The 19th Communist Party Congress this week in Beijing supposedly showcases the party’s unique approach to governing a society that other countries can learn from. Perhaps. But go back to South Africa circa 1983, and the approach might seem familiar.

In apartheid era South Africa, a Western visitor usually heard an explanation of the situation that went something like: “I tell you man…these blacks… they don’t understand democracy… they’re not ready for it… they respect power. Without us, man, there’ll be chaos.”

Replace ‘blacks’ with ‘Chinese’ and it’s a Chinese Communist Party apparatchik describing today’s China.

The premise underlying both systems? Populations genetically unsuited for consensual government and hence harsh rule by a governing clique being the only alternative to chaos.

Just like South Africa’s old Afrikaner-based National Party, the CCP fiercely refuses to allow citizens a fair say in who governs them.

Paramilitary police raise fists to the Communist Party of China flag ahead of the National Congress, Nov. 5, 2012. Photo: Reuters/China Daily
Paramilitary police raise fists to the Communist Party of China flag ahead of the National Congress, Nov. 5, 2012. Photo: Reuters/China Daily

One also heard South Africans declare: “The white man built this country…” and therefore deserved to rule it. Not so different than CCP boasts of pulling several hundred million Chinese out of poverty and creating modern cities, and therefore being rightly in control.

Sounds believable, but the CCP also impoverished them in the first place – and a more liberal government would have pulled a billion Chinese out of poverty. To improve matters in China, all the CCP did was stop starving its citizens to death.

Indeed, it’s never anything the government does that’s wrong.

In apartheid-era South Africa’s case: ‘Our blacks are happy… It’s the communists stirring them up.’ In China, one hears the same thing about ‘Western ideas’ doing the agitating.

Under apartheid in South Africa one could get in trouble for having dangerous thoughts about freedom and equality, just like today’s China. In South Africa there was banishment to remote villages. China has its equivalent.

Under apartheid in South Africa one could get in trouble for having dangerous thoughts about freedom and equality, just like today’s China. In South Africa there was banishment to remote villages. China has its equivalent.

If banishment wasn’t enough you could disappear – sometimes for good, courtesy of South Africa’s Civil Cooperation Bureau. Same thing in China.

And sometimes the ‘disappearing’ took place in plain sight. In black activist Steve Biko’s case, beaten to death by the police. In poet and human rights defender, Liu Xiaobo’s case, denied life-saving medical care by the Chinese authorities who imprisoned him.

Screenshot of footage released on Youtube of Liu Xiaobo in an unknown location.
Screenshot of footage released on Youtube of Liu Xiaobo in an unknown location.

South Africa had censorship, though by Beijing’s standards it was nothing much, and a vibrant opposition press operated. The Afrikaner regime’s censors would have admired what the Chinese Communist Party and its security police do with (and to) the Internet to isolate Chinese citizens from unauthorized thought.

And Beijing’s ability to get foreign media and academia to “self censor” would have been an enviable achievement to the South Africans.

Both regimes were obsessed with internal security and spent huge resources and effort to tamp down local unrest.

So-called subversive university students were a particular target of South Africa’s BOSS (Bureau of State Security). Not so different than Chinese consulates, Confucius Institutes, and local Chinese Students and Scholars Association groups intimidating Chinese students overseas.

“Pass Books” in South Africa told Africans where they were entitled to be. The Hukou registration system mandates where Chinese citizens can live.

“Pass Books” in South Africa told Africans where they were entitled to be. The Hukou registration system mandates where Chinese citizens can live.

South Africa also used economic pressure on its neighbors for political ends. Sound familiar?

And it went farther, supporting insurgency and sabotage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola. Meanwhile, Beijing economically bullies its neighbors, while backing rebels in Myanmar and Northeast India.

South Africa had something called the Broederbond – an all-male Afrikaner association that provided career and social advantages to members. Not so different than joining the Chinese Communist Party to improves one’s lot in life.

But there are differences. For example, there is no Chinese Nelson Mandela. He wouldn’t have survived the trip to Robben Island. And the apartheid government had plenty of outspoken opponents such as Desmond Tutu and Helen Suzman inside the country. In China?

... Nelson Mandela ...
Nelson Mandela meeting Fidel Castro.

South Africa also had a legal system and some fiercely independent judges. China’s legal system is something out of George Orwell.

South Africa also had real opposition parties and elections, free enough for those allowed to participate. And China?

But the biggest difference between South Africa under apartheid and today’s China is the response of Western elites.

With South Africa, the response was sanctions, divestment, and human rights campaigns.

With China, it’s mostly, ‘Now about that donation to our think-tank… or that investment in our nuclear plants?’ Or the US military equivalent: ‘You are coming to RIMPAC, aren’t you?’

But just like Africans, Chinese aren’t allergic to liberty. Look at Taiwan.

South Africa was fortunate to have F.W. De Klerk (as Afrikaner as they came) appear on the scene and negotiate for elections and an end to apartheid.

China has only got a version of De Klerk’s predecessor, P.W. Botha.

So when watching the 19th Party Congress, keep in mind 1983 Pretoria as to how things are. While Taipei 2017 shows how they could be.