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  • Departures From Communism
  • Jan S. Prybyla (bio)
From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union. By Minxin Pei. Harvard University Press, 1994. 253 pp.
Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era. By Merle Goldman. Harvard University Press, 1994. 426 pp.

Rarely is a reviewer treated to a feast of exquisite scholarship, insight, and reason. One always hopes this will happen to make up for all of that fast food the presses pass off as nourishment for the mind. And here it is at last, a two-course mini-banquet prepared with an eye to the gourmet, but from which anyone interested in the basic ingredients of revolutionary social transformation can benefit.

The two books examine systemic—that is, conceptual and institutional—departures from communism. Minxin Pei looks at both China and the former Soviet Union, while Merle Goldman concentrates on China. Pei—a gifted young political scientist from whom, I am sure, we will hear much in the future—focuses on the economic and political processes of social transformation. The economic change in each instance consists of the emergence of market coordination and some form of private ownership (in China, this involves mostly rural, quasi-private, “nonstate” property). The rudimentary, disjointed, and imperfect Chinese market, based on lightly guarded property rights that are ill-defined when defined at all, arose as a consequence of “quiet,” spontaneous, and government-tolerated entrepreneurial actions from below. By contrast, in Russia under perestroika, marketization and the [End Page 164] privatization (or at least destatization) of property were “noisy,” top-down operations attended by a great blizzard of legal formalities, decrees, and the like. The latter transition was not terribly successful, not least because of the passive—and at times hostile—response of the generally risk-averse citizenry (Chapters 3 and 4). Final judgment on success or failure, however, can be made only when all the transitional costs are determined. Currently, the costs appear to be quite high for Russia and relatively low for China (particularly if the hidden costs of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations are not accounted for properly).

The political changes in China and the former Soviet Union are symbolized by two case studies: the “self-liberalization” of China’s mass media in the 1980s, aided by the spillover effects of successful market-oriented economic reforms and foreign influences (including investment by “overseas” Chinese); and the regime-initiated “liberal takeover” of the Soviet media’s editorial departments under glasnost’ (the government retained near-total control of the purse strings and key inputs, such as newsprint). Both processes, as it turns out, are vulnerable to communist counterattacks, as evidenced by events in China before and since 4 June 1989 and in post-Soviet Russia after 1991. The experience of both countries suggests that pluralizing the media infrastructure, by whatever means, is not by itself enough to bring about a full transition to democracy—or “polyarchy,” as Pei prefers to call it.

It is with such a transformation that Pei’s superlative study is unobtrusively but insistently concerned. The question is not whether the shift can occur, but how it can occur with the least economic cost and the greatest benefit for the people. As a political scientist, Pei has a theory, whereas Goldman, a historian, narrates a story explainable by logic and hindsight but not bound by any overarching laws. Pei’s theory is both sweeping and appealing. It is also, however, a little thin and liable to be severely tested by unpredictable and unmeasurable factors and other random, unscientific, and unfair tricks that an unknown and unknowable future has in store.

Broadly, Pei’s theory (Chapters 1 and 2) is that the transition from communism to market democracy can proceed via any of three different paths: 1) the evolutionary authoritarian route, 2) the revolutionary double breakthrough, and 3) the simultaneous single breakthrough. The first route, which was taken by the Chinese communist apparat after 1978, is a gradualist approach that begins with market-economy reforms and leads to a combination of a market (or near-market) economy and authoritarian politics. Despite the regime’s efforts to the contrary, the economic...