The Autocrats’ Learning Curve

How the fall of the Berlin Wall was the best thing that ever happened to the Chinese Communist Party.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

This fall, the world will mark the 60th and 20th anniversaries of two of the biggest events in communism’s history. And though both dates will be marked with jubilation, the anniversaries being celebrated could not be more different. On Oct. 1, massive festivities in Beijing will commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) rise to power. Then, in early November, events will be held in Germany to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the obliteration of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

This juncture makes for an interesting reflection on the perils of prediction. Growing up during the Cold War, it seemed to me as if the Berlin Wall and the divisions it symbolized might last forever. The CCP, however, looked doomed to die by the early 1990s, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and June 4 massacre triggered a massive legitimacy crisis. Celebrating a 50th birthday in power looked like a pipe dream, let alone a 60th.

What turned the tides? It’s impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, the CCP went from looking like it was on its last legs to looming as a global force majeure. But in fact, the mistaken predictions of my generation may have had much to do with it — and with events in Berlin as well.

I learned why a decade ago, at a Budapest conference devoted to revisiting the end of the wall. After a presentation by a group of American print and broadcast journalists, including New York Times writers Flora Lewis and R.W. Apple Jr., Central European University historian István Rév made a comment that, to him, was off the cuff, but to many of us was stunningly profound. The journalists had expressed pride in how they had described and analyzed breaking news events 10 years earlier. But they lamented their failure to predict sooner the dramatic changes these protests would yield. They failed to foresee that the marches and rallies were not just newsworthy — they were of great historical consequence.

Rév, however, thanked the journalists for their "failure" to predict; he and the countless others who had longed for change owed them a debt of gratitude for their lack of clairvoyance. Living under Communist Party rule, he said, taught people that taking actions deemed of "world historical importance" would end in bloodshed. In essence, if the world had believed the wall would come down, many ordinary citizens in communist-run parts of Europe would have stayed home, fearing that the governments of the Iron Curtain would act forcefully to crush their protests. What happened instead was that the world’s disbelief in radical change emboldened the participants in the European upheaval of 1989. Ironically, the marches’ perceived futility helped make the year’s miracles possible.

That conference in Budapest led me to a different but complementary conclusion about prediction relating to China. Namely, one reason the CCP had endured was that, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, its demise had seemed so inevitable.

China, unlike the Eastern European states, had early warning that its regime was about to fall; the entire world seemed to know it. That sense of urgency made Chinese leaders avid students of the Soviet Union’s downfall. The CCP charged official think tanks with discovering the keys to maintaining a monopoly on power, while avoiding the fate of erstwhile counterparts in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, and Moscow.

What did the Chinese researchers learn? First, that Europe’s 1989 unrest was fueled by patriotism — a desire to rid their countries of regimes imposed from outside. Protesters in Europe also had a potent mix of economic and political grievances. Those in charge had claimed that Marxist regimes could compete with capitalist ones in material terms, but the night-and-day contrast between the creature comforts available on the two sides of the wall revealed the hollowness of this boast. Finally, Eastern Europe’s movements spread quickly because nearly everyone — regardless of their class — felt they were in the same boat. The only meaningful social divide was between a small privileged coterie of corrupt officials and the rest. And the rest was pretty much everyone.

It should be no surprise, then, that CCP leaders took steps to counter each of these lessons throughout the 1990s. They placed renewed emphasis on patriotic education, stressing the party’s pre-1949 role in chasing out foreign invaders. As an antidote to a widespread sense of economic privation, a consumer revolution began, minimizing the contrast between the lifestyles enjoyed by the relatively well-off residents in booming mainland cities and their counterparts in capitalist Taiwan. Perhaps most importantly, China made itself less susceptible to the "Polish disease," a term for the cross-class mobilization associated with the Solidarity movement, coined originally in East Germany and eventually made popular in Beijing policy circles. The CCP oversaw an economic boom that created an urban social landscape far more diverse than that of dissident Poland — and that of China itself when the Tiananmen protests won broad sympathy in 1989.

Of course, many other factors, including the actions of key individuals such as Mikhail Gorbachev in the Berlin Wall’s case and Deng Xiaoping in China’s case, need to be taken into account to fully explain history’s unfolding as it did. Still, in preparing for this fall’s anniversaries, the irony of prediction is worth remembering. One reason the Berlin Wall fell was because it once seemed so likely to endure. And one reason China’s Communist Party has endured is that it once seemed so certain to fail.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; editor of the Journal of Asian Studies; and author, most recently, of the forthcoming book China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.