Wavell Room
Image default
Book Reviews International Relations International Relations (Long Read)

#WavellReviews “Dictatorship by Degrees: Xi Jinping in China” by Steven P. Feldman

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Despite its totalitarian character, the late Vladimir Shlapentokh argued that the Soviet state was entirely normal “in how it functioned and reproduced itself over many years.”1  It is perhaps a counterintuitive statement, given the prevalent notion that the triumph of liberal democracy spelled the end of ideological explanations for state behaviour.2  Contrariwise to such post-communist conclusions, Feldman’s notion of pre-totalitarianism lends itself to gratification in understanding the political character of developments currently unfolding in the People’s Republic of China.  The (pre-)totalitarian tendencies that Feldman identifies come, however, from a functionalist approach.3  While more theoretically sound than clichéd Orwellian descriptions of China, this particular approach of the book risks portraying the country as more abnormal than it is.  Instead, the reviewer argues that structural explanations, or ideological-bureaucratic ones, are more enlightening for the (pre-)totalitarian political character of China.4

If the collapse of the Soviet Union is perceived as evidence for the invalidity of the socialist model, our understanding of China can be fundamentally hampered.  Because of this narrow framework, it is interesting to see the publication of a work such as Feldman’s rethinking the dominant assumptions of the debate.  It refers to those totalitarian elements within the Chinese state that emerged most clearly during the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong (1966-1976) but whose roots are still dormant in the contemporary post-Mao, post-totalitarian state.  The political climate in China is here considered to be one in which measures are tightened or relaxed according to the calculations of the party-state.  In what could have been an interesting corrective to the fang-shou cycle of authoritarianism, Feldman instead merely updates the same concept, with political rule in China now described in (pre-)totalitarian terms.  The work in its present form, then, only partially lives up to its expectations.

Feldman’s book, drawing on a year of fieldwork in China between June 2015 and July 2016, features an interesting introduction to the study of Chinese politics.  Through a wide literature, as well as eight chapters, the author puts forward observations from fieldwork, as well as discussions of the various concepts and debates that are presented in the interviews.  While bringing the necessary nuances, these reflections often border on the anecdotal.  It is also not entirely clear to what extent these, often recognisable, examples of life in China add to the core argument of the book.  For the reasons outlined above, this review is mostly concerned with the book’s introduction as well as its conclusion.  It is within these chapters that the concept of pre-totalitarianism, defined as the period during which “a dictatorial organization that uses terror to control its population, has not extended terror to being an end in itself” (p. 4), is most clearly explored.

The book focuses on how “signs of pre-totalitarianism” are increasingly visible in the contemporary Chinese leadership through the role of ideology, intolerance of dissent, extra-legal rectification campaigns, a cult of personality around the leader, and the leader as the ‘supreme theorist’ of that state” (pp. xi, 4).  This functional approach, taking these latent elements as evidence for a potential turn towards totalitarianism, only attributes cursory relevance to the state’s ideology and how that particular system of thought can, by itself, give rise to a slippery slope towards the terror of the totalitarian state.  By not starting from ideology, the concept of pre-totalitarianism at present does not explain the structural factors at play, nor the implications of such as shift from a mere dictatorship to a totalitarian state.  Because the concept of pre-totalitarianism is never really explored, it is not clear what the consequences such a shift could hold, particularly in terms of:

  • How further policies of terror could develop along the road of pre- to actual totalitarianism;
  • How totalitarianism drives the state towards genocide, arguably one of the main perspectives to be considered; and
  • How totalitarianism relates to the conditioning of pre-war sentiments and preparations for total war in society.

The foundations of the book are logically gleaned from the study of totalitarianism, particularly drawing from, among others, the works of Hannah Arendt, Raymond Aron, and Juan J. Linz.  This particular field holds that Nazism and Stalinism, or national socialism and communism more generally, were equal in their pursuit of the totalitarian state.  Here again, the book could benefit from a greater exploration of the various nuances within this debate; as well as a discussion of the philosophical antecedents of proto-totalitarianism that inspires it.  Totalitarianism is here narrowly defined as “a system of control over the minds of citizens” (p. xi).  This measure of brainwashing seemingly distinguishes China from a mere dictatorship.  Engaging with the debate mentioned above, one could here expect a discussion of the ‘banality of evil’, now reconsidered as the mimetic pathologies among mid-level bureaucrats and the obfuscating language these persons employ in the carrying out of their duties.5

To build his framework of pre-totalitarianism, Feldman builds on what Raymond Aron called the degrees of ideology, party-state unity, and violence (p. 4).6  At this point, one could query whether  ‘Totalitarianism by Degrees’ could have been a more fitting title.  Indeed, Feldman notes, once the dictatorship becomes a totalitarian state, the subsequent disruption changes the state completely.  An exploration of the ideological drivers behind a (pre-)totalitarian China, as well as its organisational adaptation, would be worthwhile here.  More problematic, however, is the present inability of the pre-totalitarian framework to explain the nature and role of ideology in China, as well as how the (pre-)totalitarian state manifests itself geographically across the nation’s regions.  Rather than the total control over the minds of the citizens, I would suggest that this development is more about the active pursuit of permanent security by the state, and how that translates into bureaucratic policies and a “language of transgression.”7  From this perspective, Feldman’s concept of pre-totalitarianism can be very insightful in the ongoing debate on genocide as a descriptor for the developments in China’s Xinjiang.

Reflective of the book’s limited engagement with the debate on totalitarianism is Feldman’s reference to the madness of the leader as a further explanation for the topic at hand.  The unquestionable following of orders by mid-level functionaries in China also figures within this debate: what Arendt described as the banality of evil.8  In what follows, a very leadership-centric, if Hitlerine, analysis of Chinese politics emerges which takes away from the ideological-bureaucratic process that is carried out to serve clear objectives other than the disruption of everything (p. 3).   Declaring all these officials insane, acting in a field of chaos, and therefore not criminally culpable to the crimes committed, discourages the study of the internal logic that is followed by the party-state.9  Feldman instead hypothesises that the creation of chaos is the ultimate goal of the totalitarian state.  Such a conclusion stands diametrically opposed to the Chinese party-state that is currently seeking ever greater maintenance of power through, what can indeed be called, increasingly (pre-)totalitarian methods of control.10  An ideological-institutional explanation of (pre-)totalitarian here compels itself.

In explaining (pre-)totalitarianism in function of greater control for the Leninist party-state rather than what in means in terms of ideological pursuits, Feldman, perhaps unintentionally, reproduces what Creemers calls the rejection of ideological pursuits of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in favour of more universal ones, such as elite struggle.11   It follows an emerging trend to rethink the study of Chinese politics,12 which may fundamentally reinforce the conclusion of China as a post-ideological state.  By a priori moving the debate away from ideology as an explanatory variable within the Chinese party-state, one risks repeating similar mistakes as took place after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Here too, the decline of the party-state’s  revolutionary zeal seemingly evidenced the decline of ideology as a structural factor in shaping policy (Robinson 1995).  The study of Chinese politics, and thus our understanding of China’s rise, would suffer heavily from disregarding the role of ideology as such.13

Despite the caveats presented in this review, however, Feldman’s argument may yet be the first step into creating a novel framework that accounts for both the ideological nature of China but also the (pre-)totalitarian tendencies visible within its political character.  Such an approach may inform the role of ideology, as embedded in the party-state’s bureaucracy, how it influences policy and its implementation, and which language is used to conceive of these measures.  The CPC’s close attention to the causes of Soviet collapse and its efforts to strengthen the party-state’s institutionalisation ought to be illuminating for the enduring relevance of understanding the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse.  The shift away from related approaches, however, is the natural product of the enduring perception of socialist China as anything but a normal state akin to Shlapentokh’s Soviet Union and, as such, as much verging on the brink of collapse as its Soviet-Russian predecessor.

Steven P. Feldman, Emeritus Professor in Business Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, USA contributes a most welcome concept to the debate.  References to Confucianism, as well as other supposed cultural norms of China such as the supposed all-pervasive guanxi networks, are unfortunate embellishments and divert the reader’s attention somewhat from the larger argument.14  This logic is visible most clearly in the book’s conclusion.  Feldman describes what he believes to be the laws of Chinese politics: because of small group loyalties (guanxi), political control in China is superfluous and therefore necessarily decentralised.  By consequence, China’s political system is earmarked by one central dynamic: it is a fluid policy system as evidenced by the constant tug-of-war between the leaders and the party factions (p. 289).  It is a false conclusion, as it pays but little attention to – to repeat it once again – the ideological-institutional structure that is the CPC.  On the whole, however, Feldman’s concept of pre-totalitarianism could potentially be the spark in the debate on the future of China’s rise, yet it requires more fleshing out.

Axel Dessein

Axel Dessein is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London and a recipient of a 'The Leverhulme Trust' scholarship on vision of a post-Western world order.  He holds a BA/MA in Oriental Languages and Cultures: China, from Ghent University in Belgium.


  1. Shlapentokh, Vladimir. 2017. A Normal Totalitarian Society: How the Soviet Union Functioned and How It Collapsed. London: Routledge.
  2. Brown, Kerry. 2012. “The Communist Party of China and Ideology.” China: An International Journal 10 (2): 52–68.
  3. Sociologists, for example, ascertain that “social structure tends to trump technology[:] social structures determine how new technologies are used more than technologies are able to destabilise established social structures.” See Hendriks, Eric C. 2017. “The Eternal Centre: Why China Is Not a Model to Emulate.” Quadrant 61(1/2), pp. 43.
  4. For a greater exploration of this argument, see Dessein, Axel. 2020. “National Socialism in China: Rejuvenating the Nation, Socialist Modernisation, and the Mistaken Comparison with Nazism.” Monde ChinoisNouvelle Asie 2(62):72–87.
  5. Rather than an inability to think, mimetic complexity, Nidesh Lawtoo argues, discerns a pathology of a wholly different nature in which a person in charge of acts that are otherwise considered atrocious can disagree personally with the orders given and yet follow the ideology in carrying out these policies. See Lawtoo, Nidesh. 2013. The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.; and Lawtoo, Nidesh. 2020. “The Case of Eichmann Restaged: Arendt, Evil, and the Complexity of Mimesis.” Political Research Quarterly.
  6. Gill similarly employs degrees of (totalitarian) control to distinguish between ruling communist parties and those of the non-communist world. See Gill, Graeme. 1994. The Collapse of a Single-Party System: The Disintegration of the CPSU. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1.
  7. Masterfully explored in Moses, A. Dirk. 2021. The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and The Language of Trangression, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Arendt, Hannah. 2006. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Random House.
  9. Lawtoo, Nidesh, op. cit. 2013: 2020.
  10. Yang, Dali L. 2017. “China’s Troubled Quest for Order: Leadership, Organization and the Contradictions of the Stability Maintenance Regime.” Journal of Contemporary China 26 (103): 35–53. The authoritarian framework to study China persists, however, in concepts such as authoritarian resilience, see Heberer, Thomas. 2016. “The Chinese ‘Developmental State 3.0″ and the Resilience of Authoritarianism.” Journal of Chinese Governance 14 (1).
  11. Creemers, Rogier. 2018. “Party Ideology and Chinese Law.” SSRN. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3210541., p. 1. See also Robinson, Neil. 1995. “Soviet Ideological Discourse and Perestroika.” European Journal of Political Research 27.
  12. Author’s notes from Oxford China Centre. 2021. “Conversation II: How Communist Is the People’s Republic of China?” University of Oxford China Centre. 2021. https://www.chinacentre.ox.ac.uk/am_event/how-communist-is-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.
  13. Creemers, Rogier. 2020. “Party Ideology and Chinese Law.” In Law and the Party in China: Ideology and Organisation, edited by Creemers, Rogier; Trevaskes, Susan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  14. The existence of the “all-important guanxi” or interpersonal relations in China is a popular sociological-cultural, yet facile explanation of Chinese society which is nothing more than what are called the old boys networks in the UK. See for example Shambaugh, David. 2013. China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 193.

Related posts

Wavell Room’s Cultural Guide to the First World War

The UK in Mali

Michael Shurkin

‘Fire for Effect’: Russia’s Growing Long Range Strike Capabilities

Dr James Bosbotinis