China’s Inclusive Authoritarianism

Digital connectivity makes responsive government without democracy possible.

Paige Stampatori for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

“A specter is haunting the Communist world — the specter of economic failure,” I wrote in the Wall Street Journal after visiting Party ideology chiefs in Beijing and Moscow in 1989. “While supermarkets, shopping malls and personal computers describe the post-industrial West, the economies of the East are still struggling with the abacus and the cabbage, the slide rule and the smokestack. In a cruel paradox of history, the future has left its vanguard behind.”

What seemed so clear to me and almost everyone else at the time was that statist socialism just could not resolve the “computational problem” of managing complex societies as the West was able to do through the robust feedback loops of market signals, democratic elections and freedom of speech. 

The grand illusion that centralized planning by apparatchiks and control of the population by a Leninist party could create progress and prosperity on par with the West was evident for all to see. As open societies were innovating their way into the information age, the stodgy socialist states, China included, fell further and further behind.

Fast forward to 2022. Today, a specter is haunting the democratic world — the specter of political failure fueled by cultural civil war. Overwhelmed by the ceaseless tsunami of feedback signals unleashed by digital connectivity, the body politic is fragmenting into so many subjectivist tribes that a governing consensus seems beyond our grasp. Open societies, it appears, are spinning out of control.

While connectivity is splintering the West, it is consolidating control in China, where the Leninist form of governance that failed in the industrial age has been given a new lease on life.

“Thanks in part to the advent of digital technology,” Dimitar Gueorguiev writes in Noema this week, “China’s leaders are now at a point where they believe they have the tools to overcome and move past the computational challenge of managing ever more complexity by deepening control through connectivity.”

“Digital control in China operates as a dual-use technology — repressive in a security sense but progressive from a socialist one,” says the author of “Retrofitting Leninism: Participation Without Democracy in China.” “On the one hand, it serves a conventional coercive function by keeping tabs on 1.4 billion people and letting them know it. On the other, it facilitates public polling, responsiveness, oversight and probabilistic forecasting enabled by massive caches of aggregated data on individual and group-level behavior.” 

For Gueorguiev, this attentive authoritarianism brings to mind the Australian scholar John Keane’s observation that “China’s leaders are so fearful of the loss of control that comes along with democracy that, paradoxically, they act like elected officials in the West who constantly plumb the public mood in the hope of winning the proverbial ballot.” 

As George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore, once put it to me, digital connectivity solves the age-old problem that historically plagued China’s institutional civilization: poor “ground-reality” feedback reaching the imperial center because of too many layers in between. Today’s technologies that are both symbiotic and adversarial, he says, enable “tiào,” a Chinese word which, in this context, means continuous tuning of a complex system.

Gueorguiev goes on: “Smartphones and facial recognition, for instance, make it near impossible for dissidents or protesters to organize; they also make it easier to fine jaywalkers or redirect traffic in case of a jam. Public complaints about corruption can be weaponized for political purges, but they are also a tool against self-serving officials who embezzle or waste public funds. Social credit scores will help the state coerce a preferred form of citizenship, but they also help alleviate mistrust and risk in China’s unruly consumer market.”  

In other words, China’s densely wired society is a two-way platform. While the state monitors from above — surveillance — connectivity also enables the public to monitor the state and the market from below — “sousveillance.” 

We in the West are not wrong to suspect that an unprecedented 21st-century techno-totalitarianism is taking shape in China. But to dismiss the inclusive and adaptive nature of connectivity with Chinese characteristics risks misreading the sustainability of the system. To the extent the Party-state remains responsive to the public mood and concerns gathered from ubiquitous monitoring, a kind of systemic accountability perpetually refreshes its own legitimacy.

As in all else, everything depends on the balance. President Xi Jinping’s over-suppression may well undo what has worked so far for China. The system will surely falter and fail in the future if repression displaces adaptation and if authority is enforced from the top instead of legitimated by inclusiveness from below.