The Autocrats’ Learning Curve
China, unlike the Eastern European states, had early warning that its regime was about to fall; the entire world seemed to know it. That sense of urgency made Chinese leaders avid students of the Soviet Union’s downfall. The CCP charged official think tanks with discovering the keys to maintaining a monopoly on power, while avoiding the fate of erstwhile counterparts in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, and Moscow.
What did the Chinese researchers learn? First, that Europe’s 1989 unrest was fueled by patriotism — a desire to rid their countries of regimes imposed from outside. Protesters in Europe also had a potent mix of economic and political grievances. Those in charge had claimed that Marxist regimes could compete with capitalist ones in material terms, but the night-and-day contrast between the creature comforts available on the two sides of the wall revealed the hollowness of this boast. Finally, Eastern Europe’s movements spread quickly because nearly everyone — regardless of their class — felt they were in the same boat. The only meaningful social divide was between a small privileged coterie of corrupt officials and the rest. And the rest was pretty much everyone.
But what does set 2009 apart from both 1919 and 1989 are two things. The first is the relative quiescence of university students. They are not nearly as apathetic as they are sometimes portrayed in the West, but they are not agitating loudly for change and trying to get members of other classes to follow them onto the streets as their counterparts did during the May 4 and Tiananmen protests.
The second difference is probably an even more important one to keep in mind. In 2009, there is no unifying thread that connects the actions of different disgruntled groups. People from various walks of life don’t feel—as many did in 1919 and in 1989—that they’re all in the same boat. Censorship and crackdowns, especially on the most organized forms of protest, help keep the landscape of dissent fragmented. But this is also a product of the economic boom, which has made and continues to make Chinese society ever more socially, culturally, and geographically differentiated.