Written by Kerry Brown.
Anniversaries matter to the Communist Party of China (CPC) – or at least, the right kind of anniversaries. In September last year, massed lines of new military equipment swept through the streets of Beijing, marking the seventieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in Asia. Five years into the future, in 2021, the Party is already preparing itself for, at least in its eyes, a much more significant date – the hundredth year since its foundation. No doubt, in the inner recesses of the Zhongnanhai government compound at the moment, there is already a small group working on the details of what festivities will be held to usher this moment in.
There is one anniversary, however, which is not likely to be marked, but in some ways is even more significant than any of this. This will be the moment some time in 2024 when the Communist Party of China overtakes the Party in the Soviet Union which ruled for 74 years from 1917 to 1991, to become the world’s longest running one-party system conducted on Marxist-Leninist principles to have stayed in power.
The narrative in Europe, North America, and what is loosely called “the West” remains to this day that the collapse of Communism in the USSR was broadly a good thing. In these narratives, final victory is credited, in particular, to US president Ronald Reagan’s mixture of guile and patience in engaging with Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ in the mid-1980s.
For the Chinese, however, ever since the collapse happened in 1991, assessments have been much more complicated. And while they are often dismissed outside China as emanating from defensiveness on the part of the Party leadership in Beijing who, of course, would be deeply unsettled to see a fellow adherent of Communism disappear (particularly one as significant as the USSR, despite the often fractious and difficult relations between the two), no-one could deny that Chinese analysts have thought longer, in more detail and more deeply about why the events of 1991 happened. There is a very simple reason for this: as a system of governance from the same stable, it has been very much in their interests to look hard at what mistakes the USSR might have made and then do everything to avoid them.
If one wanted to supplement the reasons behind the visceral distaste for what happened to Communism in Russia, then one only needs to read through Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich’s verbatim accounts of people who took part in the process and its aftermath in her monumental `Second-Hand Time’, recently translated into English. There, Russian participants in the events of the 1980s into the 1990s and 2000s from all levels of life reflect on how quickly, and completely, Communism disappeared. For some, Gorbachev was just a gadfly who wanted to appease foreigners, particularly the Americans. For others, the country had already lost its soul and was receiving some kind of perverse divine retribution. One thing is very striking about almost all the stories that Alexievich gives: very few, if any, were particularly happy. Communism’s collapse, after the initial euphoria, led to the breakdown of welfare, social dislocation, the fragmentation of the Soviet empire, and a reduced Russia that lost much of its status in the world.
If this is the path that a major Communist system has to travel once the ruling party disintegrates, it is not surprising that the Chinese have proved willing to do anything possible to ensure it does not happen in their own country. The question, “What do Chinese leaders believe?”, is an oft-asked one. Replies are invariably diverse. But all of them would certainly sign up to the proposition that “The collapse of the Party in the Soviet Union was not a good thing.” And they would also commit to the purpose of making sure it never happens to them. The question is: can they be sure that it won’t?
One thing that is distinctive about Xi Jinping’s leadership since 2012 is that the Party has been at the heart of almost everything he has done. He does not seem to be a leader enormously interested in economic strategy per se. The economy is only important in so far as it supports political objectives. And these are very simple ones: to make one-party rule sustainable in China. If Xi can be said to have a mandate in one sentence, then this is it. He is the man who has to ensure that the CPC breaks the 74 year record, and goes on to reach its second centennial goal – 100 years in power by 2049.
If Xi does manage to build the foundations to do that, then his historic position will be a considerable one. In effect, he will have helped create in China a system that has broken the rules of modernity: the idea that after a certain amount of wealth creation within a society, systems tend, one way or another, to become more pluralistic, and space is created for competition amongst different groups for power, and participation amongst citizens for choosing who gets to be in power. The Party under Xi has resolutely set itself against this idea of some kind of incremental change happening, in which the CPC one day delicately opens up the governance system and cedes space to others. On the contrary, language against such a possibility has grown even harsher and been enforced even more resolutely.
At the moment, despite residual commitment to modernization theories, even the most skeptical analysts have to wonder whether the CPC does have a chance to forge this unique future for itself. Xi’s power looks secure, the system looks all conquering, and the Party, by fair means or foul, seems to control all it sees. But, going back to Alexievich’s book, Chinese leaders might pause a moment to look at some of the testimony there which shows how sure people were in the 1980s that the Soviet Union was sustainable and that it was able to endure. For them, the events of 1991 came out of a clear blue sky.
This is a haunting thought, and perhaps one that explains why in Xi’s China treatment of heretics and dissidents has become so harsh. This is small comfort to those who have been dealt with recently, but the draconian treatment meted out on them does not mean that they are regarded as wrong, but that their words and influence are even more feared.