Why Aren't We Seeing the End of the Communist Party in China?

News Abroad

Mr. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service, and the author of China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times (2007).

In the spring of 1989, giant crowds marched through the streets of China's cities, demanding an end to official corruption and more political freedom. Inspired by the spectacle of these dramatic demonstrations, foreign observers predicted that the days of the Chinese Communist Party were numbered. And yet, as we mark the 18th anniversary of the brutal June 4 Massacre, which put an end to 1989's student-led protests, the party remains in power.

The party's own actions have helped it stay in control. By making the surprising move of accepting entrepreneurs into its ranks, it has co-opted a potentially threatening group, and it has pulled back from micromanaging many aspects of private life, a cause of much discontent in the 1980s.

But the party has also gotten lucky breaks in the international arena and been helped by unexpected post-1989 developments in the wider world. In the early 1990s, Russia's decline and Yugoslavia's free-fall into chaos benefited the Chinese Communists. These phenomena allowed the party to say to the Chinese people, in effect: "You may be sick of Communism, but there seems to be something worse out there -- post-Communism."

Closer to home, the crisis sparked by North Korea's nuclear ambitions has helped the party too. North Korea is a Communist state led by the notoriously erratic Kim Jong-Il. It is isolated from most other nations but has long had close ties to China. Whenever Kim behaves outrageously, the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea appeal to the Chinese Communists for help, treating Beijing as the world's best hope for keeping Pyongyang in check. This allows the party to say to the Chinese people that it has been successful in raising China's status in the realm of global diplomacy.

The general instability of 21st-century geopolitics has also bolstered the party. One argument the party uses to convince the Chinese people that it should remain in control is that, in times of global unrest, nations without strong, stable governments become vulnerable to being bullied or even invaded.

How much longer can the party defy the predictions of its imminent demise that were so common in 1989? This question is impossible to answer with certainty, but recent history tells us one thing. The party's fate will continue to depend not just on what happens inside of China but also what happens in the unpredictable world that lies beyond its borders.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Arnold Shcherban - 6/12/2007

If not the threat of American imperialism, its constant interference in the internal affairs
of the sovereign countries of Indochina, and agressive stance, especially in its current incarnation, the North Korea would have been as peaceful as China and would never go nuclear.
As it concerns what some called "Chinese fascism", the current regime in China is of course
semi-totalitarian, but in its foreign policy it is a sheep comparing to the US tiger. It's the latter's policy that is openly fascist.

Fahrettin Tahir - 6/8/2007

I admit it is not the US perspective of the west = always good guys, others= always bad guys, sometimes it is the other way around. There being only two views of the world, yours and the wrong one, which you call twisted and inaccurate. Blogs being a way for different views to discuss, simply see that an entirely different view of the world than what you watch on US TV is possible.

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/6/2007

isn't the greater concern in china that a nuclear north korea will make japan go nuclear and re-militarize in general?

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/6/2007

your commments are truly twisted and historically inaccurate.

Fahrettin Tahir - 6/3/2007

Jason, Spanish imperialism robbed the Inka gold in the 16th century, this was what made Europe boom to become the leading continent. Imperialism is robbing arab oil, this is what made capitalism in the 2oth century so succesful. Without imperialism nobody would bother noticing England and France. There is no historic example of an economy inhibited by lack of freedom. It is true that the Soviet Union collapsed but that was because they spent 60 years arming up to a level which was beyond any economic reason. The USSR was most succesful as Stalin was slaughtering people by the millions. You and I might not like imperialism or fascism but fact is sometimes they work much better than democracy and liberty. Of course there are questions like whom do they work for, but they are not adressed here, just the question why the system does not collapse. It does not collapse because it delivers the goods, after all they have suffered under Mao the chinese are thankful for what they are getting.

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/2/2007

your comments don't really make very much sense. especially the first paragraph. the question is : why aren't we seeing the end of the communist party in china? my response is that part of the answer rests in the parasitic relationship totalitarian societies have to democratic and capitalistic societies. china's lack of freedom will inhibit its economy and its economy will inhibit giving freedom to its people.

fascism and imperialism do not work. freedom and liberty do.

Fahrettin Tahir - 5/30/2007

My company is being blackmailed by her customers to resource to China and further fuel the Chinese boom, so they can increase their profits. So who are exactly the useful idiots?

Fact is, the Chinese are mastering all the technologies the West uses. Japan also started this way, until she became better than the West, the only difference is the speed with which the Chinese are learning. Over time the wealth will trickle down in the usual manner of capitalist economies.

Daniel Buck - 5/30/2007

This is the Party's last chance, in my opinion. I totally agree with your main points, especially that the majority of Chinese fear chaos, having had to endure much of it.

But the rural/urban difference is solidifying, in many ways, and this is a huge danger. 'The peasants are revolting' is a saying that could be translated into Chinese in two ways, and both would describe general attitudes. I've lived on both sides of the divide in China, and found both promising and disturbing things in both. Rural people are gradually (but not nearly quickly enough!) getting better educations, and the standard of living is rising. Rich urban dwellers, on the other hand, forget where they came from in just one generation's time. If you're a sales manager for a multinational corporation, but remember when your family had two chickens and a pig and was considered rich (and might have been beaten publicly for such affluence), that influences your outlook. If you're the son or daughter of that sales manager, and you've grown up with HD TVs, BMWs, and PlayStations, it's easy enough to forget about the chickens and the pig.

Many of the Chinese nouveau riche are ashamed of their backgrounds, and don't like to talk about them, even shield their children from them. I find that the urban kids I teach know next to nothing about life in the countryside, whereas the country kids all know what you can do in the big cities. It's very depressing sometimes. There's also the 'me me me' attitude of only children amplified by the responsibility of taking care of all those elders, which is such a great deal of stress that it is nearly unbelievable. I would love to see a comparative poll of China, and a more laid-back country like, say, Italy, of how many 12-year-olds have grey hair. I've seen far too many over here.

The Party has to fix this crap now. They are the only ones with the power to do so. The question is whether they are able, and willing, to do so. And, of course, how. Any ideas?

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/30/2007

the coastal cities of china are experiencing a boom, but the majority of china's population are not. thus, the boom is actually reinforcing totalitarian rule, not working against it, as the minority would feel they had much to lose from enfranchising the poor majority. these fears are well founded. at best, one couldd hope that this minoirty would develop an appreciation for liberal democracy, which provides majority rights but also protects individual liberty against tyranny.

china's essential role in keeping north korea at bay works to suppress criticism of china's dictatorship. north korea could not destroy the world with one bomb, but its use of one bomb could initiate a nuclear war. to point out the truth about the absence of freedom in china would cause china's prickly leaders to walk off in a huff.

the absence of freedom is a significant cause of misery and china is doing very little to remedy human misery in that regard. as for its economic boom, china is wholey dependent upon the united states and other capitalist countries (including, indirectly taiwan) to create and invent and innovate. in this sense, then, the capitalist world is still doing what it did during the cold war: subsidizing communist dictatorship and allowing useful idiots within the west to attribute the success made possible by the capitalist west to the dictatorship itself.

Daniel Buck - 5/28/2007

Full disclosure: I am writing this from Beijing. What follows is anecdotal.

I'm over here, trying to make sense of it all. I live with it every day. There are, I think, some very positive and very negative trends happening all at once, and if you want to understand any of them, you need to look at China's long history, and understand that the leadership is in fact historically minded.

The good news: Many people are thinking. The average Chinese, in my experience, knows far more than the average American that the government is corrupt and out to screw you. People do not trust Chinese government papers much, and if they speak English, routinely turn to Western sources of information. As for Mr. Hu, he is a long shot from Mao. Ideological bsing (like the "Three Represents") is taking a major blow compared with making the country work. Almost every Chinese person I know and work with supports doing whatever possible to lift people out of poverty.

The bad news: Japan. If you fear Chinese fascism, then realize, should the Chinese suddenly become irrational, that Japan is the first target. If North Korea nukes Japan, China's response will be a golf clap. Muted praise. That's why the history dispute is very important. I meet people daily who are very rational when it comes to other economic and political issues, but who become frothing fascist idiots on the subject of Japan. The common impression is that Japan doesn't do enough to atone for its war crimes. Germany is held up as a counter-example. But, since anti-Japanese nationalism is such a mainstay of support for the government (any Chinese government), the question is whether the Japanese can ever atone at all, no matter what they do?

Anyway, I'll stay here and see what happens. The economy is growing, and there is more or less peace in the Middle Kingdom. Weirdo cults have been subdued; there is little eunuch influence in government. Could be the story of many successful dynasties. I'll let you know how it goes.


jack quon - 5/28/2007

At the core of Chinese society is an instinctive fear of chaos. The long history of the middle kingdom is an instructive reminder that 'dynastic' regime change usually entails war, pestilence, starvation, dislocation and death. For all the ills of the Communist Party, the regime has delivered stability combined with fairly orderly transitions of power (since the 1980's) as compared to the time of the Emporer's.

How long the desire for stability remains a core component of the chinese mentality, no one knows.

What we do know is that the Communist leaders under a new generation has continued to provide economic opportunities to an elite core which has trickled down to many urban dwellers. This experiment in controlled market capitalism is not with out risks. Can the Communists deal effectively with growing imbalances between rural and urban? Can the Communists address another core of chinese society, bureacratic corruption (guanxi), to the satisfaction of the populace?

If one is looking for signs of the Party's decline and possible replacement, they should look no further than these challenges facilitating/fomenting the chaos which the Chinese will not bear under any circumstance.

Fahrettin Tahir - 5/28/2007

Why should the communists leave power when they are giving China the biggest economic boom in human history? They are pulling not only their own people but also Africa out of misery.

North Korea is going to destroy the world??? Are they going to use one atom bomb or their entire arsenal of two?

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/28/2007

china is a dictatorship but no one routinely calls it one. at present, the rest of the world doesn't seem to want to acknowledge as much. no one in america calls it one. and the rest of the world is happy to have it grow in power hoping that it will return us to a bi-polar world where the u.s. is not the only super power.

china blackmails the world with nuclear destruction via its proxy North Korea - which couldn't exist without Chinese support. to turn up the "set your people free" rhetoric (or at least talk about what china IS as opposed to what it one day "will be") might make china less inclined to restrain North Korea.

we are simply repeating history here. the same thing was done with the soviets - constantly looking for signs of reform from totalitarians more than willing to give signs of reform to hornswaggle its gullible western audience, all the while holding nuclear annihilation over the heads of the world if you don't accept the continuation of its sick system.