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…

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