Communism and Reform: China´s Transition and the Fall of the USSR

Essay, 2011

25 Pages

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The 1980s was a turbulent decade for communism. By the onset of the 1990s the two dominant communist powers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China, had been completely transformed by reforms, straying far from their socialist roots. While the PRC would manage to weather the decade of reform, in December 1991 the USSR was officially dissolved, having collapsed under internal pressures.

The key focus of this essay is to provide possible explanations for why the Soviet Union fell apart and the PRC did not. Both countries had been founded under Marxist-Leninist principles, and the Soviet Union was arguably Mao’s primary inspiration for the establishment and organization of the PRC. While a great many differences existed between the PRC and the USSR, the simultaneous attempts at market reform in the two countries demand an explanation for their outcomes. No definitive answer or explanation may be possible, and the numerous differences between the PRC and the USSR, among them differences in history, culture, leadership and method, all contributed to steering the countries towards different conclusions. This paper explores some of the larger, more important distinctions that were central to forming the divergent paths of each country.

While some important explanations can be traced back to the differences in the revolutionary periods and the founding of the two communist governments, it may be more fruitful to examine the reformist periods to find clues to the success and failure of the PRC and USSR, respectively. Differences in each country’s makeup, specifically the demographics and

size of industry, and leadership, including the origins of leaders and their strategies for reform, are the most important indicators for the success and failures of reform in the two communist countries.

However, before delving into the reformist periods, it is interesting to ask the following question: just how socialist was China? While the answer to this question might seem obvious, as the Chinese Communist Party has remained the only official political actor in the PRC since its founding in 1949, a closer look at the important movements and political actors can yield interesting results.

According to The Developments of the Working Class in a Socialist Society, published in 1982 and written by key members of the Soviet leadership, the establishment of socialism depends heavily on workers. The presence of a proletariat is required to jumpstart a movement towards socialism, and the existence of large enterprises, with employees numbering in the thousands, helps instigate the socialist revolution. The movement is then advanced through the help of an experienced, educated and hereditary workforce, and their continued development remains essential.1

The key point expressed by the above conditions is the importance of the workforce in triggering socialist revolution. Workers, however, played an insignificant part of the 1949 revolution, representing only 4 percent of the communist party by 1949;2 in the post-Mao era of the late 1970s Soviet officials estimated that the proletariat represented only 7 percent of the Communist Party, while peasants represented an overwhelming 70 percent.3 Soviet experts have described the status of the working class prior to revolution as far from adequate for the development of socialism.4

It can be argued that the interests of workers were underrepresented in the CCP, and

that constant social upheaval prevented the development of a unified working class. As noted above, Soviet intellectuals would argue that socialist revolution requires an educated, skilled and experienced working class, which China was never able to develop. Workers need to be familiar with their trade and have been given time to consolidate under a common identity, meaning that first generation workers are not sufficient; ideally, the proletariat should be composed of second and third generation workers. Not only was China’s industrial sector underdeveloped for socialism in the 1950s, but workers with the necessary qualifications for leadership were generally purged by campaigns, such as the anti-rightist movement, which singled out those that would dare to question the authority of the state.

Mao concentrated on increasing production, which culminated in the implementation of the Great Leap Forward, and prevented workers from increasing their status; Mao was “hostile to material incentives” and attacked workers for demanding better work conditions and increased wages.5 Large demands were placed on a fragmented and small industrial sector, requiring a heavy influx of uneducated and inexperienced peasants, and resulted in further deteriorating the condition of workers; the overall expertise of the working class suffered as the inexperienced flooded the industrial sector. The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution would only serve to further tear the working class apart by creating massive social upheaval and by instigating extreme prejudice for anyone that was not of evident “revolutionary” (peasant, worker or military) background.

Another important factor potentially contrary to the development of socialism was the fact that China’s communist revolution was primarily led by the peasantry, a class that Soviet intellectuals regard with suspicion.6 The supposed capitalist tendencies of the peasantry are claimed to make peasants unreliable allies, but the class is still categorized as an essential

supporter in the creation of a socialist society. It is also argued that peasant support for the revolution in China was more rooted in a desire for land reform than devotion to the CCP and its ideals. Peasants, then, were not necessarily seeking an egalitarian society, but rather an escape from feudal oppression. Soviet critics argue that peasants were forced into collectivization and communization against their will, which further undermined the roots of the Chinese socialist movement; not only was the revolution not led by the proletariat, but the group that played the largest role in the revolution did not voluntarily seek to establish a society based on socialist ideals.

In contrast, Russia’s October Revolution was primarily urban and led by the Bolsheviks, who were believed to strongly represent Russia’s working class. Labor activism “increased dramatically” in the years before the October Revolution, and the weeks prior saw numerous strikes organized by workers within the factories.7 While Mao’s revolution began with the peasants in the countryside and migrated to the workers in the cities, Lenin’s takeover arguably involved the opposite approach.

While important socialist aspects, such as collectivization, played significant roles in post-revolutionary China, there are many aspects of the PRC’s development that seem contrary to qualities deemed essential by Soviet intellectuals. It is possible that China’s transition to a market economy was aided by a lower level of socialist development, and one of the key factors that will be expanded upon is the size and importance of the Chinese industrial sector relative to that of the Soviet Union. In addition, it is important to note that many of the flaws pointed out by Soviet experts could also be applied to the USSR, specifically with regards to the conditions of the working class under the rule of the CCP, making such evidence less than satisfactory for clearly explaining why the PRC managed to survive economic reform.

A very important distinction can be seen when analyzing reform in the PRC and the USSR. Deng’s approach was very hands off, and he preferred to let citizens experiment with the limits of a more economically liberal government, then retroactively approve and promote certain procedures and concepts. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was very direct and forceful, and assumed that privatization and market reform would catch on through government promotion.

While the differences in these approaches could be attributed to differences in the two leaders, they were arguably also the result of demographics. At the onset of reforms, China’s urbanization rate was just under 20 percent (1978), much lower than that of the Soviet Union which was 65 percent (1986).8 In both countries the majority of state power was more pronounced in urban sectors and focused on industry, and while in each case the sate owned enterprises (SOEs) accounted for a majority of the total industrial output, state industrial output in the Soviet Union was 96 percent in 1985, dwarfing that of pre-reform China, which was at 77 percent in 1978.9 These realities enabled Deng Xiaoping to take a minimalist approach to economic reform and focus on groups residing outside of the planned economy, which consisted of the majority of workers; in 1980 peasants represented 75 percent of the labor force.10

A planned economy is heavily focused on industry and the urban population, and it is understandable that beneficiaries of such a system would heavily resist privatization. A system controlled by the state generally offers cradle-to-grave benefits, guaranteeing employment, housing, health care and retirement for workers. While allowing market forces to steer the economy can lead to increased wealth and higher living standards, such gains come at the cost of cradle-to-grave state benefits, and individuals that have adapted to a state-run system often lack the necessary skills to survive in such an environment. As a result, the transition from a planned economy to a market economy can be dangerous and must be approached cautiously;

if the cost is too high, victims of privatization may lose faith in the government and contribute to social instability. An important indicator for success, then, is the size and importance of the planned economy prior to reform.

It is possible to conclude that China had a distinct advantage over the Soviet Union when attempting to implement reform due to its expansive rural population and lack of government presence outside of the cities; “In 1982, 95 percent of the CCP cadres were concentrated in urban areas, while only 5 percent worked in rural areas.”11 The lack of government control over the countryside placed peasants outside of the planned economy; rural residents relied less on the state system, and were excluded from the “iron rice bowl” and cradle- to-grave benefits that workers within the industrial sector had become accustomed to. In 1978, 230 million yuan was provided to the rural welfare program, whereas 5.1 billion yuan was pumped into the labor insurance program, which provided free medical benefits, among others, to primarily urban workers.12 In contrast, in the Soviet Union “as of 1988, about 97.46 percent of the total labor force (121.8 million out of 138.5 million) worked in the fully protected state sector, including collective farms.”13 Concentrating on the countryside, which was mostly composed of individuals who did not receive state benefits, enabled Deng to circumvent social unrest and begin creating a competitive private sector without dismantling the inefficient state sector.

The risks of instability may have been taken into account by Gorbachev as he began to launch reforms, and can help explain his initial reluctance to privatize the state sector. His first attempts, however, were inadequate and only served to avoid the core issue of inefficiency within a planned economy. His ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign in 1985 is an example of such an attempt. Productivity was estimated to be suffering by as much as 10 per cent due to alcohol consumption, as workers would frequently arrive to work drunk and drink on the job.14 By restricting the availability of alcohol, Gorbachev forced individuals to turn to the black market, home brewed liquor, and dangerous sources such as perfume and anti-freeze. Not only did the campaign create widespread resentment and suspicion of reform, it also cost the government as much as 12 per cent of its tax revenue and helped to increase inflation.15

The government also continuously refused to implement price reform due to the negative reactions of the public; “We are not against price reform, but look at the popular reaction.”16 In 1987 the Central Committee received 1,400 letters complaining about prices, despite the fact that official price increases had been very limited in scope.17 Price reform became even more difficult to implement as time went on; as the government pulled out of the economy, enterprises no longer had an incentive to uphold contracts for necessary but unprofitable goods. Enterprises focused on producing high-priced goods, which resulted “in the disappearance of inexpensive quality products consumed primarily by people with low to average income.”18 Output decreased, followed quickly by a shortage of goods. Bartering became common between regions, and enterprises altered their output “to expand opportunities for bartering.”19

One of Deng Xiaoping’s central reformist strategies was the encouragement of the existing market economy within China, a concept that Gorbachev half-heartedly approached as he implemented reform. The shadow economy in the Soviet Union “accounted for anything between 10 to 40 per cent of the total,”20 had an estimated value of 60 billion rubles and involved more than 20 million people. Another valuable economic player was private agriculture, which constituted only 3 percent of agricultural land, but amounted to 25 percent of the country’s agricultural output. While the Law on Individual Labor Activity of 1986 “authorized moonlighting in certain consumer service sectors” and encouraged those unemployed by the state sector (housewives, the disabled, students, pensioners) to participate in the private sector, heavy restrictions, high tax rates and the power of local officials negated any potential growth.21

Prior to reform, China had developed a much larger and more important private economy, due in no small part to its large, educated rural population and the destruction wrought on the urban sector by the Cultural Revolution. China was (and still is today) predominantly rural; as previously noted, in 1980 peasants represented 75 per cent of the labor force. The first generation of rural entrepreneurs was very well educated, with 85 percent of them having finished middle school, 14 percent having finished high school, and with 92 percent of them literate.22 The Cultural Revolution had been primarily concentrated in the urban regions, and through the decimation of urban industry, huge shortages and demands were created that rural entrepreneurs rose to fulfill. Additionally, the theory of primary-stage socialism “justified capitalism oriented economic activities.”23 Unlike the Soviet Union, China was still on the path to socialism, and thus the theory of primary-stage socialism helped to shield rural entrepreneurs from being labeled as rightists and capitalists.

Deng initially ignored the state industrial sector all-together, focusing rather on the intrinsically capitalist rural population. Chinese township and village enterprises already operated in a market environment, procuring materials at market-set prices, determining wages and prices at prevailing market rates, and facing the threat of bankruptcy in the event of poor management and failure in the marketplace.24 In 1978 Deng launched his rural reform program in an attempt to increase agricultural productivity through the establishment of smaller production teams. Surprisingly, de-collectivization was not a part of Deng’s initial policy; however, an increase in the protection of peasant family plots resulted in spontaneous (and unauthorized) de-collectivization and the disbanding of production teams in favor of the unofficial “household responsibility system.” The government did not formally authorize the movement until 1982, but in April 1980 Deng announced his approval for the household responsibility system, effectively validating the grassroots movement.25

Due to the state’s limited reach, a majority of workers did not depend on the benefits of the state system. In addition, because the centralized system was less expansive in China than in the Soviet Union, the Chinese government was limited in its influence over the economy and dedicated its efforts to industry. Unpredictable factors such as weather changes and natural disasters, as well the sprawling distribution of arable land and the small size of plots in the PRC rendered agriculture inherently more difficult to plan centrally. Accordingly, rural residents were left to more or less fend for themselves. In addition, the Cultural Revolution had created an environment favorable to rural entrepreneurship; not only was the government reduced to shambles, but urban industry with it, and peasant entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the lack of production.

Though Deng and Gorbachev may have both sought to increase productivity during the initial phases of reform, circumstances enabled Deng to reform the rural sector without state sponsored initiatives; by simply awarding peasants more freedom, privatization naturally occurred, and the agricultural commune system was dismantled without any central government intervention. In contrast, Gorbachev was arguably working against the wishes of the people, who had everything to lose by abandoning the benefits of the planned economy. In a poll conducted in 1989, 70 percent favored collective forms of ownership, with 40 percent opposing private ownership of businesses altogether, and a separate poll conducted in 1990 showed 50 percent of state-sector employees in favor of preserving the ownership system of collective and state farms.26

However, more than simply the state of the planned economy and the opinions of the population influenced the direction of reform. Key differences in the level of power wielded by the leadership, specifically the differences in power directly in the hands of Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, had profound influences on the leadership’s ability to manage the transition away from socialism.

Deng was born to a rural family in Sichuan in 1904. He had been an early member of the Chinese Communist Party and fought in the revolutionary war, participating in key events such as the Long March. By 1954 he had been incorporated as one of the inner-circle party leaders and “had a hand in virtually every key policy and event from 1954 to 1966.”27 Having been purged numerous times during his career, Deng was seen as distinctly different from Mao, but his revolutionary background firmly indentified him as devoted to the communist cause. The Cultural Revolution had almost destroyed the country from the inside, and with Mao’s death in 1978 the numerous failures of the Party became difficult to ignore; China needed a strong leader with a clear revolutionary background, but one capable of leading the country in a different direction than Mao. The Cultural Revolution had also “ravaged the key institutions of the Party and the state” and as such “the initial institutional barriers to reform were low,” a situation greatly advantageous to Deng which both aided his rise to power and the implementation of his reforms.28

Unlike Deng, a first generation leader who commanded respect similar to that of Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky, Gorbachev was a third generation leader, and had risen through the ranks of the Party in a post-revolutionary country. Born into a peasant family in 1931, he joined the CPSU as a Moscow State University student. Graduating in 1955 with a degree in law, he became acquainted with Andropov, a fellow native of his home region, while serving as First Secretary of Stavropol. Gorbachev’s ascension to leadership was the result of relationships forged with patrons and his ability to gather useful allies; in 1978 Andropov hand- picked Gorbachev to fill an open spot in Moscow and assisted him in obtaining his post as Central Committee Secretary for Agriculture. “At the age of 47, he was by far the youngest of the Secretaries, but the precocious Gorbachev’s career rise showed no signs of slowing.”29

Deng was able to command in a manner that Gorbachev could have never possibly hoped to emulate. Both leaders were forced to square off with conservatives and opponents to reform, but the power and respect that Deng commanded allowed him to lead the country in a more indirect fashion. His only official title was that of Chairman of the Central Military Commission, a very important title in and of itself, yet making Deng the only Chinese figurehead to have successfully run the country without simultaneously sitting at the head of the Communist Party hierarchy. While the indisputable leader of the PRC, Deng was able to appoint others whom he could control to important leadership positions within the party. When conservatives began gaining ground after the outbreak of student protests in 1986, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, a reformist that had been handpicked by Deng, took the fall. Similarly, though Deng did not escape the Tiananmen protests unscathed, it was Zhao Ziyang, Hu’s successor, who ultimately paid the price for what was seen by hard-liners as proof of the dangers of bourgeois liberalization.

The Communist Party and the intrusive state system became tools that allowed Deng to implement reform, whereas by the mid 1980s Gorbachev had come to the conclusion that the state apparatus was the root cause of the Soviet Union’s economic stagnation. The differences in power between the two leaders can help explain why Gorbachev sought to reform the political structure through glasnost, a strategy of political liberalization that even today has yet to occur in the PRC in any comparable form. Gorbachev allied himself with liberals not because he sought democratization, but because it was seen as a way of advancing reform and overcoming opposition to perestroika; by increasing the flow of information to the public and establishing direct contact, he had hoped to gain the necessary support to overcome party conservatives.30

Unfortunately, Gorbachev’s underestimation of the impact political reform would have on the Soviet Union proved fatal, and the implementation of glasnost is one of the most important examples of policy deviations between the PRC and the USSR. While China experienced regime threatening political movements of its own, these movements were unavoidable spillover from economic liberalization. Individuals were granted more freedom to pursue private interests and gain material wealth, which inevitably led to cries for democracy and political transformation; however, such radical ideas were not endorsed by the CCP, and the gains that had lifted over 150 million individuals out of poverty had served to pacify an important section of the population that could have otherwise been supportive of the democracy movement. Gorbachev assumed that more political freedom would boost the development of the private sector, but the continued stagnation of the Soviet economy and the failures of earlier reform angered and radicalized citizens, making them unsupportive and skeptical. Furthermore, tolerating criticisms of the Party and past leaders served to undermine the authority of the leadership and stripped the government of authority during a time of crisis. The danger of awarding laborers that have grown accustomed to the benefits of the state system power in the form of votes is that they are much more likely to move against a process that endangers their livelihood, such as a transition to capitalism. The inefficiency that had been created by the centralized system and the unpreparedness of the working class to survive in a market economy only further complicated the reformist agenda. Gorbachev’s strategy of glasnost could only have helped circumvent conservative opposition to reform if public opinion towards a market economy had been favorable; however, given the all-encompassing nature of the state apparatus in the Soviet Union, such support would have been unlikely. Another important danger was the increased expectations that had come from both political and economic reform. Ironically, prior to 1985, a majority of individuals supported official ideologies, such as “the supremacy of socialism and Soviet social and moral superiority over the West.”31 The Communist Party was seen as the true leading force in society, and as such garnered a great deal of support from Soviet people; journalist Leonid Pochivalov wrote in 1987 that most Russians were convinced that the Soviet Union served as an example that ordinary people around the world “wanted to imitate . . . without reservations.”32 Most Soviet people liked their lives, and surveys recorded very high levels of satisfaction with regards to the standard of living, the amount of leisure time, professions and other similar indicators of complacency; in 1976 a national survey was conducted, revealing that, on a 5 point scale, “most Russians evaluated their lives with a grade of 4.”33 Numerous factors contributed to these high counts of support and levels of satisfaction, including isolation from the West and the dire consequences of dissent, but the fact remains that “there were no manifestations of mass discontent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most Soviet people . . . considered their life ‘normal’ and were essentially satisfied with it.”34 Economic reform brought an increase to the sale of consumer goods, and with it complaints of a lack of money, a decrease in the number of individuals claiming to have “enough for everything they wanted,” and a belief that life in the Soviet Union had deteriorated.35

Political reform also served to dislodge the Communist Party from the economy, a necessary step for privatization to flourish, but one that was attempted too quickly. Prior to reform the regional Party organs served as a means of enforcing contracts and managing the economy. The 1987 Law on the State Enterprise made it so that directors were directly elected by the workers, depriving the Party of its ability to control and manage production. Directors were given the opportunity “to extract personal profit from the primitive condition of business law, the accounting and taxation system. The weaker the system became, the more damage was inflicted by the opportunistic conduct of the directors, further undermining the system and expanding the opportunities for self-seeking behavior.”36 Constant reversals and half-hearted decisions gave directors further confidence in their ability to escape punitive measures.

Gorbachev eventually found himself under heavy attack by the liberal media, and during a session of the newly created Supreme Soviet in January 1991, went so far as to suggest that the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media of 1990 be suspended.37 The liberal media had made significant gains in a very short period of time, taking advantage of the weakened state of the central government to break away. Gorbachev and members of the moderate reform group eventually formed a loose coalition with conservatives, known as the “winter alliance,”

in an attempt to restore power to the center,38 but this attempt ultimately failed and served only to strengthen the position of radical opposition figures like Yeltsin, who had separated himself from the Communist Party in 1989.

The division within the Soviet government may have made it difficult to envision any solution besides radical political restructuring. The deadlock between conservatives and reformers that had resulted in Chernenko’s appointment had been a clear indication that the government was divided, and the vote to elect Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary had been very close; only nine members of the Politburo out of thirteen were able to attend the meeting, and Gorbachev clinched the seat “only on the slenderest and most artificial of margins.”39

In the presence of such heavy opposition, quick results were paramount in order to guarantee support, but “neither Gorbachev nor Rhyzhkov had any clue as to the role of the market and almost no understanding of financial issues.”40 This combination resulted in sloppy, contradicting policies that attempted to accomplish too many objectives at once. The 27th Party Congress 5 year plan proposed incompatible goals, such as an increase in the rate of investment coupled with an increase in defense spending, and the reconstruction of large-scale industries coupled with an increased output that was intended to surpass that of previous five year plans.41 According to Igor Prostiakov, a senior official of the Politburo Commission on Improvement of Economic Management from 1984 to 1985, the leadership was impatient, refusing to acknowledge the inherent slowness of the process, and opting to “alter the rules of the game without really analyzing the results of the experiment or giving enterprises a chance to adjust to new conditions.”42

Assumption also played a key role in Soviet reform, with rulers and economists unable to recognize just how little they knew with regards to decentralization. The economy was assumed to be infinitely malleable, and it was believed that the Soviet economy could “be made as dynamic as the best capitalist economies” through acceleration.43 Official Soviet data also exaggerated the rates of economic growth, creating a false sense of development that masked the imminent economic collapse.44 Initial estimates by the Central Statistical Administration of the USSR were corrected to coincide with leadership expectations, for example during the anti- alcohol campaign in 1985, where the rate of national income was inflated by excluding the production of alcoholic beverages in 1984 and 1985;45 had such numbers been included, national income would have seen a drop when compared to previous years.

In China, political reform had never been on the agenda, and the three prodemocracy movements that took shape during the country’s decade of economic reform were met with government crackdowns. While opposition movements were, similar to the Soviet Union, caused by rising expectations and the increased freedoms of individuals, remarkable economic growth helped the CCP maintain enough legitimacy to gather the support needed to oppress its opponents.46 Between 1978 and 1988, the poverty headcount had declined from 250 million to 96 million.47 Private industry had served to increase the living standard of the impoverished majority, and it had spread remarkably fast; within the township-village enterprise (TVE) sector, by 1987 “there were nine provinces in which private TVEs accounted for more than 50 percent of output . . . and another 15 provinces in which they accounted for between 30 and 50 percent.”48 A decade earlier and the private output of these provinces would have been close to zero.49 Combined, those 26 provinces were home to almost 700 million people, or 80 percent of the rural population at the time, and were among the poorest, while also home to the highest percentage of agricultural populations.50

The opening of the media and the mobilization of the intelligentsia in the Soviet Union resulted from the regime-initiated program of political liberalization, whereas in China the cause was due to spillover from economic reform. In order to gain influence, the intelligentsia in the PRC relied on indirect assistance from private entrepreneurs, as privatization had resulted in entrepreneurs controlling the larger and more concrete share of the media. Chinese entrepreneurs, being much more motivated and market capable than their Soviet counterparts, formed ties with local elites, peasants and foreign investors in order to develop the private sector;51 the coalition between entrepreneurs, officials and peasants served to widen the gap between intellectuals and key sources of democratic mobilization. Due to the lack of important breakthroughs within the political sector, the intelligentsia proved unable to secure enough influence within society and obtain support. In addition, the peasantry during the reform period tended to be less supportive of democracy.52 Tiananmen 1989, while sometimes misunderstood as a movement incorporating the entire country, was primarily composed of students, intellectuals and disgruntled industrial workers; rural participation was almost completely absent. During China’s reform period, “no political takeover coalition capable of defending the emerging political openness was formed,” and only a small percentage of intellectuals engaged in democratization debates.53 Hu Yaobang’s purge after the 1986 student led demonstrations further weakened the intelligentsia, as Hu represented their most powerful ally within the central government. Intellectuals would find a replacement in his successor and protégé, Zhao Ziyang, but only a few years later he too would be purged due to the Tiananmen protests.

The most dangerous aspect of political reform in the USSR would prove to be its encouragement of nationalism. The Soviet Union was a coalition composed of multiple identities and ethnicities, with non-Russian ethnic groups representing over 50 percent of the Soviet Union’s total population. These unique identities would play an important role in the eventual dissolution of the country, and each Soviet republic would on to become its own independent country; it has been argued that these nationalities “almost guaranteed that what would not emerge from perestroika was a democratic and intact Soviet state.”54 In contrast, despite the deep cultural identity found in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, the Han ethnicity has always represented over 90 percent of the population. Also, unlike the Soviet Union, most of Chinese minorities were (and still are) spread out across the country, rendering unification under a cultural banner even more improbable. As the Soviet Union broke down and lost legitimacy in the eyes of the population, groups were able to rally around common cultural identities and secede, a phenomenon that could arguably have never occurred within the PRC.

Finally, it is important to briefly examine the experiences of both countries during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as the events that would take place would have profound effects on their futures. The Tiananmen protests in 1989 and the final years of the Soviet Union presented the leadership of each country with similar dilemmas: both were faced with destabilizing political movements that directly threatened the legitimacy of the country, and both were deadlocked due to disagreements between reformists and hardliners. While Deng managed to restore the legitimacy of the Party by siding with conservatives, Gorbachev was unable, or unwilling, to make the same decision. As a result, the split within the CPSU continued to widen, culminating in the failed August Coup of 1991, an important event that signaled the dissolution of the Party.

The Tiananmen Protests of 1989 carried great symbolic weight due to the identity of its leaders, the historical importance of its location and the year in which it took place. While workers represented the core of the movement, the students, their hunger strike and their occupation of Tiananmen Square were perceived as the key, representative aspects. The protests were a direct attack on Party authority, as Tiananmen Square is the heart of the CCP, and is festooned with important communist monuments. The square also houses government offices, the residential complex of leaders, and it “was at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949 that Mao proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic.”55 Parallels could also be drawn between the student-led occupation of Tiananmen in ’89 and the May Fourth Movement of 1919, in which students occupied Tiananmen Square in protest of the Nationalist government. Like Tiananmen Square itself, the May Fourth movement is central to CCP history, and is considered to have played a key role in the birth of the Communist Party. 1989 also marked the fortieth year anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which was of symbolic importance for the communist government. These realities forced officials to proceed cautiously; not cracking down on such a flagrant attack on Party legitimacy would make the Party appear weak, but doing so would draw parallels to the famous crackdown by the Nationalists. To make matters worse, the protests occurred during Gorbachev’s scheduled visit and was a source of shame for Chinese leaders. Coupled with an already divided government, Tiananmen presented a recipe for deadlock that stalled decision making for several months.

Deng eventually consolidated the government by putting his weight behind the conservative faction, ending the deadlock by ousting reformists and cracking down hard on dissent. Gorbachev frequently played to the center, acting as a mediator between radicals and hardliners during the final days of the Soviet Union, causing both sides to lose faith in the leadership of the USSR. Increasing pressures from the right encouraged him to abandon reformists and dismiss the ‘500 Days Programme,’ but it soon became apparent that the conservative alliance was not powerful enough to dismay opposition movements; neither the national miners’ strike nor the banned March protest in support of Boris Yeltsin were successfully resolved through the use of force.56 Gorbachev’s “skills were those of a politician and publicist,”57 and he was arguably ill-suited to the use of coercion; he had never served the national service and his views did align themselves well with those of the military and conservatives. The winter alliance was short lived, and by 1991 Gorbachev had successfully alienated both ends of the political spectrum. The August Coup orchestrated by hard-liners would be the final nail in the coffin for Party legitimacy, swaying power in favor of the republics that ultimately led to the dissolution of the USSR.

The experiences of the USSR and the PRC seem to demonstrate that socialism and the existence of a planned economy are the most important limitations to the development of a market economy. While a great many differences existed between both countries prior to and during reform, the limited reach of the state in China proved extremely advantageous to reformers. A market economy entails risks, and requires an active, motivated population to take shape; China’s rural sector proved ideal for economic experimentation, and little effort on the part of the government was required to motivate residents to abandon the planned economy and convert to capitalism. In the Soviet Union, high levels of internal opposition forced leaders to play a more active role in the economy and work against public opinion in an attempt to rally support for unpopular and unwanted change.

Socialism hindered the economic development of the Soviet Union, and it was specifically due to socialism’s weak presence within the PRC that the economic sector was transformed. During the 1990s China was rocked by high unemployment rates and political instability, both of which can be tied back to the government’s attempts at reforming the state sector; the instability of the 1990s shows that, even within a country where economic reforms had thus far been successful, the transition from a planned to a market economy can remain turbulent. However, by having improved the economic standing of so many individuals prior to reforming the state sector, China’s government was able to weather the protests of the ‘90s intact. Legitimacy plays a key role in controlling dissent, and high levels of poverty create a desire for political change; by focusing on improving the standard of living of its citizens, the leadership was able to curb demands for political reform and prevent radicals from growing too large in number.

This is not to say that China’s reform policy was superior or more developed than that of the Soviet Union; the latter’s failure is not completely due to Soviet economic ignorance. While Deng gave peasants incentives that were beneficial to the development of a market economy, the high level of motivation among peasants, as seen by both the way in which rural reform was hijacked by the peasantry and the ferocious expansion of rural private industry, is what ultimately allowed the reforms to succeed. One could even go so far as to argue that China’s economic development had very little to do with the actions of the leadership, in the sense that the government was not forced to sculpt capitalist tendencies within the population; rather, a shadow market economy already existed and simply required increased liberties to flourish. Deng’s regional approach through the creation of special economic zones (SEZ) also helped limit instability by avoiding immediate national conversion to a new system. While the Soviet Union did possess an important shadow economy, the far reaching hand of the state had limited its actors to criminals and those with state connections. The Chinese economy simply needed to be liberated, but the Soviet economy had to be built from the ground up.

The fall of the Soviet Union demonstrates the failures of Gorbachev’s reforms, and reveals the limited economic knowledge that Soviet leaders possessed; however, the country was heavily disadvantaged from the beginning. The Soviet transition required a more calculated approach than that of the PRC, and Gorbachev was arguably too ill-prepared and possessed too little power to oversee the country’s successful conversion.

Reformers in China also seemed to better understand the wishes of the country’s people. Leaders assumed that public support for the Party and its reforms was best generated through positive results; so long as the masses were getting richer and the standard of living was improving, demand for political reform could be stiffened. The Chinese strategy reflected this belief, and the leadership chose to enrich society while maintaining a tight hold on civil liberties. Gorbachev miscalculated when implementing glasnost, as he did not factor in the possibility of the movement turning against him, and his strategy underestimated both the power of opposition movements as well as the tepid public enthusiasm for economic reform. While neither country’s leaders were particularly well versed in economics (China’s success was almost accidental, occurring because the masses took over, and as noted Gorbachev and Rhyzhkov were limited in their knowledge of how markets functioned), at the very least it seems that the Chinese government held a much deeper comprehension of public opinion, which enabled the leadership to pursue policy that avoided widespread instability; rural residents were permitted to break into private industry, while state workers were shielded from the impact of market driven competition.

Because of China’s economic success, the importance of democracy and political liberty in the development of a modernized state warrants reconsideration. Throughout the course of its economic transformation, the PRC avoided political reform, and currently shows no signs of becoming a democracy in the near future; at the same time, China is rapidly developing into a modern nation capable of rivaling dominant powers such as the United States and Western Europe. Through the use of crackdowns, censorship and other means of suppression, the Chinese leadership has made it clear that political liberalization is not on the agenda, and the relative stability of the past thirty years seems to imply that, so long as the economy continues to grow and the standard of living continues to rise, the Chinese people will be content with the current status quo. In contrast, the democratized Russian state trails far behind the PRC in terms of economic development, and the fall of the Soviet Union was due in large part to the increased liberties granted through glasnost.

Modernity “refers to the new civilization developed in Europe and North America over the last several centuries.”58 Europe and North America are identified as modern due to their development of new technologies and new modes of industrial production; however, in addition to technological advances, modern society has been generally characterized by traits such as capitalism, liberal democracy, individualism, rationalism and humanism.59

China has achieved the technological advances and higher living standards that define a modern society without political liberty and without establishing a democracy. As a result, the traits that are often associated with the Western concept of modernity have been brought into question. Due to China’s rapid development, the Western definition that goes beyond scientific and technological advances has been shown to not be universal, and the fall of the USSR provides evidence that democracy, seemingly inherent to modernization based on the characteristics of the Western world, can cripple a modern society.

If China succeeds in becoming the next world superpower, it will have proven that political reform is not essential for the development of a modern country. In the case of the Soviet Union, glasnost played a key role in tearing the country apart, and a democratic China could arguably result in a similar fate. While democracy may be considered an essential and inevitable phenomenon in the eyes of Western civilizations, China’s rise and the USSR’s fall offer the world an alternative development model and a new interpretation on an old, western standard.


Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ellman, Michael & Vladimir Kontorovich. The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System. New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998.

Calhoone, Lawrence, ed. From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology Expanded. 2nd ed. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies, 2003.

Galeotti, Mark. Gorbachev and his Revolution. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Hua, Shiping. “The Deng Reforms (1978-1992) and the Gorbachev Reforms (1985-1991) Revisisted: A Political Discourse,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 53, no. 3 (2006): 3-16

Huang, Yasheng. Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Liu, Alan P. L. “Symbols and Repression at Tiananmen Square, April-June 1989,” Political Psychology, Vol. 13, No.1 (1992): 45-60.

Pei, Minxin. From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Rosenberg, William, “Workers and Workers’ Control in the Russian Revolution,” History Workshop, No. 5 (1978): 89-97.

Rozman, Gilbert. A Mirror for Socialism: Soviet Criticisms of China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Segal, Gerald. “China and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union,” Asian Survey, Vol. 32, No. 9 (1992): 848-868.

Shambaugh, David, “Assessing Deng Xiaoping’s Legacy,” The China Quarterly, no. 135 (1993): 409-411.


1 Gilbert Rozman, A Mirror for Socialism: Soviet Criticisms of China (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998) 94-96.

2 Ibid, 101.

3 Ibid , 200.

4 Ibid , 106.

5 Ibid, 111.

6 Ibid, 59.

7 William Rosenberg, “Workers and Workers’ Control in the Russian Revolution,” History Workshop, No. 5 (1978): 6.

8 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) 10.

9 Ibid, 14.

10 Ibid, 100.

11 Ibid, 101.

12 Ibid, 100.

13 Ibid, 136.

14 Mark Galeotti, Gorbachev and his Revolution (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press) 58.

15 Ibid, 59.

16 Vadim Medvedev, “Failure of Political Will,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 158.

17 Yuri Belik, “Vox Populi,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontoroich, Destruction of the Soviet Economic System, (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 159.

18 Ibid, 160.

19 Lev Freinkman, “Coping with the Consequences of the ‘Radical’ Reform,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 224.

20 Mark Galeotti, Gorbachev and his Revolution (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press) 55.

21 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) 119.

22 Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press) 61.

23 Shiping Hua, “The Deng Reforms (1978-1992) and the Gorbachev Reforms (1985-1991) Revisited: A Political Discourse,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 53, no.3 (2006): 12.

24 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) 87.

25 Ibid , 95.

26 Ibid, 138-139.

27 David Shambaugh, “Assessing Deng Xiaoping’s Legacy,” The China Quarterly, no. 135 (1993): 409.

28 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) 65.

29 Mark Galeotti, Gorbachev and his Revolution (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press) 31.

30 Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) 162.

31 Vladimir Shlapentkh, “Standard of Living and Popular Discontent,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 32.

32 Ibid, 32.

33 Ibid, 35.

34 Ibid, 30.

35 Ibid, 39.

36 Lev Freinkman, “Politics and Enterprise Behavior,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 189

37 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) 191.

38 Mark Galeotti, Gorbachev and his Revolution (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press) 95.

39 Ibid, 31.

40 Igor Prostiakov, “Economic Reform in the Interregnum Between Andropv and Gorbachev-Ryzhkov,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 107.

41 Vadim Kirichenko, “Planning Techniques, Feasibility of Targets, and Outcomes,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 131.

42 Igor Prostiakov, “Economic Reform in the Interregnum Between Andropv and Gorbachev-Ryzhkov,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 114.

43 Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 19.

44 Moisei Eydelman, “Monopolized Statistics Under a Totalitarian Regime,” in Michael Ellman & Vladimir Kontorovich, The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System (New York, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) 76.

45 Ibid, 74.

46 Gerald Segal, “China and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union,” Asian Survey, Vol. 32, No. 9 (1992) 849.

47 Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press) 57

48 Ibid, 82.

49 Ibid 81.

50 Ibid 84.

51 Minxin Pei, From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press) , 60.

52 Ibid, 57.

53 Ibid , 76.

54 Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press) 252.

55 Liu, Alan P. L., “Symbols and Repression at Tiananmen Square, April-June 1989,” Political Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1992): 48.

56 Mark Galeotti, Gorbachev and his Revolution (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press) 109.

57 Ibid, 111.

58 Lawrence Calhoone, ed., From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology Expanded, 2nd ed. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies) 11.

59 Ibid, 11.

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Communism and Reform: China´s Transition and the Fall of the USSR
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Marine Durant (Author), 2011, Communism and Reform: China´s Transition and the Fall of the USSR, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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