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  • China and the Lessons of Eastern Europe
  • Liu Binyan (bio)

The two biggest political events of 1989 both confounded people's expectations. Virtually no one expected the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe to succeed so swiftly and easily; nor did anyone expect China's democratic movement to erupt so suddenly and then be so brutally crushed. The sharp contrast of outcomes in the two cases leaves behind a question: Why has democratic revolution succeeded in the East European countries but failed (so far) in China?

In the early 1980s, some scholars and writers in China located the reason for the apparent sluggishness of China's historical development in her traditional culture. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989, some foreign scholars still searched for a cultural explanation for the Chinese predicament. One knowledgeable Japanese scholar observed that while Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats were clearly obstructing economic reform, and while the CCP leadership was the main impediment to political reform, he still believed that "the Party backed by the military is the only integrating force and the only representative [End Page 3] of the people in China." He even defended the reasonableness of Communist restrictions on forming independent political associations, on the grounds that such groups might cause factionalism and confusion. Reasoning that unity in China is of paramount importance, he further argued that Japan was right to keep lending money to the Communist regime, and urged other countries to do likewise.

I agree that Chinese culture is unique and that it has implications for China's political development. But overrating culture's role can easily lead to conclusions like those of our Japanese scholar, who suggests that while the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe can successfully overthrow communist regimes, the Chinese people cannot, because communism somehow suits them better. A similar view seems to underlie the double standards evident in the Bush administration's human rights policies toward China on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on the other.

The nations of Eastern Europe, however, do not have identical cultures. Especially clear differences separate Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and all these countries are culturally distinct from the peoples of the Soviet Union. And yet all have ended, or are in the process of ending, communist rule. This shows that political and economic systems have a much greater impact than does culture on a country's development.

In a paper presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Professor Gilbert Rozman pointed out that over the past several decades the same five factors have been crucial to the progress both of de-Stalinization in the USSR and de-Maoification in China:

First, there was a natural progression of leadership, produced by the gradual aging and eventual replacement of the revolutionary generation as well as by winnowing out initially diverse elements and consciously recruiting successors . . . . Second, there was also an evolution of the public mood as the socialist system aged. Incentives and interests that have popular appeal in the uncertain and, to some degree, buoyant times soon after the revolution give way to a different psychology . . . . Third, the stages of socialism also were determined by the level of modernization in each country and the subsequent advances and imbalances in this process . . . . Fourth, even in the two most self-sufficient large countries in the world there was fallout from the world environment. Socialism in one country could not advance indefinitely without adjusting to the state of the world. Competition between China and the Soviet Union themselves played a rote in this international context . . . . Fifth, and by no means least important, was the built-in ideological blueprint, as articulated by Stalin and Mao, for reaching successively higher stages of socialism. Although this dogma failed to respond to reality, it did much to shape the unfolding scenarios.

The cultural differences that divide China from the Soviet Union are far greater than the differences between China and Japan, or between [End Page 4] China and any of the four "little tigers" of East Asia (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). Yet China has chosen an entirely different path from those other...