Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

China's Tumult Sends Sober Signal To Communist Reformers Abroad

TODAY Tiananmen Square, tomorrow Red Square? Some analysts are questioning whether violence is the likely outcome whenever reform in a communist society is outpaced by the demands of an alienated populace.

It's a question that has engulfed Washington, as the death toll in China's capital, Beijing, mounts and the Bush administration ponders how to further react to one of the worst bloodlettings in a communist country in recent decades.

About these ads

Many US experts say that China's agony is a discrete event, the outcome of a set of tragic circumstances unique to that Asian giant, rather than an omen of what lies ahead for the Soviet Union and other communist nations as they confront the imperative of reform.

Still, analysts say, there are some key lessons to be learned from events in China.

For Washington, the chief lesson seems to be the need to draw finer distinctions among the panoply of reform measures under way across much of the communist world - and to draw up better analyses of their likely impact.

For Moscow and East European capitals, the lesson appears to be more sober: Ruling communist parties must keep economic and political reform in tandem, or risk the convulsions and carnage that have wracked Beijing.

Indeed, the contrasts in the communist world during the past week could hardly have been more stark. While China's troops battled citizens in the streets, Poland's populace streamed to the polls in the first competitive election since 1948. And the Soviet Union took stock of a tumultuous week of televised parliamentary debate that called into question not only the competence but the very legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

It was the turmoil in China, however, that riveted not only Washington, but most of the rest of the world as well.

``Certainly, everyone in the East is paying attention,'' comments James McAdams, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.

About these ads

``In China, economic reform has led to political reform. In the Soviet Union, political reform has led to economic reform,'' says Amos Jordan, a national security policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But in both countries, he says, the ruling parties have been confronted with the same practical problem: The communist ideology that supposedly underpins and unites the nation, he says, has simply ``run out of steam.''

In the USSR, Dr. Jordan says, Communist Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev has succeeded in ``modifying, updating Lenin enough to allow him to cancel out a central tenet of Marxism - the dominance of the party.'' China's leaders, by contrast, seemed to have placed party dominance above all other considerations - with disastrous consequences.

``When the cannons roared in Tiananmen Square, they blew away the last vestige of legitimacy that ideology provided,'' he says.

President Bush's announcement on Monday of a set of US diplomatic measures seems to have temporarily blunted calls for even more forceful action against the Chinese government. The steps outlined by the President amount to a clear rebuke of China's rulers. President Bush halted all military sales to China, ended exchanges between the US and Chinese military, promised sympathy for Chinese students in the US who want to remain here, and encouraged a speedup of humanitarian aid to the victims of the Chinese military's assault against civilian demonstrators. But Mr. Bush stressed that he did not want a ``total break'' in relations between the two governments.

Still, the outrage in Washington - particularly among conservatives - is palpable, and growing. Rep. Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma says the US should consider harsher economic sanctions against China, specifically aimed at ``stifling [its] economic growth.''

Some analysts doubt that the US can do much to alter events in China. ``I don't think the US government has any kind of leverage,'' says Richard F. Staar, coordinator of the international studies program at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

Dr. Staar, among others, notes that the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties are as fundamentally different as the countries they rule. The Soviet Communist Party has been in real control of the country since 1921, he says, the Chinese communists only since 1949. Soviet party control has been more far reaching and pervasive than in China, he adds.

In addition, he notes, the Soviets have been conducting educational exchanges with the US since the 1950s. Some of the alumni of those exchanges are now in influential policymaking roles in the USSR. However, he adds, Chinese students in the US are relatively recent arrivals and have not yet moved up into influential positions in the Chinese government.

The Soviet Communist Party has made it clear that it will not accept a pluralistic political system, Staar says. The Chinese, faced with massive pro-democracy demonstrations, at first acted indecisively and may have unwittingly encouraged further protests.

The Soviets ``have established limits,'' Staar says. ``I don't think you're going to see the kind of upheaval you had in China.''

Others are not so sure. ``What we've seen in Tiananmen Square is a preview of what we will see in Red Square,'' says Leon Aron, a Soviet 'emigr'e and fellow in Soviet studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Mr. Aron says the impassioned rhetoric during last week's Soviet parliamentary debates in Moscow showed ``a massive revolt against the social, political and economic fabric'' of the Soviet Union is under way.

But in the USSR, he says, there is a proportionally larger Communist Party membership and bureaucracy than in China. Consequently, more people in the Soviet Union have a vested interest in opposing change. ``Gorbachev is going to have a much harder time'' controlling the demands for change than the Chinese leadership faced, Aron predicts.

Princeton's James McAdams, however, is skeptical that the experience of China is transferable to the USSR or Eastern Europe.

Each communist country today faces different problems, he says, and is fashioning different solutions. Trying to apply the outcome in one country to any other ``just doesn't work,'' he says.

Moreover, he adds, some communist party leaders don't simply cling to power because they're cynical or opportunistic, but ``because they really don't see the alternatives.''

If some communist societies, such as Poland or Hungary, can adjust their economic and political systems without violence, he says, then the leadership in other countries might become more amenable to change.

Indeed, the Polish Communist Party this week conceded that it had suffered a massive defeat during last weekend's parliamentary elections - but pledged to be more responsive in the future.

Still, McAdams says, some Eastern European communists are pointing to the violent outcome in China as an object lesson on the limits of change. The message, he says, is blunt: ``Let's not tamper with the limits of socialism.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.