Author: steinringen


That’s the question I propose to answer in my book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century (now out in Hong Kong, released in the US and Europe in August/September). Here, briefly, is part of the answer:

  1. The People’s Republic is a party-state, not just a one-party state but a party-state. There are two overpowering bureaucracies, side by side and intertwined, a party bureaucracy and a state bureaucracy. That double helix makes for an awesome force of dictatorship.
  2. This regime has one supreme determination that stands above all else: to perpetuate itself. In that interest, it exercises totalitarian control over society. Strange as it may seem in a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the party sees everything, hears everything and knows everything,
  3. As a result, this is a country in which, if you are of independent mind and sometimes express criticism of the regime, and even more if you engage in activism, you cannot sleep at ease at night. You have reason to fear that someone will knock on your door, break it down, evict you from your home, have you fired from your job, throw you in jail, beat you up, force you into exile, disappear you, and that family and friends will be threatened and harassed.

These are the basic and elementary truths about the People’s Republic of China.



The view that the Chinese regime is a benevolent autocracy, one that has some blemishes but delivers good governance for the benefit of the people, remains surprisingly widespread among observers outside of China. A respected colleague (American) put it thus in a recent debate: “I believe that Xi Jinping and his colleagues have the interests of the Chinese people at heart.”

This belief, however, is just wishful thinking disconnected from reality that makes for distorted analysis. There is no evidence whatsoever that governance in the People’s Republic is or has been dedicated to the interests of the people. Rather, all the evidence is that the regime’s dedication has been and is its own perpetuation.

– When Xi came to office, the world expected him to be a liberal (in the Chinese context) and an economic reformer. Instead, he has let the economy drift and tightened political repression. There is no basis to believe that what he has at heart is diametrically different from what he does.
– When the previous regime trumpeted ‘harmonious society’, that proved to be manipulative rhetoric to disguise cleptocracy, the leaders’ enrichment of themselves, and China’s drift to obscene inequality.
– In 1989, it was obviously not the Chinese people the leaders had at heart. This, remember, was the reformed PRC.
– When Mao left the stage, the choice was between economic and political opening up and economic opening up and restitution of political control. Deng Xiaoping, far from the reformer he is credited for having been, chose the latter.
– On all occasions, during and after Mao, when controls were relaxed and the people allowed to express their interests, and their expression turned to a demand for democracy, their space for free expression was closed down and those who had used it punished.
– During Mao’s disasters, the people were just sacrificed. This is 100% relevant today; the reformed regime has not disavowed Mao’s calamities or settled with its own past The people whose interests Xi has at heart are not even allowed to know who they are or where they come from.

A regime that has the interests of the people at heart is just not the kind of regime the People’s Republic of China, reformed or not, is. It has been and is a regime that has itself at heart, before the people.



Under the forceful leadership of Xi Jinping, a new China is emerging: more assertive and aggressive. Tensions are building again. The neighbouring countries are the most exposed, as is seen in China’s expansion and base building in the South China Sea.

The two decades between Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping were the golden years for the People’s Republic. The economic grew ferociously. The country was at peace. There was hope of liberalisation. “The more we bring China into the world,” said then US President Bill Clinton, “the more the world will bring freedom to China.”

It was also a period of grey, technocratic, collective leadership. That served China well.

Now all is different. Economic growth has slowed to a trickle. China has turned to aggression in its neighbourhood. Rather than political liberalisation, there are ever tighter controls. Instead of collective leadership, there is one-person rule in the hands of the new leader.

The Chinese party-state is exceptionally dependent on its leadership. It was Mao’s absolute power that caused the catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It was thanks to Deng’s authority that China could turn to economic reform.

But these two leaders, although both strong, were radically different. Mao was ideological. Deng was pragmatic. While Mao’s ideology spelled disaster, Deng’s pragmatism was productive and prevailed during the golden years.

Since Xi became general secretary of the party, he has gathered all the reins of power in his own hands. Systematically, step by step, relentlessly he has concentrated power – politically, economically, militarily – in the country to Beijing and in Beijing to the party and himself. He has boosted his own authority with a veneer of person-cult, recently having himself anointed “core leader”.

He is also reverting to ideology. The party-state needs legitimacy. Being less able to rely on economic growth, it becomes more dependent on ideology. Xi admonishes cadres to “embrace the spirit of Mao Zedong” and to “make work in the ideological sphere a high priority in your daily agenda.” The grey leaders boasted of economic prowess. The new one peppers his speeches with ideology and discipline.

Ideology is a dangerous force. Political leaders make their own ideologies, but then, when they take hold, become the prisoners of their own creation. Ideologies explain history and destiny in a way that seems truthful to all who are entrapped in them. They become belief-systems and make people, both leaders and the led, believers.

The destructive force of ideology has been seen in Hitlerism, Stalinism and Maoism. The belief in ideological truths justifies the most brutal of means. When powerful leaders turn to ideology, there is always danger and others must pay attention.

Xi’s ideology is not Marxism, which is no longer credible. He is looking back to Chinese history and to its constant theme of national greatness. That is the tradition he has condensed into his slogan of the “China Dream”.

Xi launched the China Dream in November 2012 against the backdrop of the National Rejuvenation exhibition in Beijing’s National Museum, in front of the new Standing Committee of the party. He spoke about Chinese rejuvenation as “the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in recent times” and of how “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the nation.”

That’s the stuff of ideology. Xi is reviving a vision of nationalism, strength and glory that has resonance in Chinese imagination and tradition. In this narrative, nation is everything and people, “each person”, secondary.

The China Dream quickly became the story that all who need or wish to display loyalty pay lip service to. It is everywhere in official policy documents and on official and quasi-official websites. It is the crescendo with which premier Li Keqiang has concluded his recent reports to the National People’s Congress. It was even the heading for this year’s aggressively patriotic New Year’s Gala on national television.

Ideology is never innocent. Flirting with it is to release forces that may get out of control. A sate under one-person ideological leadership is fundamentally different from one under pragmatic and collective leadership. An ideology that puts nation ahead of people is ultra-dangerous.

A big and powerful country, a strong state, an ambitious and shrewd leader – that adds up to a force to be reckoned with. A big and powerful country, a strong state, an ambitious and shrewd leader, an aggressive ideology – that adds up to a force to be feared.


Asked by Bloomberg to comment on current trends in the Chinese regime, I offered the following:

I think we now have enough evidence to conclude that the Xi regime is a fundamentally different one from the one he inherited, that of Deng and his followers. Power has been concentrated to the party and to Xi himself, complete with person cult, and collective leadership is in the past. So is pragmatism, now the order of the day is ideology, discipline and national greatness. One visible consequence so far is China’s new aggression in the East Asia neighbourhood, the South China Sea in particular.

I think there are two reasons for this shift. The leaders have long known that they will not be able to rely on economic growth for legitimacy. The justification of party rule therefore becomes more dependent on ideology and a patriotic narrative of greatness. The other reason is that Xi is looking to be a true believer. He seems to believe in the purity of the party, which he is salvaging with his endless anti-corruption drive. And he seems to believe that it is the party’s destiny to be the force that can hold China together and enhance its greatness.


The Chinese political system is different from any other known to man, now or in history. We need a concept to help us understand that system and to distinguish it from all others. For that purpose, I’ve coined a new concept in political science and China analysis.

The new Chinese dictatorship is sophisticated and effective, hard in fact but mild in appearance. It does not tell everyone everything they must do. But it does control that they do not do what they must not, and it does so in great detail, from not having children that should not be had via not reading or seeing or hearing what should not be read or seen or heard, to not practicing faiths that should not be practiced – and above all to not organising.

That kind of dictatorship needs a name. It is not an autocracy; that is too benevolent. It is not a dictatorship like others; that is too primitive. I give it the name of controlocracy.


Two remarkable stories emerged from China’s otherwise secretive political system last week.

First, it was announced that the Ministry of Public Security is to set up a bureau to pursue Chinese maleficents outside of China’s borders. The idea of Chinese law being applied by Chinese agents anywhere in the world is disquieting enough. But the backstory to the announcements was that the new bureau was being set up after Xi Jinping had ‘made a remark’ to that effect in some meeting. So much for collective leadership.

Collective leadership is supposed to have been a legacy of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, but has not been the way of the People’s Republic, not under Mao, not under Deng himself, and now not under Xi. There may have been collective leadership of sorts between Deng and Xi, and even in Xi’s first year or two, but no longer.

Since he became secretary general of the party, Xi has systematically gathered the reins of power in his own hands and boosted his authority by the spreading of person-cult. He is now the supreme leader, much as Mao was, so much so that it is enough for him to make a ‘remark’ for policy to be made. The idea of careful deliberation by collective leadership is dead. The People’s Republic has reverted to its natural self: a dictatorship under one-man rule – and is now proud to show itself off as such.

Second, a book, a bland volume, appeared in bookshops, published by the party’s Central Document Press, with extracts of some of Xi’s internal speeches and essays on ‘tightening party discipline and rules.’ It was revealed that Xi had spoken of scheming within top circles ‘to wreck and split the party’ – of coup attempts in other words. Some of the plotters were named: Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua and Su Rong.

That should send a chill down the spines of people around him. When no. 1 chooses to reveal that there has been plotting against him, he is saying: (1) I am min control, so much so that I can speak of plots. (2) Don’t even think about it, you will be crushed.

When dictators speak of plots and name plotters, they are deliberately spreading fear. The Chinese political system is not an orderly arrangement in which the top brass elect a leader as the first among equals for everyone then to collaborate peacefully. It is a standard dictatorship: a perpetual dog-fight where those who come out on top know that they have enemies and that it is a battle to stay in power and use fear an internal terror as core instruments of control.



The Chinese system of government looks orderly and rational: The leaders are elected meritocratically so that the best qualified get selected. They cannot be too old and cannot be in office beyond a limited time. They govern collectively.

But is that the reality? I’m reading Tom Holland’s DYNASTY, about Rome after Caesar. I see many similarities between Rome then and Beijing now.

Rome was ruled, indeed owned, by a tiny aristocracy of sons of notables. China is ruled, indeed owned, by a tiny aristocracy of princelings. In both systems, the members of the aristocracy enrich themselves on the back of the state. In both systems, it is made to look as if the leaders are elected by their fellow aristocrats, while in reality they emerge through ruthless power games in which some pretenders perish and others float to the top.

If Mao was Caesar, Xi is Augustus. Like Augustus, he has brought order to the empire. Augustus was the master showman, a ruthless dictator who disguised himself as the benevolent father of the nation. As now in China, he purchased legitimacy by distributing rewards to followers and the populous. He pretended that Rome was still a republic and that he was only the first among citizens, and he played what he called “the game of life” so well that he was believed.

And Xi? He pretends to have been elected, while in reality it was his alliance with the military that clinched it for him. He pretends to be the first among equals in a collective leadership, while in reality he has gathered all the reins of power in his own hands. He pretends to be a humble man while having a person-cult whipped up around himself.

Under Augustus’s leadership, the world, and the Romans, thought Rome had found the secret of orderly rule. Now, much of the world thinks the same about China under Xi.

To which the reply must be: learn for history and be sceptical.

In Rome, Augustus’s order disintegrated catastrophically with his followers, including Caligula and Nero. Where China is heading we cannot know, but we should at least know that we do not know. Perhaps they have found the secret, at least for a while, but history tells us to be sceptical.

The party-state is a dictatorship in which, as in all dictatorships, the battle over and for power is constant, endemic and never-ending. The anti-corruption campaign is in part a war against enemies inside the regime. There are ever stronger rumors of plots against the clique that happens to hold power. It’s Rome all over again. As in any dictatorship, the ugly reality can burst through the pretty pretense at any time.