The CCP’s Culture of Fear

Roughly two thousand years ago, the arrival in China of Buddhism from India brought major changes not only to China’s belief systems but to many aspects of its daily life. Buddhism’s approach on the whole was gentle, and indigenous Chinese versions of it eventually flourished. Zen was a Chinese invention. Then, beginning about 200 years ago, the only comparably large foreign cultural influence on China began with the arrival of British gunboats on the Chinese coast. This was more disturbing. To China the West seemed to say, “Catch up or perish.” How to modernize became a Chinese obsession that led to many things, including the fevered contortions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has put the country through over the past 70 years.

One way to measure China’s urge to transform itself is to note how often the word new has been used by Chinese leaders. In 1902, the concept of the “new citizen” took hold in Liang Qichao’s New Citizen Journal. 20 years later, the May Fourth Movement came to be known as the New Culture Movement. In 1934, Chiang Kai-shek launched his New Life Movement. The Communist takeover in 1949 was the advent of New China, and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s touted a “new socialist man.” After Mao Zedong died in 1976, the next few years were called “the new period.” Today, Xi Jinping’s watchword is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” It is important to note that new in these cases never refers to the same thing; each is a new new.

The tragedy of CCP policies in China can be seen as arising from excessive zeal for shortcuts. More successful East Asian transitions to the modern world, such as those in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, have done better by going step-by-step. Impatient for global preeminence, the CCP has rushed ahead several times and crashed. The Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, which followed Mao’s plans for “surpassing Britain and catching up with America,” ended in the starvation of 30 million or more people. Cultural Revolution demands such as “make revolution in the depths of your soul” and “love Chairman Mao more than your parents” were intended as magical paths to a new human nature that China would exemplify for the world, but in fact they were a body blow to Chinese culture whose consequences have lasted until today. Deng Xiaoping’s one-child policy, intended in the late 1970s to jump-start a modern economy, led by the late 2010s to problems in labor supply and elder support sufficiently severe as to require abrupt reversals.

Xi Jinping’s recent flights of fancy suggest the same pattern. Some of his claims resemble Mao’s of the late 1960s: the East is rising over the West; China is a new model for the world; the Great Leader is correct by definition; Chinese people everywhere can identify with the New China and feel proud. During the “scar” years after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals and officials were virtually unanimous in saying that nothing like it could happen again. At the time, I believed them. Now, I’m afraid I don’t. Cyber versions of Cultural Revolution “struggle sessions” have already appeared. A return of the Cultural Revolution, adapted for the new era, is certainly possible.

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In appraising the history of the CCP, it is important to distinguish between members who joined out of idealism in its early years and those who joined out of self-interest after the mid-1950s. Eloquent memoirs by people like Li Shenzhi, Wei Junyi, Liu Binyan, Fang Lizhi, Zi Zhongyun, and others show how young people were drawn to the Party for its announced goals (including free speech and democracy) in the 1930s and 1940s and risked their careers and even their lives to join. In 1991 the journal Yanhuang chunqiu (China Through the Ages) began carrying reminiscences by these now-elderly people, detailing how the CCP had misled them in their early years. Since they were time-honored revolutionaries, the regime could not easily shut them up. But the journal was suppressed in 2016.

When the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who later became a well-known dissident, went to Peking University in the fall of 1952, his dormitory building was not yet ready. He and his classmates had to sleep and do their physics homework on a gymnasium floor. Still, Fang was rapturous. He “felt a glow inside” and competed with his girlfriend to see who could join the Communist Party first. The distinguished journalist Liu Binyan, similarly smitten in the early 1950s by the idea of a new society, was working hard to bring it about when, abruptly, the government labeled him a “rightist.” Startled, his first reaction was to think: My goodness! I must be a rightist and not realize it. Chairman Mao cannot be wrong. I’ll have to look inside myself, dig this problem out, and correct it.

Experiences like this eventually led ardent young CCP followers to see another distinction: that between the core of the Party and themselves. They began to realize that they had radically misperceived Mao. No modern socialist, indeed not a modern leader of any kind, Mao had more in common with the charismatic leaders of peasant rebellions in earlier Chinese dynasties. For those adventurers, as for Mao, the aim was to achieve unquestioned power in as broad an area as possible. The Red Turbans in the 14th century, the White Lotus at the end of the 18th, the Taipings in the mid-19th, and the Communists in the 20th shared these elements: an egalitarian ideology that in fact concealed a hierarchical, exploitative, and highly secretive ruling structure, which in turn featured a magical, semidivine leader at the top who possessed some kind of tianshu (heavenly text) that prescribed how to live and also offered promises of ideal worlds to come.

In the 1980s, when I first heard the term liumang zhengfu (gangster government) used to refer to the CCP regime, I thought I was hearing hyperbole from people who were suffering under it. But in later years, I often heard it from even-tempered veterans of the CCP movement who originally had been supporters. And the term fits. The CCP runs on hierarchical power, on personal loyalties that are outside the law, and on ruthless pursuit of private interests that employs pretense, manipulation, and, where “necessary,” lethal force. It is more like the mafia than a modern government. I hesitate to use words like “mafia” or “gangster,” because some readers will simply conclude that “Link is an extremist” and stop reading. Aware of that cost, I use them anyway. There are also costs, indeed greater ones, to sheltering readers from difficult truths.

It is worth noting that the “heavenly texts” of peasant rebel groups have often had foreign origins. The foreignness added to their mystical aura and to the charisma of the semimagical leader who promoted them, and it could lend credibility to their promise of a coming heaven on earth. The Red Turbans and White Lotus magic texts were about the Maitreya Buddha, a bodhisattva from distant India who had achieved complete enlightenment and could preach the pure dharma for all to hear. The Taipings’ exotic religion was an odd form of Christianity according to which the magic leader, Hong Xiuquan, was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and his followers could go to Heaven. For Mao, the Marxist classics similarly were foreign, a touch magical, and predicted a coming paradise on earth. Stalin gave Mao much practical support, too, and that was vital; the “heavenly texts” of Marxism were a useful bonus.

Mao duly placed himself in the Marxist pantheon: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. He was a “great Marxist thinker.” He borrows some Marxist terms, to be sure, but how much Marx did he read? In the last few years, I have been working on a detailed biography of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in 2017 while serving a lengthy prison sentence for “incitement of subversion of state power.” To me, it is obvious that Liu read Marx far more conscientiously than Mao ever did.

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Mao’s unstinting interest was in power. Before 1949, his CCP and its army escaped the Kuomintang government, evaded the brunt of a Japanese attack, and then defeated the Kuomintang in a civil war. Ends justified means throughout. Capture a city by starving 150,000? If it works, do it. After 1949, eliminate counterrevolutionaries—several million? Fine. Mao actually established quotas, by district, of people to be killed. Moreover, his goal, from beginning to end, was not power for the CCP but power for himself. Mao began outmaneuvering and purging rivals in the 1930s and continued doing so into the 1970s.

The Great Leap Forward, sometimes taken in the West to have been a utopian effort to bring communism to the Chinese countryside, was, for Mao, something very different. It was a (failed) strategy to overproduce in agriculture and to use the surplus harvests and freed-up labor to support heavy industry, which he desired in order to increase his might. While millions of Chinese farmers starved in the resulting famine, Mao shipped grain to the Soviet Union in exchange for know-how—not only in construction but, very likely, in atomic bomb technology.

A fine example of how the outside world has misperceived Mao’s motives is the lore that has grown up around the phrase “women hold up half the sky.” Mao has been seen as a feminist, an egalitarian, a leader in progressive thought. Nonsense. The evidence of his extreme disrespect for women could not be clearer. And in fact, Mao did not say, “Women hold up half the sky.” He said, “Women can hold up half the sky.” His implication was that they were not yet holding up half, but could: they could get out of the house, go into the fields, go into the factories, and work, alongside the men, to push the Mao project forward. (By the way, Mao’s words became a set phrase and extremely common. In Chinese, no one doubts that the word “can” is there.)

One of the most devastating results of the campaigns of late Maoism, from 1957 to 1976, was the hollowing out of the idealistic language of the early 1950s. Phrases like “serve the people” turned into dead words, but one still had to mouth them and moreover had to do it “correctly.” That made systematic pretending necessary. Manipulation of ideological language became an important life skill. At the extreme, during the Cultural Revolution, people were required to attend “study sessions” in which they took turns at biaotai (display of a viewpoint). Viewpoints were presented as one’s own but scrutinized by others for hints of divergence from “correctness.” Finding flaws in someone else’s presentation could earn one credit.

Contemporaneously with this language shift came a dramatic shift in reasons people joined the CCP. Chinese society now offered a single ladder of success; joining the Party was the first step toward almost anything. Idealism was passé. It had been replaced by imitation idealism, which worked so long as the imitation was done “correctly.”

During the decade after the death of Mao, an interesting countercurrent in this trend appeared. Some people who, despite everything, were still inspired by ideals decided to join (or rejoin) the Party, not because they saw it as a vehicle for their ideals but because it was the only gateway through which to try to make a difference. Fang Lizhi, who had been expelled from the Party in the late 1950s, rejoined in the late 1970s on this principle and urged his graduate students, most of whom were good-hearted young physics geeks, to do the same. His reasoning? The Communist Party runs our society whether we like it or not. We have no choice but to adjust to this fact—just as we have no choice but to adjust to the weather. What we can do is to get inside the Party and try to make it less awful than it otherwise would be.

During the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals sought dialogue with the Party. Certain leaders—Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Hu Qili, Tian Jiyun, and others—showed themselves to be relatively liberal-minded and would sometimes even listen to voices in society. But this pattern ended with the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989. Not only were liberal intellectuals so disgusted that they no longer had an appetite for dialogue, there now was no one in the leadership with whom to have it. Hu Yaobang had died and the other reform-minded leaders were either imprisoned or frightened into silence.

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In the late 1980s, popular complaints about guandao corruption—by which officials who have control of factories, mines, and other “work units” use their political power to divert public resources toward private ends and thereby gain enormous unearned profits—were circulating in society and became the grounds for many of the protests in the streets. In the post-massacre 1990s, as the top leaders dropped even the pretense of interacting with society, they turned to a pillaging of the Chinese economy that resembled guandao but dwarfed it. High-ranking officials lopped off great chunks of the economy—electricity, IT, banking, shipping—and placed control in the hands of their own families, who then raked in stupendous wealth. This pattern seeped downward as they essentially said to those under them, “We give you license to plunder as long as you prevent ‘trouble’ by keeping the lid on in your area.”

It is important to understand why the CCP, having become as cynical and materialist as it is today, still needs ideology. The pretense of “socialism” remains highly conspicuous in Party rhetoric even though Marx, were he to return to earth, would find the claim baffling. Why do it? Certainly not for nostalgia. Broadly speaking, there are two reasons—one for international purposes and the other for domestic ones.

To present the label “socialist” to foreigners—among many of whom the term resonates warmly, or at least neutrally—is effective. Foreigners are generally unaware of the mafia-like nature of the CCP and cannot see how it diverges utterly from the socialist claim to put group interests above individual interests. (By such a criterion, Taiwanese society is much more “socialist.”) The CCP can use the term “socialist” on the international scene to instill a sense of moral equivalence between itself and democratic governments. It can say: “‘The two sides’ have ‘different systems,’ so mutual respect is needed. You speak for your people through democracy and we represent ours through socialism.” The huge fact in the background—so huge that people don’t see it—is that the CCP does not represent the Chinese people. It represents a group that seized power in 1949 and holds it still. To imply moral equivalence between “the two sides” is soft-spoken fraud.

This point was on display (although unnoted by many Westerners) in Anchorage, Alaska, in March 2021, when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat across a table from Yang Jiechi, officially presented as Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of China. There were “the two sides”—as symbolically clear as they could be. Each man had to guard his words—not only for what they meant in the room but for what they would sound like to audiences back home. But who were the audiences? Here the two cases diverged radically. Blinken had to have in mind the possible reactions of the U.S. media, of other U.S. politicians (including in the opposition party), and, ultimately, of American voters. In short, he had to look diffusely in several directions, including downward. Yang, by contrast, peered upward, and not diffusely in the least. His crucial audience was a single person, Xi Jinping. He was in Anchorage to say what Xi wanted to be said in Anchorage. People who know Yang personally have told me that he did not sound like his normal self at the meeting. He sounded rehearsed. I would be surprised if important passages in Yang’s statements were not dictated directly by Xi.

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The domestic function of socialist ideology in China is different, although in one respect it is akin to the international function. When Chinese people who live far from the corridors of power behold the shining ideology’s ponderous claims of glory and correctness amid seas of red-and-gold pomp, they tend, as do foreigners who hear phrases like “Chinese socialism” and “the two sides,” to accept the assertion that “we are legitimate.” Inside the system, though, ideological language has another function. Mao’s “Serve the People,” Deng’s “Four Principles,” Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Development Doctrine,” Xi’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”—as well as many less prominent examples too numerous to list here—are pieces one plays on a political chessboard in order to get what one wants. The meaning of the chess pieces is not nearly as important as the act of playing them correctly, and such acts are important because they declaim one’s loyalty to power.

Phrases that originate from present-day leaders are naturally more important than earlier phrases, but the linguistic pedigrees reach as far back as Mao—and it has to be that way, because the Party’s claim to legitimacy also reaches back to Mao. The lineage of top-leader thought is an ideological third rail that must not be touched. It is hard to say whether the CCP regime actually would collapse if the line were broken, but it is easy to say that every ruler since Mao has feared that this would be the case.

In the CCP’s system, advancement in an official career depends overwhelmingly on the views of one’s superior. But when a superior wants to punish someone, he or she still needs formal reasons, which can be such things as “corruption” (even if arbitrarily defined), sexual misbehavior (even if invented), failure to meet quotas or to “maintain stability,” or—and here is where ideology is vital—evidence that one’s speech has been “incorrect.” A correct performance in the language game is more important than what a person actually thinks, and everyone knows that missteps can bring punishment.

There is a spectrum of punishments that begins with police “visits” to discuss whether your future wouldn’t be better if you didn’t say or do certain things; then proceeds to subtle threats that, for example, your children might not get into the schools that you like; and then to the harsh end of the spectrum: 24-7 monitoring, house arrest, prison, torture, death. In the society at large, knowledge of this spectrum of punishment creates a generalized fear that induces self-censorship. By “fear” here, I do not mean a sharp pang of panic. Because the hazards are so constant and unchanging, people get used to them and just avoid them—rather as a hiker steps around boulders on a mountain path. We might speak of “fossilized fear.” It does not need to be sharp in order to be effective in guiding behavior.

Western social scientists sometimes use survey research to try to uncover popular thought in China. On many topics this is possible, if done carefully. But on political topics, especially about support for the CCP, it is not. Fossilized fear plays too big a part—as does the twin problem of bad information about what the CCP actually does. We might recall Fang Lizhi’s comparison of the presence of the CCP to the presence of the weather. “Do you support it?” comes as an odd question.

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The years 2002 to 2008 saw the rise and fall of the most hopeful democracy movement in China since 1949. Informally known as the Rights Defense Movement or Citizens Movement, it was different in nature from the efforts in the 1980s to engage in dialogue with the CCP elite and to effect change from the top down. The 1980s had ended with rejection and a massacre. Now, the idea was to work from the bottom up. Activists went among the people and listened to their problems; then helped them, using the Internet, to establish that other people shared their complaints; then often succeeded in exposing miscreant officials; and eventually were able, at least sometimes, to use the pressure of public opinion to change behavior and even to bring about new laws.

This approach owed something to precedents from Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland, but most of the strategy and tactics were homegrown. The Citizens Movement had no formal structure or appointed leaders. Its activists included Liu Xiaobo, Wen Kejian, Liu Junning, Ai Xiaoming, Teng Biao, Hu Jia, Cui Weiping, He Weifang, Liu Di, Yu Jie, Xu Zhiyong, Wang Yi, Zhang Zuhua, Pu Zhiqiang, Guo Yushan, Guo Feixiong, and many others. The movement ended in December 2008 when Liu Xiaobo, who was the titular sponsor of Charter 08, a blueprint for democratic society that the group had produced, was taken from his home by police and never returned. Signers of the charter were “invited to tea,” and Charter 08 was expunged from the Chinese Internet and all state media.

This happened under Hu Jintao, who headed the CCP from 2002 until 2012. Hu succeeded in keeping a lid on society, but problems arose during those years. A wealth gap, cronyism in business, and environmental problems all worsened, and popular protests (recorded by the police as “masses incidents”) increased sharply in number. At the top, within the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, Hu reputedly was a leader by consensus, allowing the committee’s eight other members to manage their own bailiwicks while Hu jockeyed at the center. A widespread view among Chinese intellectuals was that, near the end of Hu’s term, he was “passing the flower to the beating of a drum.” (The reference is to a game in which people sit in a circle and pass a flower from one to the next while a drum beats; whoever holds the flower when the drum stops beating “loses” and has to sing a song or accept some other punishment.) The image was a way to portray Hu’s apparent longing to get out of the hot seat.

My impression of Xi as he came to power in 2012 was that, after elbowing his rival Bo Xilai aside, he had a strong sense that something had to be done to respond to the country’s problems. Passing a flower was not it. But what could he do? A man of limited intellect, not well read, and with little knowledge of the outside world, Xi could imagine nothing beyond going back to Mao’s model, which at least he knew. So he opted for the recentralization of power, the building of a personality cult, the stoking of a crude nationalism, harsh repression at home, and a chip on the shoulder abroad. Given the political culture that I have sketched in this essay, these steps could meet with initial success even if guided by a mediocre hand.

Will the Xi juggernaut succeed? The problems are that Xi is no Mao, in either intelligence or charisma, and the society that he rules is better informed and much more sophisticated than the one Mao ruled. When Xi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announces a “Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” and another called “Research Center for Xi Jinping Economic Thought,” do intelligent people really go rushing to study “thought” that lies inside Xi’s mind, waiting to be appreciated? Of course not. People in the Mao era, whether in enthusiasm or in pain, took Mao’s commands to heart; in Xi’s case, the conformity is a mere shell.

In the short run, the most frightening possible outcomes for the Xi juggernaut are two: that it will fly or that it will crash. Successful flight would be bad news for the Chinese people and for the people of the world. No one needs a model of technofascism that, with its facial recognition software and DNA registration, goes beyond what even Orwell imagined. On the other hand, a crash would also be bad news, at least for a time. It would bring chaos and likely bloodshed. One of the major accomplishments of the decades-long CCP rule is that it has obliterated all structures in society that might replace it. Whatever happens, I see no grounds for optimism in the short run.

Chinese civilization has survived paroxysms of tyranny before, however, and in the long run it will likely do so again. Mao admired the first emperor of Qin (ruled 221–206 BCE) and the second emperor of Sui (ruled 604–618 CE). Like Mao, these two unified the realm, ruled by “legalism,” drafted corvée workers and soldiers (Mao did this in the 1930s and 1940s), assembled large armies, and eventually earned reputations for “burning books and killing scholars.” Qin, Sui, and the CCP all built Great Walls (be they stone ones or a Great Firewall in cyberspace), and all launched campaigns against Central Asian peoples (Xiongnu, Uyghurs).There are other parallels, some better than others, but neither Qin nor Sui, despite their scorching violence, killed Chinese humanism. One might fear that Xi has technology to help him, while Qin and Sui did not. But I agree with the China scholar Minxin Pei, who has argued that, with or without high tech, the crux of tyrannical behavior still lies within the human mind, not in machines. Notions of “proper behavior”—for example, that people in superior social positions have duties to be fair to people in lower ones and are subject to moral criticism from bystanders if they are abusive—are deeply embedded in Chinese culture. Such values have, despite everything, survived Mao, and will outlast Xi Jinping.