviations from the neototalitarian model call for a rethinking of the Chinese state, especially in the context of state-society relations. In this regard, the late Tang Tsou’s concept of totalism is enlightening. Contending that regime type and state-society relations are two distinct dimensions of a political system, Tsou suggested the term “totalism” to specifically characterize state-society relations:
The basic error of the concept of totalitarianism, as it was frequently used, is that it mistakenly lumps the regime type and state-society relations dimensions together, considering them as intrinsically linked characteristics of a “totalitarian regime.” This is one reason why those who use this concept (1) do not see any possibility for radical change without a revolution and (2) cannot adequately explain changes in state-society relations that have been initiated or at least supported by those in power.
The distinction between totalitarianism and totalism offers valuable insights for China studies and the making of U.S. China policy. U.S. politicians tend to subscribe to a simplified understanding of China, preferring a single narrative that overlooks the need for a nuanced, complex, and multifaceted perspective. Worse, there seems to be a growing sentiment that the current level of knowledge about China is sufficient for effective policymaking, diminishing the perceived need for further study. Such complacency is particularly alarming, given the “critically low” level of U.S. expertise on China and the unprecedentedly small number of U.S. students studying in China. To the extent that China is viewed as the most formidable geopolitical threat, this underinvestment in understanding China is not only unwise but also dangerous.