Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, predictions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was next became in fashion. While the “pessimists” have made careers predicting chaos, fissiparous dissolution or a military takeover in China, the “optimists” have argued that a democratic spring is just around the corner. In most instances, those prognostications were predicated on a monolithic CPP that is little more than a Chinese version of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
In China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy program at George Washington University, argues that the CCP has been anything but complacent since the fall of the Soviet Union and that, above all, its principal objective has been to ensure its survival.
Little known to most, the CCP and the various academic centers that fall under its purview have expended a tremendous amount of intellectual capital studying the many variables that, combined, resulted in the collapse of the CPSU and other communist governments around the world. In fact, by looking at systemic causes (economic; political/coercive; social/cultural; international), Chinese analyses of what went wrong for the Soviet Union were far more thorough than Western accounts, which tended to see Mikhail Gorbachev as the principal cause of the CPSU’s demise. In China’s view, the Soviet apparatus had become far too atrophied, too top-heavy, not flexible enough and too dogmatic, while Gorbachev’s intervention came too late, too fast, and in many ways was misguided, as it sought to emulate the Western model. As such, rather than the proximate cause of the Soviet Union’s implosion, Gorbachev was its trigger (this partly explains why former leader Zhao Ziyang (趙紫楊), whose “humanist” views echoed Gorbachev’s, was quickly sidelined following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989).
Beijing’s curiosity, Shambaugh shows, went much further than the Soviet Union and included surprisingly detailed comparative assessments of other former communist states, surviving ones — North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba — the “Color Revolutions” in the Central Asian republics, noncommunist, single-party states like Singapore and Malaysia, European socialism, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in China in the 1940s and in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s. Furthermore, those efforts were far more than abstract intellectual inquiry; rather, they were undertaken “for very specific and practical reasons: to anticipate what generic challenges to the CCP may arise.”
Based on the lessons learned, the CCP has embarked on a reactive and proactive strategy of “dynamic stability” to perpetuate its power, and unlike claims to the contrary, has demonstrated an impressive capacity for adaptation and far more flexibility and open-mindedness than it has been credited for. It has also shown that, rather than a monolithic, atrophied entity, the CCP has gradually shifted its policies in line with the economic development of the country and its effect on the demands of the population. Jiang Zemin’s (江澤民) “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) “Scientific Development” and “Sociality Harmonious Society” paradigms show a progression in thought and greater attention — especially under Hu and Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who, unlike the “coastal” Jiang, worked in the interior provinces — to the needs of the masses.