Published: 23:34, April 5, 2022 | Updated: 10:04, April 6, 2022
Western media distort facts when labeling China as being ‘totalitarian’
By Ho Lok-sang

The Western media often depicts the Chinese government as “totalitarian”. But what is a totalitarian government? It is, in general, a government formed by people who look after their own interests and dictate their will on the people. In China, we call this “usurping public power for private gains”, which is just another term for power abuse. 

In the eyes of observers in the West, however, “constraints on government power” in China are rated as very low. They also claim China’s rating in “fundamental rights” is very low. In reality, the Chinese government cannot do anything it likes. It is constrained by the culture of service to the people and the laws of nature. Driven by the culture to serve the people, the Communist Party of China has a rigorous system of assessment on its officials. Given the laws of nature and human nature as it is, the Chinese government is obliged to adopt only policies that work. Although China does not rely on popular elections to choose its leaders, it encourages people from all walks of life to compete for the right and privilege to serve in the government based on merit. China not only respects equality of political rights, but also equality of economic and social rights among all citizens regardless of race and gender. China certainly has a totally different political system from that of the West. But it is definitely not totalitarian.

There are some salient characteristics of a totalitarian. For a totalitarian government, “might is right”. A totalitarian government is able and willing to impose its will on anyone with all its might. A totalitarian government is led by people who serve their own interests and those of their associates, rather than serving the interest of the people at large. A totalitarian government needs a facade, so that its totalitarian nature can be hidden behind a veil of libertarian values and effective propaganda. This is the art of totalitarian governments.

Tested against these criteria, the Chinese government is clearly not totalitarian, nor is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government. Of course both the Chinese central government and the Hong Kong SAR government have shortfalls and do make mistakes from time to time, and there are officials who misuse or abuse their powers. But all governments have shortfalls, and nowhere can we find a country where power abuses are completely eradicated. Fighting power abuses, like fighting any other crime, must be an ongoing and endless effort for any government.

During the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, China imposed lockdowns on Wuhan and a number of other cities in Hubei province. The World Health Organization commended the move. It was, however, depicted as reflecting the “totalitarian nature” of the Chinese government. The truth is that the lockdowns were needed to protect the health and lives of the people. Thanks to the decisive actions, the cumulative death total from COVID-19 in China is but a tiny fraction of that of most countries. Of course, people can choose not to believe in the numbers, and that is exactly what they had done over the years with regard to China’s economic growth numbers. But the world can see the results of the sustained economic growth over the years. China today boasts the world’s greatest outgoing-tourist numbers. After two decades of denial for China’s growth numbers, the United States now sees China as a threat, not because China has done anything that has proved to have hurt America’s interests, but because China is too successful.

Secret documents from the “Pandora Papers” leaked last year “identified 956 companies in offshore havens tied to 336 high-level politicians and public officials, including country leaders, cabinet ministers, ambassadors and others,” according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the documents. Of interest is the fact that the number of Ukrainian politicians found to have held secret offshore accounts harboring hidden wealth is an astounding 38, which is the largest in the world! Ukraine has a population of only 44 million. Considered a democratic country, it is nevertheless ranked among some of the most corrupt countries in the world. In contrast, with a population of 1.4 billion, and over 5,000 delegates/members in the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, only two Chinese politicians were found to have such offshore accounts, which is only a fraction of that of the UK, which had nine politicians on the list.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer published in January, trust among Chinese citizens in their government is at a record high of 91 percent. In contrast, in the United States, trust in government stands at only 39 percent. These latest results are consistent with those of a longitudinal study done by the Ash Center of Harvard University that found that in 2016, the last of eight waves of surveys, 95.5 percent of respondents were either “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the Chinese central government. The 2021 Democracy Perception Index Report also found China is one of the countries with the smallest percentage of people who perceive the government as serving mainly the interest of a minority. Even more interesting is the finding that Hong Kong bucked the global trend of rising distrust of governments and registered a 17-percentage-point decline in the share of people who perceive the government as serving mainly the interest of a minority.

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.