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  • Societal Takeover in China and the USSR
  • Minxin Pei (bio)

The past decade has witnessed attempts, generated initially from within the centers of power, to reform communist rule in both China and the Soviet Union. The apparent outcome, of course, has differed dramatically across the two cases: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has been driven from power by the very forces unleashed by reform, while its Chinese counterpart succeeded in brutally suppressing its own democratic opposition. Yet a more careful analysis reveals not only many similarities in the way the process of reform unfolded in the two countries, but also a much more complex situation with regard to their future prospects for democracy. Despite the political repression that has reigned in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the liberalization of the country's economy has proceeded apace. In the former Soviet Union, by contrast, even seismic political change has not yet produced the movement toward a market economy that is essential for the successful consolidation of democracy.

It is now beyond dispute that reforms originally intended to strengthen communist rule have instead either severely weakened it or led directly to its demise. In both China and the former USSR, what started out as regime-led reform began inexorably to turn into revolution against the communist state and its ruling party. Although the Chinese reforms began with the economy while those in the Soviet Union focused more on the political sphere, and although their respective results seem very different, there is a striking similarity in the way that the process of reform-turning-into-revolution has unfolded in the two countries. At the [End Page 108] heart of this process in both the Soviet and Chinese cases was the way that autonomous social groups began to assume control over the direction and timing of reform—a phenomenon that I call societal takeover.

Societal takeover occurs when one or more sizable groups (radical intellectuals, ethnic nationalists, peasants, or industrial workers, for example) seize upon openings created by regime-sponsored reforms in order to acquire new capacities for organizing themselves, to make themselves heard in the mass media, and to secure greater control over economic resources. Using their new leverage, these groups can then radicalize reform by speeding its pace and resetting its direction.

When a societal takeover occurs, the initiators of reform lose their ability to set the agenda as radical demands for things like national independence, full democratization, and marketization are voiced by increasingly powerful, autonomous, and assertive groups. New leaders—some of them defectors from the old regime and others veterans of old dissident movements—arise to spearhead the new wave of reform, relegating the initial reformers to a secondary, perhaps even irrelevant, position. At this point, reform begins to take on the character of a revolution.

Societal takeovers generally proceed through five phases: 1) a limited initial opening; 2) the rapid acquisition of critical resources by key social groups; 3) their consolidation and institutionalization of these newly gained resources; 4) the radicalization of reform, along with conservative attempts at a countertakeover; and 5) formal assumption of power by the previously excluded social groups.

1. Limited Initial Opening.

During this first phase (1979-82 in China and 1985-88 in the Soviet Union), there was a temporary convergence of interests between the top reformer and newly activated social groups that climbed aboard the bandwagon of reform despite harboring long-term interests in conflict with those of the reformer. For instance, radical intellectuals in both China and the Soviet Union were among the earliest and most ardent supporters of Deng's and Gorbachev's reforms, as were various ethnic nationalists in the peripheral republics of the Soviet Union.

At this stage, the top reformers' most important contributions usually consisted of appointments of liberals to key positions in selected state agencies. In the Soviet Union in 1986, for instance, Gorbachev filled the editorships of important publications like Moscow News, Ogonek, and Novyi mir with reformist writers committed to glasnost'. Similarly in China, Hu Yaobang, the liberal general secretary of the Communist Party and patron of many leading Chinese intellectuals, also installed a large number of liberals in key...


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