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Soft Authoritarianism Meets Inverted Totalitarianism: A Comparative Analysis of Democracy in China and the US.

Open Panel

Abstract

China’s inability or refusal to democratize in recent decades has been a constant source of consternation for the West. Being the world’s largest remaining nation that has resisted democracy’s global spread, it is perceived by many Western powers as an ‘outlaw regime’ potentially at odds with liberal democratic values and US hegemony. But having said that, is it fair to label China and the CPC as a totalitarian monolith that enjoys less and less popular support from the Chinese people? Or have they, contrary to popular beliefs, transformed into an entity altogether different? Just how different, in other words, is the Chinese system of governance from that of a liberal democratic country like the United States? The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that contemporary Chinese politics is best classified as a form of soft authoritarianism. Understood as the move under a one-party system towards greater political freedom, accountability and openness, it is, as Kerstein Klein puts it, a regime that is neither fully democratic nor completely repressive. By way of comparison, the paper draws links between the soft authoritarianism taking shape in China today with the brand of inverted totalitarianism that the eminent political thinker Sheldon Wolin has diagnosed of contemporary US democracy. Based on the union between the state and corporate power, Wolin speaks of democracy in the US as having inherent anti-democratic tendencies at its core. That, as this paper suggests, is what the US shares with its Asian counterpart: a political regime where its leaders, fearful that an ‘anything goes’ mentality would inadequately prepare them for the insidious global threats they face, have habitually curtailed democratic rights in order to safeguard the survival of their state.