Wednesday 25 November 2009

Keep Calm and Carry On

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago signalled the beginning of the end for communism across much of the world. When the flood was over the one major outpost left was China. Why? Was it simply because of the brute force show at in the Tiananmen Square Massacre? In part, yes, but mass killings did not save the vile Ceau┼čescu regime in Romania. The real answer lies in the collapse of a second wall, a wall built on lies and hypocrisy. China continues to be ruled by a corrupt and self-perpetuating oligarchy but communism, the ideology of communism, is long dead.

There was a point when the regime seemed to be about to lose the 'mandate of heaven'. The resignation of Erich Honecker, the colourless dictator of the old East German, in October 1989 was serious blow to the morale of the Chinese gerontocracy. It was Deng Xiaoping, the second Great Helmsman, who urged them to keep calm and carry on with reforms.

It was a subtle process, though, not at all like the Gorbachev programme in Russia, floundering on the promotion of idealism, on the gap between image and reality. The Chinese saw that disaster was like a tree refusing to give way to the wind: an ossified ideology, an entrenched an unimaginative elite and an inflexible party organisation all standing on top of a stagnant economy.

The Chinese would not have political liberty, but they would have economic liberty. They would, in other words, have capitalism. Walls came down, economic walls, the walls that had restricted and frustrated personal initiative. The paradox here is that, in China at least, it was capitalism that saved communism, or saved the Communist Party, to be more exact.

There are, as the Marxists would say, serious contradictions here, contradictions between economic liberalism and state authoritarianism. The Chinese establishment has adjusted very well to the new realities and the new riches that owe nothing at all to the official state religion. But how far this can continue it is difficult to say. How far, indeed, can economic liberalism continue without political liberalism? If China were beset be a serious economic crisis the structure of the state itself is likely to come under the closest of scrutiny rather than simply the policy of the government.

The oligarchs have kept calm and are carrying on in the fashion urged by Deng. But freedom, real freedom, still scares them. Walls have come down, yes, but firewalls have gone up.


  1. They're still riding a unicycle though, needing to keep pedaling in order to stay upright.

    They need economic growth in order to bleed away rural discontent but they can only maintain that by keeping their currency artificially undervalued.

    They're also facing a massive demographic timebomb.

    Meanwhile, in an authoritarian state like China, "face" is everything. Do you honestly think that regional communist party apparatchiks will report the truth about slowing economic growth and civil unrest? Because if the World Economy is stagnating how can China continue to expand at a phenomenal rate? Something doesn't add up.

    Interesting Times.

    (And No, that's not a Chinese saying, it was actually coined by the English SF writer Eric Frank Russell).

  2. Now, that is something I did not know. So much for ancient Chinese curses. :-))