Somewhere in the past few days I saw a brief video of a MAGA woman saying, yes, she’d like Donald Trump to be an autocrat. She’d like that, autocracy. I think she meant as long as the autocrat was her autocrat.
From certain American perspectives, I guess autocracy seems OK. Democracy, no matter how stringently or loosely we define it, is messy. Complicated. It requires action of its citizens and of its entire government. So I understand why certain kinds of people think one-man rule will give them an easy-to-read blueprint for life in which they don’t have to do anything except rant occasionally.
For any of us, though, who has historical knowledge of Russia under Stalin or Germany under Hitler, there are significant aspects of autocracy which leave us pretty meh.
I just finished reading an astounding piece of long journalism in the New Yorker, a piece which I see as a warning/primer that lays out what an autocracy can do to individual lives. It is entitled “China’s Age of Malaise: Facing a grim economy, disillusioned youth, and fleeing entrepreneurs, Xi Jinping turns to the past.” The author is Evan Osnos.
As I read it, I highlighted passages which particularly struck me as chapters in a This Is What Can Happen To You In An Autocracy primer, until realized I was highlighting pretty much the whole article. So, at the risk of over-simplifying Osnos’s profound report on today’s China, I’m going to summarize, emphasizing what an autocrat does when he feels like it, with awful suddenness, and when there’s nobody to protest because if anybody does, he disappears.
First, a whiff of background. Before now in China, there was Party Leader Deng who loosened the Maoist strictures, “calling for ‘courageous experiments’ to insure that China would not be like ‘a woman with bound feet’.”
China bloomed. Of course, much of what the world observed of China was the explosion of capitalism. Still, I learned civil rights organizations formed, bands played rock ‘n’ roll. There was actual debate and dissent on college campuses, a middle class took advantage of middle-class activities like vacation travel, “a social calendar…punctuated by openings: concert halls, laboratories, architectural marvels.”
So what’s happening now?
How has Xi — described by a Chinese intellectual quoted by Osnos as “Mao with money” — been handling big issues in his country?
Public Health Emergencies
China’s ‘”zero COVID’ policy [which closed everything and forced people not to leave their homes] depleted civil treasuries”; there are “reports of teachers and civil servants going unpaid.” Twenty-five million people in Shanghai were trapped in their homes for two months while food and medicine ran low. Parents who tested positive for COVID had their babies taken away to state wards.
“When the zero-COVID policy was finally abandoned…the change was so abrupt that at least a million people died in a matter of weeks…” [Note: mass starvation has been a favorite management technique of autocrats for quite a while.]
Which inevitably takes me to The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci’s flawless satire.
There’s one particular scene embedded in my brain as a ringing description of the modus of autocrats. Stalin has had what might be a stroke and is lying on the floor of one of his private rooms. He is surrounded by an oblong of his minions — some of whom are fully credentialed monsters in their own right.
The large question emerges: Is Stalin dead? Or not?
Nobody knows exactly what to do. Finally, one of the minions shakily suggests, “Shouldn’t we call a doctor?” But another minion snaps, “What are you thinking? He liquidated all the doctors!”
It’s an hilarious line. It’s also essentially true. An autocrat feels threatened by any class of people who possess more specialized knowledge than he has. Intellectuals = Danger.
Pop concerts in China have been zapped with no logical explanation. Stand-up comics must submit “videos of jokes for advance approval.” Jokers not approved by Xi’s census agents have been punished by prison sentences.
Lively improvised cafés and art galleries are no longer. A popular book store, “the city’s undisputed liberal outpost,” had its lease cancelled, and when the owner tried to find a new site, he was turned down by each landlord…”Today, nobody would dare try to open a store like that.”
Xi thought control
But there is a boom in publishing: Xi has put out his own doctrinaire books at an amazing clip, substantiating, I guess you could say, what the Party is calling “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” All sorts of institutions, including businesses, have to “make time for regular lectures, followed by the writing of essays and the taking of tests.” Oy.
Economy and Housing
“In less than five years, the Party has hobbled industries that once supplied tax revenue, jobs, inspiration, and global stature.”
The economic boom in China is over. “The downturn has shaken citizens who have never experienced anything but improvements in their standard of living. People who shunted their life savings into contracts for new apartments are contending with unfinished concrete blocks in overgrown lots, because the developers ran out of money.”
The cost of living in China’s cities is so high, young graduates are either forced to depart for their home towns or share beds — not bedrooms, but the beds themselves — with strangers. An alternative is living rent-free in nursing homes, while spending ten hours a month entertaining residents. Oy vey.
The job market is stagnant and people are underpaid. “Youth unemployment had hit a record high of twenty-one per cent…the true rate might be as high as forty-six per cent…”
Notable people have been…disappeared. Some of them short-term, some maybe forever, nobody knows. (Xi is not big on explanations.) Among those mentioned in this article are: the head of China’s missile force; his political commissar; China’s foreign minister; one of China’s best-known bankers; a prominent Uyghur ethnographer; and an industrialist known as “the Chinese Warren Buffett.”
Occasionally a government statement will be made, sometimes months later, about what has happened to these people. But sometimes, nothing. An autocrat doesn’t feel he needs to explain his actions.
A newspaper columnist was charged with espionage.
A politically-connected billionaire was taken from his apartment in a wheelchair with a sheet over his head. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and one of the world’s richest men, criticized the Party’s financial reforms and…disappeared. (Even I have heard of Jack Ma.) A real estate tycoon was sentenced to 18 years on corruption charges. (He’d written “an essay in which he mocked Xi as a ‘clown stripped naked who still insisted on being emperor.'”) Autocrats don’t have senses of humor and they are very thin-skinned.
And then there’s the other sort of disappearance, people who are leaving the country. One guy who wanted out “rode a Jet Ski, loaded with extra fuel, nearly two hundred miles to South Korea.” Elaborate escape routes through multiple countries have been developed.
Chinese people who have been working in other countries are being warned not to respond to government invitations to come home for some “deal.”
Chinese rich people have established ways of smuggling their money out of China and are living now in exile communities in other countries, like Singapore.
Forget women’s rights, women’s equality
“…the Party has committed itself to ‘traditional virtues of the Chinese nation’ and the ‘social value of childbearing.'” Officials are pushing for young women to marry and have children, even sometimes offering cash incentives. [Does this remind you of, I dunno, something?]
For the first time in decades, the Politburo now has no women in it.
Welcome to a model for your desired autocracy, MAGA lady! See things you like?
You might notice your designated autocrat-in-waiting has issued plans for his next presidential administration that — and this is really, really odd — echo some of the stuff Xi is doing in China.
Gee, could it be Trump is now taking advice from Xi instead of Putin?