To start the discussion, here is the Wikipedia definition of totalitarianism:
When thinking about it according to this definition, an interesting observation emerges: While China still has a political system that is built for all the above totalitarian functions, the party that operates this state apparatus is no longer exercising many of the functions. For example, the tight control over the economy is largely gone in many settings, and the old ideology (communism) is hardly mentioned in propagandas any more. Stupid restrictions on free discussion and criticism still exist, for example the internet blockage and the recent arrest of Liu Xiaobo, but there are also a huge amount of dissenting voices that can be heard on the internet. When it comes to individual life style choices, people are largely left alone. In recent years, there have emerged independent media outlets such as Caijing and the publications of the Southern Media Group. Those things certainly couldn't have happened in Mao's time.
Another thing I found very interesting during my recent trip to
Here is something else I found out: the CCP's power is fading at base levels of the government and society. In a public work-unit, there are usually two top officials: the administrative official and the Party official (called "the secretary"). Traditionally, the Party secretary dominated the administrative official (who could be a non-CCP member). Nowadays, this remains true at certain higher levels, for example the county level (regiment level in the military) and above. But at lower levels the administrative official now typically holds more power.
The gradual fading of "personality cults" in
So, why does a one-party government that possesses the totalitarian system machine give up operating much of it? There may be many reasons but one, IMO, is due to the progressive trend of civilization world wide. This certainly includes the Chinese people's wakening to their own rights, ever since the Cultural Revolution ended over three decades ago. Globalization might have brought in many bad things but one good thing – I'll call it information globalization – has made it much harder to control people and information now than before. This is to say, running counter to the progressive civilization trend increasingly damages the legitimacy of the party's leadership. Certainly they continue to do things that seem backward, but the boat is still higher when the water is rising.
There are also signs that the central control is increasingly weakened by internal factions within the CCP as well as the effective dispersion of power to sector and local leaders. A recent example is the "empty the cage for new birds" (腾笼换鸟) case. Last October, the party boss of
Party factions have always existed in CCP's history, but they were either consealed from the public or publicized in a violent way. Such a conflict between Wang Yang (a local boss) and Wen Jiabao (the nation's Premier) to be made public peacefully would have been unthinkable in the old times. Lately, there is also a sign that Hu Jintao supports Wang Yang, which puts the President and the Premier in somewhat opposite positions. Rumor has it that Wang Yang belonged to Hu Jintao's Youth League faction, while Wen Jiabao is from the State Council clique, so this dispute could be a factional one. Without making a rash judgment on whose arguments make more sense, I must say so far this "cage and bird" debate has been largely rational and non-confrontational from both sides.
To point out the above changes is not to gloss over
For this I see the increasingly publicized factional disagreement within the CCP as a helpful, and benign, sign. When factions go public, it also points to the hope for possible voting differences within the CCP so that vote of the doctor I spoke of above might really count. That could in turn be the first step toward a more complete democracy.
Of course, there may also be more severe factional conflicts behind the scenes, between the vested interest groups of the "prince party" (太子党) and the unnamed benign force, as the rumor on the street has it. If so, political reform is needed even sooner to prevent something much worse than political backstabbing from happening.
The danger is, the totalitarian state apparatus is still lying there, even if it is semi-inactive. No one can guarantee it will never be activated again by some insane leaders if political reform is not carried out in a timely manner.
(Thanks for reading my tentative thoughts. Rational discussions on the above are welcome and much appreciated.)