History and politics, in the age of mass media and flickering screens and constant streams of information captured in headlines and blurbs and carefully selected pictures, is increasingly understood aesthetically first and theoretically second. A word like “despot” conveys frantic and violent images of men in dark suits, hollering at the top of their lungs to baying crowds of devotees. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, you’ve seen the photos, the news reels, the documentaries often accompanied by foreboding music and the unnerving flicker of decayed filmstrip. A frightening, chaotic noise defines despotism.
Xi Jinping has none of these qualities. Often wearing a clean-pressed business suit, Xi is soft-spoken. He has a warm smile, a friendly face, and a calm demeanor in comparison to the aggression of his Western contemporaries. His speeches are reserved, but proud and optimistic. Radical ambitions to global military and economic dominance — and the measures needed to achieve that — are cloaked in a new and refined form of propaganda that seamlessly fits into the social media timeline as if it were another snippet of the daily news.
In a figure like Donald Trump, it’s not surprising that many see the “look” of despotism. His brash and unruly approach to politics, his strongman image and unapologetic cruelty towards political opponents and dissent, his winking nods to the cultural prejudice and racial resentment of his support base — we have heard from commentators across the political spectrum how well Trump seems to capture the image of the despot. The debate, then, is whether his policy decisions and governance actually match up with this image. Defenders will point to an apparent moderation in what he actually does as Commander-in-chief, while critics warn that he is only checked by other branches of government and his own cabinet, therefore his despotism is never total in its emergence. The image of despotism in Trump, as well as his contemporaries in Right Wing populism like Bolsonaro and Orban, is determined to be enough evidence that they are.
Xi has profoundly expanded the surveillance of citizens and imprisoned dissidents on an unprecedented scale. The campaign to occupy and transform East Turkestan has ramped up aggression into a genocidal program of arbitrary detentions, sterilizations, and forced labor most recently used to abate economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by transferring Uyghurs around the country while the middle class safely quarantines at home. The region has become a testing ground for a new and recumbent network of data collection and surveillance. Xi is determined that China will be the dominant power of the 21st Century at any cost, including the lives of an ethnic group never included in the “union of five races”. These actions, even to a layperson, look authoritarian. But the man behind the podium doesn’t.
Trump will aggressively denounce members of the press that criticize him. In May of this year, MSNBC morning show host Joe Scarborough was subject to a barrage of harassment from Trump and his loyalists after Scarborough suggested that he may have been involved in the death of a former aide in 2001, Lori Klausutis. Meanwhile in China, after penning an essay criticizing Xi’s handling of the COVID pandemic, former real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang mysteriously disappeared without a trace. After months of silence, the press finally reported that he had been sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges. Ren isn’t the first dissident to “disappear” like this. In 2013, Xi introduced new laws essentially sanctioning arbitrary and secret detention. A notable detention was movie star Fan Bingbing, who disappeared for 100 days to the shock of 63 million fans on Weibo. Of course, the majority of arbitrary detentions were Uyghur muslims and other minority groups, “upwards of a million” according to human rights advocate Michael Caster.
Images alone cannot tell us whether despotism is taking place. Words like “totalitarian” and their implicit meaning were not widespread in the time of Mussolini. The aesthetic appearance that tyranny takes is as unpredictable as the choice of clothes the tyrant makes.
The mass detention and destructive campaign against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang is known to many, but fades in and out of public consciousness in the face of more eye-popping political drama. Perhaps Xi’s subdued profile is by design. Governments don’t necessarily want to advertise that they’re ethnically cleansing their country of a population. Trump’s antics make almost any leader seem stately in contrast. War crimes have passed the United States by because the commander in chief’s personality is the top story.
Continued in Part 2