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The Anatomy of Collapse

In Moscow, 1991, as in Beijing in 1989, eight hard liners made a last-ditch stand to preserve communism. Yet in both cases, the Communist party was left on the sidelines and no appeal was made for support in the name of Communist doctrine. Politics and persuasion were thrust aside in favor of force. The big difference in the two cases was that in Beijing in 1989, the chief reformer, Deng Xiaoping, sided with the hard liners. His authority was just sufficient to overcome divisions in the military and to engineer the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Conceivably, if Gorbachev had gone over to the Moscow plotters last month, the Communist system might have been preserved in the Soviet Union.

The collapse of communism in the motherland of the revolution is a devastating political and psychological blow to the gerontocratic leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But while the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) seems on the verge of extinction, the CCP has survived the challenge to its existence and has regrouped. Histories, chronologies, memoirs, documentary collections, and picture books have been streaming off Beijing’s presses to mark its seventieth birthday in July. Having made it past the second anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4 with only a few covert campus protests to justify their paranoid preparations, the ruling gerontocrats are celebrating their glory as never before.1

A visit to China this summer revealed a country unaffected by Soviet-style confusion and upheaval. The demonstrators of 1989 are imprisoned, silent, or abroad. Reform-minded intellectuals, resentful or resigned, are keeping silent as the regime attempts to track down and punish the last sympathizers of the student rebels. In strong contrast even to pre-coup Moscow, where the CPSU was hemorrhaging badly, Beijing has announced an increase in Party membership to over fifty million people. The CCP seems immune to the biblical mandate of “threescore years and ten.”

What accounts for the resilience of the CCP when East European Communist regimes have disintegrated and the CPSU, having already ceded much power to non-Communists, now seems to be on its last legs?

The essential difference between China and Eastern Europe is that China’s Communist regime is indigenous, the product of a domestically led military victory, not imposed by Soviet arms.2 Many Chinese dislike their government; the desire of intellectuals for democracy apart, dissatisfaction in urban China over corruption and inflation was clearly very high in 1989. But national liberation was not an issue as it was later that year in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

China’s aged leaders were offered a peaceful revolution by the students in the uprising of 1989, but they feared the emergence of an independent workers’ movement like Solidarity. They could have followed the inclinations of some senior colleagues and refrained from military suppression, as the East Germans did. Instead they chose what could be called a Romanian solution, but made it stick.

Why did they not follow Gorbachev in trying to turn political democracy to their own purposes? Here the explanation seems to depend on generations. Gorbachev is a fourth- or fifth-generation leader, who was not yet born when the Bolsheviks carried out their coup in 1917. He came to power to find that the Soviets had lost the sixty-year competition with the West, a competition which began with Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Without drastic economic reform, the regime that he had inherited would run down, and without political reform there was no hope of breaking through bureaucratic inertia and popular apathy that seventy years of Soviet rule had produced. Even when the going became rough, he knew that turning back would be even worse.

In China, by contrast, Deng was able to give new impetus to the economy during the 1980s by unleashing the peasantry from the burdens of Soviet-style collectivization. By 1989, despite serious problems with industrial reform, he could reasonably hope that a Communist-led China could be transformed into a powerful, modern state, without fundamental concessions being offered to political reformers. In this apparently promising situation there was no way that a first-generation revolutionary, who had been political commissar of one of the CCP’s victorious armies in the Civil War, and then further hardened by struggle during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, would hand over the fruits of a lifetime’s work to unarmed young people demonstrating peacefully in the streets.

What still needs explaining is why the monolithic Communist parties, from Berlin to Beijing, that were almost universally thought to be iron-disciplined, tightly organized, and self-perpetuating, nevertheless cracked. It is not difficult to identify the events—like the sudden death of the popular one-time general secretary Hu Yao-bang in China—that set off the challenge from below to the hitherto unchallengeable ruling parties. But why did they give way?

The model Stalinist state can be depicted as a totalitarian triangle, with a second triangle within it. At the apex of the outer triangle is the charismatic leader, the source of official inspiration and the person owed obedience. One side of the triangle supporting the apex is the bureaucracy of the Party-state, which executes the leader’s commands. The other side of the triangle is the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism (plus Mao Zedong Thought, in the Chinese case), which provides the leader’s legitimacy and is constantly supplemented by his ideas. The base of the triangle is the military, the ultimate guarantor of the entire structure. Inside this outer triangle is an inner one made up of the various police systems, which reinforce the ability of the outer triangle to keep society penned in.

In Eastern Europe, the domestic political structures contained alien elements. At the true apex of the triangles were not local satraps such as Honecker or Jaruzelski, but Gorbachev; it was he, not they, who interpreted Marxism-Leninism. And the ultimate guarantor of the regime was not the national army but the occupying Soviet Red Army. This was demonstrated most forcibly in the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, when the Communist premier Imre Nagy led an abortive attempt to take his country out of the Communist bloc in response to domestic nationalism. Satellite rulers never had a free hand in dealing with their societies, and were also subject to the overall policy concerns of Moscow. Brezhnev’s desire to pursue détente in the 1970s encouraged social groups in Eastern Europe to take the initiative under the umbrella of the Helsinki accords; Western credits became available to Poland but only in exchange for domestic liberalization, which encouraged the ferment that eventually produced Solidarity.3 When Gorbachev decided he had no choice but to abandon the Soviet empire, and, in particular, when it became clear that the Red Army would no longer bail out the Soviet satraps in trouble as it had in 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1979, the inner triangle alone proved insufficiently strong to keep on suppressing dissatisfied citizens.

In the Soviet Union, glasnost weakened the doctrinal side of the outer triangle, while perestroika weakened the bureaucratic side. Intellectuals, professionals, workers, ethnic minorities, even dissident members of the nomenklatura seized the chance to obtain greater freedom by taking advantage of the cracks in the monolith. Most Soviet citizens seemed agreed that anything is better than life within the triangular system. Their reaction to the coup proved this, and here was where the hard liners miscalculated.

But both in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the nationalist or intellectual dissidents seized opportunities that in all likelihood would not have existed without Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s decisions were the crucial ones: to allow Marxist-Leninist doctrine to be questioned, to encourage the bureaucracies to be attacked, and to withhold the use of force.4 While one respects the courage of, for instance, the Polish workers who spontaneously rose in 1970, 1976, and 1980, indicating the latent power of civil society, the monolithic triangles of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not explode as a result of intolerable social pressures from within; rather, they were shattered by blows delivered to them from the apex. It is here that the similarity with China emerges.

Spiritual pollution” from the West may have been among the factors that inspired the Tiananmen demonstrators, as the octogenarians of Beijing allege. But Western ideas were able to penetrate only because Mao and Deng had already weakened China’s totalitarian structure from above. In 1966, Mao unleashed popular social forces in the form of the student Red Guards against the bureaucrats of the Party-state. For several years afterward, the CCP had no institutional life, other than the fevered machinations of a few cabals of high-level officials. When the history of the period was rewritten after Mao’s death, it was even suggested that the CCP’s Ninth Congress be expunged from the record because some of the appointed delegates were not Party members.

In effect, Mao at the apex used two sides of the triangle—the weapon of his “Thought” and the support of the People’s Liberation Army—against the third, proposing ultimately to substitute the best of the Red Guards for the old Party bureaucracy. When internecine student warfare forced him to suppress the Red Guards, the PLA took over the Party’s functions. Mao and subsequently Deng had to struggle hard to get the PLA to relinquish its political power and allow a supposedly reborn Party to occupy its normal position.

But despite its formal rehabilitation and restoration, the CCP never recovered the authority and legitimacy it had before the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to see why. In one of his most famous articles, written in 1927 during his rural revolutionary years, Mao wrote:

Crowning” the landlords and parading them through the villages…. A tall paper-hat is stuck on the head of one of the local tyrants or evil gentry, bearing the words “Local tyrant so-and-so” or “So-and-so of the evil gentry.” He is led by a rope and escorted with big crowds in front and behind. Sometimes brass gongs are beaten and flags waved to attract people’s attention. This form of punishment more than any other makes the local tyrants and evil gentry tremble. Anyone who has once been crowned with a tall paperhat loses face altogether and can never again hold up his head.5

Anyone who saw the film The Last Emperor and remembers how the prison governor was paraded through the streets with other “counter-revolutionaries” in the Cultural Revolution sequence will recognize the tactic Mao describes.

It was not just disgraced leaders like Deng Xiaoping who lost face during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s; it was the CCP itself. Mao may have believed that he was simply purifying the Party of “counter-revolutionaries,” but to the “broad masses” the distinction between disgraced leaders and the organization they served was hard to perceive. If most US senators and congressmen were suddenly convicted of corruption and sent to federal prisons, the institution of Congress could hardly survive untarnished.

  1. 1

    So far they have had no nasty surprises such as Snow White, Blood Red, a strikingly honest history published in 1989, which caused its author Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Zhenglong to be imprisoned last year because he exposed CCP ruthlessness in one triumphant but ferocious civil war campaign in the late 1940s.

  2. 2

    Of course, the Comintern was heavily instrumental in forming and guiding the fledgling CCP, but once the Party had shifted to guerrilla warfare and especially after the rise of Mao, Moscow’s influence was marginal. However, the Soviets did give valuable assistance in Manchuria after World War II, at the outset of the Chinese civil war. Snow White, Blood Red has something to say about this, and the best source in English is Steven I. Levine, Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945–8 (Columbia University Press, 1987).

  3. 3

    See Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Macmillan, 1984), p. 19.

  4. 4

    Force has of course been used within the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, and not just interposed between interethnic violence, but directly against nationalists in Georgia and the Baltics. The difference was that, unlike in the past, its use was no longer assumed as inevitable, and therefore it no longer restrained dissidents as before.

  5. 5

    Report of an investigation of the peasant movement in Hunan,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), I, p. 37.

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