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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Posted: November 8, 2009 04:47 PM

The German Wall That Fell - And the Chinese Regime That Didn't

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How is it that a Communist Party organized along Leninist lines remains in charge in Beijing so long after its counterparts in cities such as Budapest and Bucharest were toppled? Why hasn't there been a sequel to the Tiananmen Uprising, ending this time not in a massacre like that of June 4, 1989, but in China getting with the program of the trend that some two decades ago Ken Jowitt dubbed memorably (even if somewhat inaccurately as it turned out) the "Leninist Extinction"?

I get asked questions like these whenever I give public talks about China. So, naturally, they are among the key ones that I try to answer in China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, my forthcoming contribution to a new Oxford University Press series, all the works in which have the same subtitle.

This post isn't an excerpt from the book, which will be organized around concise answers to commonly asked questions. Instead, the following paragraphs focus on the considerable strengths and also a couple of weakenesses of a recent publication that I find it very helpful to have on hand whenever I grapple with the puzzle of the longevity of the Beijing regime: David Shambaugh's China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (University of California Press).

Written by a high-profile political scientist and published in hard cover in 2008 and then in a paperback edition this year, Shambaugh's book is a very fitting one to turn to just now, as the media is filled with retrospective looks at the last days of the Berlin Wall. Why? Because the destruction of that great Cold War symbol, more than any of the other wondrous events of 1989, inspired the erroneous belief that the days of all Communist Party regimes were about to end (they live on not just in China but also Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea). And because Shambaugh provides one of the best accounts yet of the post-1989 reinvention of the Chinese Communist Party that has kept China a Leninist country during what many assumed would be a post-Leninist era -- not just for Europe, but for the world. He sheds important light, in other words, on why, when speaking of China, we need to think not of a Leninist Extinction but rather a Leninist Mutation.

As the book's subtitle suggests, China's Communist Party emphasizes the need to think of the current regime in dualist terms, as an entity that combines rigidity and even paranoia on some matters (the "atrophy" part of the equation) with breathtaking openness and flexibility in other domains, especially economic but sometimes also cultural ones (the "adaptation" part). 2009's global China headlines have illustrated beautifully the Janus-faced nature of today's CCP. For example, there were reports last spring of the Party refusing to admit that a June 4th massacre occurred (score one for rigidity), and also accounts of the regime ramping up of security measures to ensure that the 20th anniversary of this alleged non-event was not publicly commemorated in China (score one for paranoia). But there are also stories in June about how dramatically lifestyles in China and the countries place in the global economic order have shifted since 1989. In rapid succession, just before the highly charged June 4th anniversary date, the New York Times ran a piece called "To Shut Off Tiananmen Talk, China Disrupts Sites" (June 2), but just after it, the same paper carried one called "What Would Mao Drive? A Little Red...Hummer"(June 7).

The weakest parts of Shambaugh's book are the work's opening and closing chapters, which try to show that his take on the Party's capacity for reinvention is distinctive. These are likely to have a tedious inside baseball feel to general readers (due to all the names of scholars tossed out), while leaving those of us in the field wondering why he spends so much energy debunking the view that China is about to spiral into chaos or democratize (notions that are much less prevalent in specialist circles now than they were twenty, ten, or even five years ago). Experts do differ on many specifics, including terminology (should the regime be described as "muddling through" or "resilient," is China a "rising" or "fragile" superpower, etc.), but a pretty broad consensus has emerged on the Party. Namely, that it's changed in some ways but not others since 1989; it is intensely concerned with retaining its monopoly on power while developing the economy; and it doesn't seem likely to fall anytime soon. Shambaugh disputes none of these claims.

Where the book shines, by contrast, is in middle chapters that explore a crucial but sometimes under-appreciated aspect of the Party's secret to longevity. This is its determined effort to figure out why exactly comparable ruling organizations, from Leninist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe to Mexico's PRI, eventually fell, and glean tips for survival from places such as Singapore where authoritarian systems have endured. Could the East German Communists have stayed in control longer if the same consumer goods had been available on both sides of the Wall and intellectuals were allowed more freedom to travel? What can China do to minimize the likelihood of "color revolutions" like those that recently broke out in Central Asia? Shambaugh shows how seriously government think tanks in Beijing have taken questions of this sort.

These chapters are illuminating, but I wish they'd been followed by another set devoted to Chinese history. Today's Party leaders are aware that combining aspects of Confucianism with economic development drives is something Chiang Kai-shek tried, with little success before and much success after his 1949 forced retreat to Taiwan. And the ongoing campaign against Falun Gong is influenced by official awareness that various ruling groups in the Chinese past found popular religious movements very troublesome. In crafting its mix-and-match strategy for staying on top, as these two examples suggest (and many more could be offered), the regime looks to different eras as well as different lands for both pitfalls to avoid and models to emulate.

This is one reason why, as valuable as I found it to consult Shambaugh when writing my own book, I also moved in some very different directions in the sections of China in the 21st Century that explore the complex dynamic that has allowed the Chinese Communist Party to become, in a sense, the Mark Twain of ruling parties. That is, one that can say that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.