June 2, 2014

25 years ago – in early June 1989 – the Chinese military cracked down on the students and other protesters who wanted more political freedom. The principal site for the political unrest was Tiananmen Square in Beijing, probably the largest public space in the world. In fact, most of the several hundred (possibly thousands – we will never know for sure) who were killed were not killed in the square itself but in the roads leading to it and in other urban locations across the country.

1989 was also notable for the end of the communism in Europe. The Berlin Wall was demolished by demonstrators in November 1989, following months of unrest. The two Germanies were united on October 3 1990. The Soviet Union itself disappeared in December 1991.

Why did the communist parties fail throughout eastern Europe – and yet the Chinese communist party remains in power?

I think the Chinese after June 1989 learnt from the Soviet failure. The Chinese communists permit freedom at the social and economic edges, while retaining supreme political power for themselves.

The Soviet communists believed they were creating a new type of society. They had a bold civilizational mission. They thought they could provide an alternative vision of society for the rest of the world.

They endeavoured to maintain a tight control over all aspects of political, economic and social life. They despised the popular culture of the western countries and believed they were creating a smarter, more cultured way of life. (As a visitor behind the Iron Curtain I was bored with all the high culture, such as opera, I was obliged to endure).

Eventually the lid blew off the communist saucepan. The communist system could create basic necessities but not the luxury consumer goods that the slowly economically developing eastern Europeans yearned for. Centralized economic planning could put a person into outer space but not produce sophisticated automobiles.

Eastern European political loyalties may have been to Moscow but their hearts were in Hollywood. Hollywood makes the best dreams.

Soviet dissident writer (and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He vowed never to return until his books were easily available in Russia. With collapse of the Soviet Union, he returned in 1994 (and he is buried there). His books are now available – but largely unread. They are too heavy and serious – Russian readers want to be entertained and not confronted the harsh reality of communist life. (He became almost as a big critic of what he saw as frivolous western culture as he was of repressive Soviet communism).

People want to be fed and entertained. That is the reality – as TS Eliot pointed out “humankind cannot bear very much reality”.

Beijing Learns

I suggest that Chinese communism has survived because it has learned from the Soviet totalitarian failure. You do not need to control all aspects of life to retain power. Keep the people fed and entertained – and away from politics.

The Chinese communists retain power by holding onto the political reins of power, including censoring Internet references to the Tiananmen massacre.

But they do not now attempt the broad sweep of social and economic control that Moscow attempted. Their civilizational mission is not as aggressive as the Soviet one. They do not pretend they are creating an alternative vision for society that will be an example to the rest of the world. They certainly want to undo what they see as the tragedy of the previous two centuries or so under imperial domination, and so wish to redraw their boundaries (hence the territorial disputes).

But they have no ambition for the rest of the world to emulate Chinese communist culture. Other countries are to welcome to have whatever lifestyle they want.

Chinese communists want to make trade – not war. A visit to Chinese cities show they have (for the wealthy anyway) a taste for international consumer goods. Some of the best markets for European and American luxury goods are now in China.

A few Chinese may be interested in political freedom and having a say in how the country is governed. But most people cannot be bothered. They are concerned about corruption (alas not exclusively a Chinese problem) and they have no great love for their politicians.

But as long as the material standard of living continues to improve and there is a steady flow of consumer goods, most people are satisfied. As long as the political system delivers economic growth, they are not too fussed about the political system.

There is greater social liberty in China than there was behind the Iron Curtain. People are free to make money and spend it as they wish – providing they do not try to disrupt the political system.

This may not seem a particularly elevated view of humankind. But as Solzhenitsyn found, most people want consumer goods and entertainment and not be bothered with the complexities of politics, let alone revolution.

Written By: Keith Suter, Managing Director www.Global-Directions.com