With a series of reforms that began in 1978, China discarded its staunchly Communist economy. These reforms allowed for the privatization of certain areas of the Chinese economy, and for China to enter into the Western world. China’s move away from Communism proved to be of considerable foresight, as the USSR and Eastern bloc nations collapsed under similar economic modalities a mere decade later.
However, despite more than 30 years passing since economic reform began, the West’s acceptance, and predictions that China will become the number one economy by 2016, the Middle Kingdom has not emerged as a kind of democratic, free-market nation. Rather, China’s economic and political position is a complex, translucent combination of absolute state power, repressions of speech and thought, propaganda, and private enterprise. Tendencies to brand this nationalistic, quasi-state run system as a kind of socialism are inaccurate; rather, China would be more properly classified as a modern model of a historic, twentieth-century Fascist economy.
The Fascist “Third Way”
Concerning the original Italian movement under Benito Mussolini, the Fascist economy in the twentieth century was a system that placed utmost importance on the state as an organic institution. The Fascists decried both Capitalism and Communism as economic systems that placed other interests above the needs of the state; Capitalism was unhealthy for the state because of its focus on the individual, and Communism unhealthy for its priorities with the working classes. Mussolini and other Fascist theorists rejected both systems and instituted what they labelled a “third way.”
Although mainly focused on the militarization of Italy, forcing propaganda upon the public, and the obsessive attempts to define “Italianism,” Fascism did claim to possess a coherent economic system. Mussolini, at least in his co-authored Doctrine of Fascism, purported that “the Fascist State lays claim to rule in the economic field no less than in others . . .” Mussolini supported “Corporatism,” which was a system defined by small-but-powerful groups resembling medieval guilds of industry. These government-controlled groups were to regularly meet and make industrial decisions in accordance with the state’s domestic and international interests. This system of guild-like entities was to create a utopian harmony between classes in Italy—industrialists and the workers—that were commonly hostile.
Corporatism’s applicability was simpler in theory than in reality. Defining the state’s interests was difficult because Fascist membership—at least prior to the Pact of Steel with Nazi Germany—included Italians from all economic, political, and cultural spectrums: be they industrialists, socialists, Catholics, atheists, Futurists, and so on. Although Mussolini was dictator—the self-proclaimed Duce—his position did not exempt him from compromise, lest he jeopardize that position and become estranged from large sections of the Fascist intelligentsia.
Ever the ambitious opportunist, in his rise to power Mussolini routinely readjusted his position on a host of issues in order to garner widespread support. Once a revolutionary and international socialist, he quickly went through a self-metamorphosis and became a staunch enforcer of the industrial status quo. Once a philosophical pacifist who possessed an admiration for other cultures, he later became a brutish and xenophobic warmonger. Once a virulent anti-Catholic atheist who wrote on the historic atrocities conducted by the Church, he later created granted the Catholic church its own Vatican State. A fair portion of Fascism’s political and economic murkiness can be attributed to Mussolini’s personal comprises and ambition for power.
Despite Fascism’s complexities, there are a few factors which, when combined, make the Fascist economy stand out from other models. In Fascism, one finds the existence private business. This does not make Fascism unique per se, but it is a requisite not found in the Maoist regime. The second is that the government must direct the actions of the private sector and larger organizations. A close look at some of the largest corporations in China will show that they are state run. At first glance, this could very well be mistaken for a kind of Socialism. However, one cannot label China a Socialist nation in that Socialism concerns itself with the rights and wellbeing of the working classes. China betrays Socialism in that regard; the quality of life among China’s working class is poor, given the long hours, low wages, low air quality, and numerous incidents involving hazardous materials finding their way into food and health products.
The Chinese working classes do not have the freedom to complain, for much like Fascist Italy, China routinely quashes political dissent. Chinese secret police are able to make arrests for criticizing the government: a mere mention of sensitive subjects as Tiananmen Square, Tibetan or Taiwanese independence can mean jail. However, this kind of imposed subservience to the nation does not fall solely upon the workers. As stated, a Fascist economy demands obedience from all classes—both elite and poor. Recently, the High Court of China found China Mobile executive Shi Wanzhong guilty of accepting a bribe from Siemens, an international company. China decided on the death penalty. There is to be no dissent in modern China.
Although it has reformed its Maoist economy, China’s government remains exuberant in its economic practices. Whatever Mao’s vision may have been for instituting communism in China in the past, the modern regime is now concerned with economic prowess and regional—if not global—superiority. To achieve these goals, the regime has been resolute in crushing dissent, both in the political and economic arenas. These desires and actions present a striking resemblance to the Fascist movement in Italy under Benito Mussolini.
Much as the Fascist Party stood alone in Italy to do as it pleased, one must remember that in China there is only its Communist Party. Perhaps most alarming about China is its ethnic policy, which promotes the marginalization of the Tibetan and Falun Gong peoples. While this may not have been a central tenet in early Fascism, Mussolini certainly developed a racial doctrine after his pact with Hitler and Nazi Germany. In many ways, China is the Fascist regime that had never lost World War II: the regime that never committed war crimes in Ethiopia and drew the ire of the West, the regime that was allowed to continue its militant march towards achieving state absolutism.
For a more in-depth analysis on the similarities between modern China and Fascist Italy, see Michael A. Ledeen’s article, “Beijing Embraces Classical Fascism.”