We Have Been Harmonised is the most accessible and best informed account we have had to date of China’s transition from what scholars such as Rebecca MacKinnon used to call “networked authoritarianism” to what is now a form of networked totalitarianism. The difference is not merely semantic. An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense.
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Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. As the historian Robert Conquest put it, a totalitarian state recognises no limits to its authority in any sphere of public or private life and seeks to extend that authority to whatever lengths it can.
Which pretty well matches Strittmatter’s portrayal of contemporary China under Xi Jinping, its new “leader for life”, who is increasingly looking like Mao 2.0 right down to his Little Red App as the contemporary version of his predecessor’s Little Red Book. Mercifully, though, he does not seem to have Mao’s enthusiasm for sacrificing millions of people on the altar of socialist rectitude. But, as Strittmatter tells it, under Xi’s leadership the Communist party of China (CCP) has been closely following the totalitarian playbook as described by Hannah Arendt and other observers of the phenomenon.