China and Russia and What Could Have Happened

Twenty five years ago, I was strolling down Leningrad’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, with a clutch of other American undergraduates who had recently arrived for two months of intensive language study when Professor Edna Andrews dashed up to us with the news. “They’re shooting them,” she said (or something like it—who can trust a 25-year-old memory of a speech fragment?) with obvious agitation. “They’re shooting the students in Tiananmen Square!”

Had Edna not given us that news, we probably wouldn’t have heard it, or at least not until we got home. In 1989, glasnost’ had already come to the USSR, but that didn’t mean speech was free. State newspapers were still the only ones around, at least for those of us without connections to the world of samizdat. Some of those newspapers were more informative than others, but the limits of political conversation were still clearly proscribed. The Internet didn’t exist, and international calls could only be made by appointment from state-run locations with plastic phones in cubicle-like spaces and who-knows who listening while you talked. Trustworthy information still only trickled through a public sphere mostly bifurcated between propaganda and silence.

What’s striking to me in retrospect is how differently things could have turned out in both countries. When she gave us the news about Tiananmen, Edna was surely agitated because it involved students like the ones she taught being slaughtered. I suspect she was also distressed, though, because at the time it was still easy to imagine something similar happening in the USSR, perhaps even to people she knew personally.

In 1989, politics had already started to move in the Soviet Union, but neither democratization nor disintegration was a foregone conclusion. That spring, citizens had picked delegates to the inaugural session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in elections that were, at the time, the freest the USSR had ever held. The new Congress’ sessions were shown on live television, and their content was stunning. “Deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified,” Thomas Skallerup and James P. Nichol describe in their chapter for the Library of Congress’ Russia country study. “Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military.”

But the outspokenness of those reformist deputies belied their formal power. More than 80 percent of the Congress’ deputies were Communist Party members, and the new legislative body the deputies elected that summer, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was stuffed with “old-style party apparatchiks.” Two years later, reactionaries inside the government mounted a coup attempt in which President Gorbachev was arrested and detained for a few days and tanks were deployed on the streets of Moscow.

Tank near Red Square on 19 August 1991. © Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images

That August Putsch looks a bit clowny with hindsight, but it didn’t have to fail. Likewise, the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 uprising didn’t have to happen, or to succeed when it did. In a story published this week in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley describe the uncertainty of Chinese policy toward the uprising and the disunity of the armed forces tasked with executing it—and, eventually, the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“At the time,” Jacobs and Buckley write, “few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.” Seven senior commanders signed a petition calling on political leaders to withdraw the troops. Those leaders responded by disconnecting many of the special phones those commanders used to communicate with each other. When troops were finally given orders to retake the square “at any cost,” some commanders ignored them. At least one pretended that his battalion’s radio had malfunctioned.

As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their study of civil resistance, nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to succeed when they prompt defections by security forces. The Tiananmen uprising was crushed, but history could have slipped in many other directions. And it still can.

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The Moral of the Tale of Soviet Reform

According to the Moscow Times,

The Communist Party of China has compelled its officials to watch a documentary about the Soviet Union’s collapse to draw lessons on how not to govern, and to ensure that they remain disciplined amid economic reforms.

The film “has been shown at dozens of political meetings during the past few months” as part of a larger push to shore up party discipline during a period of economic reform, a process that carries significant political risks.

So what’s the takeaway those party functionaries are supposed to glean? According to social scientist Yakov Berger:

Market reforms are one thing, and political reforms are a completely different thing.

So…”Just say no”? Now I’m curious to see the film. After all, it’s not like the CPSU under Gorbachev set out in 1986 with a plan to allow free speech and multiparty democracy.

Glasnost’ is now widely used as shorthand for sweeping political reform, a throwing open of the gates (or tearing down of the walls?) impeding civil liberties in authoritarian regimes. In fact, as Joseph Gibbs and others have argued, glasnost’ actually got its start in the early 1980s as a limited blurring of the lines on permissible speech that was explicitly intended to work in service to the Communist Party’s larger agenda of economic restructuring, or perestroika. By that time, some party leaders recognized that inefficiency was stifling the Soviet economy, that planners would need better information to combat these ills, and that many bureaucrats would try to resist any changes. Glasnost’ was the solution those party leaders hit on. Under this new policy, citizens were allowed to speak more openly about certain aspects of their work or the economy in an effort to help ferret out the waste and corruption that was dragging the USSR down. In essence, glasnost’ was a whip the party leadership could employ against its own bureaucracy in pursuit of greater efficiency. This was decidedly not freedom of speech, however, and it certainly did not entail any larger ideas about ending the Party’s monopoly on power, an eventuality that many national party leaders bitterly contested until pretty late in the game.

Well, what happened? Unintended consequences, that’s what. People responded strategically to these new developments and began to probe the openings glasnost’ created. Like China, the USSR was a large country ostensibly governed by a massive and variegated political machine. Party officials at the local and regional and national level argued among themselves about how to respond to attempts to probe the limits of glasnost’, and the results of those arguments varied. Those variations suggested further openings that reformists and activists then explored further, a process that led eventually but hardly directly to wider political change.

Chinese officials seem to believe, or at least to hope, that they can avoid this path by responding firmly to attempts to convert economic reforms into political challenges, by sharply distinguishing between the two and only doing the one. Maybe they’re right, but I don’t think so. It’s worth recalling that the Soviets sometimes tried to draw clear lines, too—in Tbilisi in April 1989, for example—but those harsh responses didn’t always have the desired effect.

So, yes, market reforms are one thing and political change another, but my summation of the Soviet experience would be a bit different. As I see it, reform of any significant scope or scale is a process that you can try to guide, but it is not something that you can control. Have fun trying to ride the tiger, President Xi.

N.B. This is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote on Tumbling Chimp yesterday morning.

Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

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