Amongst the various systems of governance, Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism have many adherents the world over. Both, authoritarian as well as totalitarian states have many similarities and some differences. This essay compares and contrasts current examples of an authoritarian state, Singapore, and a totalitarian state, China.
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The Little Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘authoritarian’ as “demanding strict obedience of authority and rulers” (42) and ‘totalitarian’ as “(of a system government) consisting of only one leader or party and having complete power and control over the people” (745). The dictionary meaning clearly encapsulates the basic similarity and the difference between both forms of government. Both forms of government emphasize ‘obedience’ as the guiding principle for governance. However, an authoritarian ruler may allow greater freedom, unlike a totalitarian government which demands total control. Totalitarianism is thus an extreme form of authoritarianism (Garner and Ferdinand 27). In an authoritarian state near-total power is concentrated in an individual or a party (Munroe 41) while in a totalitarian state “no interest falls outside the embrace of the state or the wielders of power that the purposes of individuals, groups, and society are subordinate to those of the state” (Curtis 5).
Authoritarian governments have a highly stratified political structure that works to ensure strict obedience to the country’s laws. Singapore, though a parliamentary democracy with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary system of government has been ruled by the People’s Action Party (PAP) since it won self-governance from Britain in 1959. Though there are opposition parties in the country, these have a marginal effect on policy formulations of the state. In an authoritarian system, the leader acquires overriding powers and usually rules for a long period of time till he is deposed or chooses a successor, or perpetuates a dynastic rule. In Singapore, Goh Chok Tong became the Prime Minister taking over from Lee Kuan Yew in 1990 who was then replaced by Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son. Thus Singapore has followed the classical characteristic of an authoritarian regime when it comes to leadership issues. While Garner and Ferdinand may have classified China to be an authoritarian regime (33), others have more convincingly classified China to be a totalitarian state. In a totalitarian state, the leader or the political party enjoys absolute power and no opposition parties are allowed to exist. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ruled China since the civil war in 1949. The CCP has an opaque system of electing its leaders and is a strict hierarchy based. The Chairman of the Communist Party of China and the CCP has absolute power and most of the leaders chosen remain in office till ripe old age. China was governed by Mao Tse Tung from 1949 to 1976 until his death. Leaders chosen thereafter have generally been long-lasting. In a totalitarian system, the leader of the political party is the main reason for the state to survive. In China too, the main aim of the government is to ensure the continuance of CCP rule.
All states have ideologies, but in the case of authoritarian and totalitarian states, these ideologies are state-sanctioned ideologies. While in the case of an authoritarian state, the government may have an overriding ideology, it may allow other forms of thinking to exist in the state as long as such ideologies do not impinge upon state policies and the smooth functioning of the administration. In Singapore, the state’s ideology has rested on authoritarianism in the early years which has changed to ‘Communitarianism’ in recent times (Chua 10-11). Singapore’s leaders believe in a ‘guided democracy’ steeped in Confucianism as the recipe for its economic success. In a totalitarian state, the state ideology is the only ideology permitted demanding “total conformity, and seek[s] total control” (Rejai 72). The Chinese revolution gave rise to a totalitarian state (Rejai 228) with Marxist-Leninist ideology as interpreted by Mao Tse Tung in his Little Red Book becoming the guiding ideology of the state. The present-day CCP while downplaying Mao’s aphorisms has kept the central ideology based on Marxism-Leninism intact albeit, modifying it to ensure steady economic progress.
Tools – Relationship with the Armed Forces, Police, and the Secret Service
All authoritarian governments maintain a stronghold over their armed forces, police, and secret services. Higher leadership of the armed forces is carefully groomed and picked at an early stage itself to ensure obedience to government policies. Singapore too follows this model strictly. To ensure that no armed forces leader becomes an entrenched power broker, the Singapore government has deliberately kept the age profile of its defense leadership young ostensibly, to keep military leadership ‘dynamic’. The officers of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) retire by the age of 50 (Chow 1) while the world average is 60 in any other democratic country. Totalitarian governments magnify the degree of control over its armed forces, paramilitary and secret service. Totalitarian governments understand that such a stranglehold is necessary since it is only the armed forces that have the wherewithal to challenge their supremacy. To ensure, complete obedience, totalitarian systems involve the leaders of the armed forces in governance to the extent possible so as to keep them happy and satisfied at the same time ensuring that strict obedience is maintained at lower levels of the military hierarchy. In China, the military is part of the political system. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is directly controlled by the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the CCP. Usually, the Chairman CCP also holds the chairmanship of the CMC or ensures that the chairmanship is held by a trusted colleague. Despite the fact that Communist ideology calls for egalitarianism, in practice, the CCP ensures that the leaders of the PLA are comfortably ensconced with their business prospects well looked after including prospects for their siblings. The police and secret service serve to enforce the government’s rules, censorship, and control over the masses, where fear is the key.
Relationship with the Society
In an authoritarian state, the government apparatus is concerned with strict obedience to its laws and allows little or no participation of the common citizen in the administrative processes of the government. The authoritarian state however does not usually dictate morality, social conduct, and religious beliefs of its citizens except where they clash with the laid down rules of the government. In Singapore, the government does not interfere with the religious or human rights of its citizens or their social conduct. They, however, are quite strict in enforcing certain civic behavior such as banning chewing gum except for therapeutic purposes (Prystay), littering, spitting, spray paint for which hefty fines and corporal punishment is meted out without exception (Branigin). In a totalitarian state, the state tries to completely eclipse the society (Garner and Ferdinand 29) and transform it to adhere to its ideology. All forms of social conduct are closely monitored and the transformation of the society strives through propaganda, coercive use of state power, harsh punishments, and almost no respect for normally held perceptions of Human rights. The development of charismatic cult personality either around a particular leader or the party as a whole is an operative principle in a totalitarian state, though authoritarian states can also resort to such strategies (Garner and Ferdinand 51). In Singapore, it was the ‘non-nonsense charismatic leadership of Lee Kuan Yew which was projected as the means for Singapore’s success and in China, after Mao Tse Tung, Jiang Zemin, the President of China from 1993 to 2003, was projected as a charismatic strong and ruthless leader. Jiang cleverly used the media and propaganda to project an image of a firm, well-meaning leader. Jiang’s persecution of Falun Gong practitioners has been likened to genocide and crimes against humanity (WOIPFG 1). It comes as no surprise that a ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’ can only happen in a totalitarian state such as China that leads the world tally for the highest number of executions with around 8000 people being executed annually (Guangze 39).
Control Over Economy
In an authoritarian state, control over the economy is not as restrictive as it is in a totalitarian system. In fact, in an authoritarian government, economic practices obey norms of market dynamics with economists and industry players having considerable leeway in deciding their future course of action. Singapore has followed this model with great success transforming a once dusty outpost in South East Asia into an economic powerhouse. This approach contrasts strikingly with a totalitarian government where the government controls every aspect of economic activity and maintains strict control over all aspects of the economy. China too follows this approach without exception. In the early years, the CCP’s socialist economic practices brought on disastrous famines during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ from 1958 to 1961. The CCP under Deng Xiaoping learned its lessons and initiated market reforms which have seen a stupendous double-digit annual growth in GDP of China albeit, with strict central control.
In conclusion, it can be stated that both authoritarian and totalitarian states share many commonalities and differences. Singapore, an authoritarian state, and China, a totalitarian state share many of these characteristics. While Singapore strives to perpetuate a ‘guided democracy’ based on Confucian ideology, China is attempting to steer its country maintaining its interpretation of Marxist-Leninist ideology under modern economic imperatives. While Singapore does not attempt to mold its society, China believes in transforming its citizens in ways acceptable to the CCP. Singapore’s nuanced but firm grip over its armed forces contrasts with China’s absolute control over its forces. In the final analysis, it can be stated that both authoritarian and totalitarian states rely on authority as the overriding precept of governance. While in the case of authoritarian states this authority is selectively applied, in totalitarian states, the application of such state authority is absolute.
Angus, Stevenson, Julia Elliott and Jones Richard, The Little Oxford English Dictionary. Eighth. NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Branigin, William. “Singapore Sets New Caning Sentence.”1994. High Beam Research. Web.
Chow, Jermin. “SAF Officers to Retire at 50.” 2009. StraitsTimes. Web.
Chua, Beng-Huat. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. NY: Routledge, 1997.
Curtis, Michael. Totalitarianism. NJ: Transanction Publishers, 1979.
Garner, Robert and Peter Ferdinand. Introduction to Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
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Guangze, Wang. “The Mystery of China’s Death Penalty Figures.” HRIC. Web.
Munroe, Trevor. An Introduction to Politics: Lectures for First-year Students. Traverse City, MI: Canoe Press, 2002.
Prystay, Chris. “At Long Last, Gum is Legal in S’pore, But There are Strings.” 2004. Asian Wall Street Journal. Web.
Rejai, Mostafa. Political Ideologies: A Comparative Approach. NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995.