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Why did Deng Xiaoping survive the ‘crisis of communism’ whilst Mikhail Gorbachev did not?
The dominant powers of communism, China and the Soviet Union, were about to face a major test to their systems of governance in the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, only one of them would survive. The ‘crisis of communism’ had its roots in the disillusionment of the people, after having been ruled for so long under repressive and clearly human rights-ignorant regimes.
Deng Xiaoping managed to escape the wrath of this protest movement by, although reforming the economic system of China in various ways, clamping down on political systems, ensuring that the power of democracy bestowed on the people was not enough to usurp upon Xiaoping’s rule over the country. Gorbachev suffered a dissimilar fate. His failed economic policies of glasnost and perestroika, and the simultaneous political leniencies of his era meant that the Communist Party lost its place in the Soviet Union. One by one, the satellite states of the Eastern bloc would break away from the USSR’s control.
Xiaoping became ruler of China among very difficult times, both economically and socially. The aftermath of Mao Tse-tung’s underwhelming contributions to policy was taking its toll on the people of China. Xiaoping was originally meant to be purged by the Gang of Four in 1976 during their attempted coup d’etat of the Chinese Government. One of the Gang of Four’s members was Mao Tse-tung’s last wife, Jiang Qing. However, when Hua Guofeng was appointed Communist Party chairman, he managed to turn the Red Army over to his side. The Gang of Four were subjected to a show trial and all given life sentences in prison. Consequently, the Democracy Wall was set up as a medium for which to criticise them and their treasonous crimes. With this sociopolitical relaxation in place, initialised by Huang Xiang, Deng Xiaoping rose to power.
Xiaoping’s first reforms were on agricultural policy. The Great Leap Forward (GLF) and the Down To The Countryside migration movement of people from urban to agrarian communities, both bids to boost the role of agriculture in China’s economy, drew huge losses, and exacerbated the state of poverty among rural communities in China’s north and west, as the Soviet Union had predicted. To make matters worse, the communities who had been submitted to the GLF policy suffered severe droughts which decimated crops and left people hungry. To attempt to remedy these issues, Xiaoping abolished the communal system of agriculture and reissued the peasants with their private plots of land. Although the prosperity of rural Chinese communities wavered under Xiaoping’s rule, he had large support from them as a whole.
China also underwent huge economic reforms under Xiaoping, which he termed ‘market socialism’. He directed Hu Yaobang, the General Secretary of the CCP, to impose most of these reforms. For the first time since the rule of the Kuomintang, China opened its markets up to the rest of the globe, in pursuit of a ‘free market’ approach to its trade.
In this way, China would be able to benefit from the dollar of others, as its internal production suffered. Xiaoping also set up ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZs), such as the town of Shenzhen, which is now a city of 3.5 million people. Xiaoping’s economic policies were initially successful, but increased inflation and internal government corruption led to protest. Also, many of the party elders (most of them Maoists) opposed free market reforms and the attempts made by Xiaoping to make China’s government more transparent and open to scrutiny. When student protests in Beijing began, Hu Yaobang was criticised for being ‘lax’ by his political opponents, and was forced to resign, being replaced by Zhao Ziyang.
When Hu Yaobang died, 100 000 students called for the government to reassess his legacy, and engaged in a mass protest in Tiananmen Square, demanding greater transparency of the Chinese government. Communism was being challenged by the people. Xiaoping, however, had a hold on the army, and used them to deal with the protests. This was a complete volte-face on Xiaoping’s part. Although he opened up the idea of democracy to the people of China for the first time, Xiaoping was relentless in silencing the Tiananmen protesters, even resorting to massacre in order to hold ‘peace’. When the defiance of the infamous ‘Tank Man’ was caught on tape, being seized by army officials, the Chinese government did its best to censor its release. Their attempts failed, and suddenly the whole world knew of the extent to which the Chinese government would go to maintain its hold of power on the people.
Although Xiaoping was able to withstand these challenges to communism, Gorbachev could not. Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union succeeding a tide of disillusioned leaders whose ‘inertia’ in decision making meant that the Soviet Union’s economy, social tension and standard of living were starting to go stale. The age of these past leaders, due to their old age and ridiculously poor health, was termed the ‘gerontocracy’ of the Soviet Union.
To rectify the inaction of these leaders and the disillusionment of the people towards the Communist Party, Gorbachev decided immediate reforms were needed to restart the economy and to regain social trust. He introduced two key policies: glasnost, meaning openness, which was make the government more transparent and allow freedom of speech; and perestroika, a political movement of Gorbachev’s which introduced demokratizasiya (democratisation of the government) and economic reforms which allowed foreign investment. Gorbachev’s perestroika movement also had other hidden side effects; it would cause the end of the Eastern bloc and the dissolution of Eastern Europe.
The perestroika movement cut Gorbachev’s Communist Party into two: liberals who wanted this reform to be accelerated and ‘old communists’ who did not like the idea of reforming the Soviet Union’s systems at all. After some setbacks, Gorbachev managed to push the reforms through. However, his intention to keep a one-party system failed, as elements of a multi-party system began to crystallise. Boris Yeltsin, formerly a supporter of Gorbachev, was now independent of the Communist Party and challenging him. Meanwhile, after the international embarrassment caused by the censorship of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, Gorbachev began releasing Soviet dissidents who had been kept imprisoned, and allowed even greater freedom of expression, rather than tightening it, as Xiaoping did. Gorbachev also supported the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, which signified the end to the repressive ‘iron curtain’ the Soviets had been ‘protected’ by for nearly forty years.
However, it soon became clear that perestroika was not targeting the correct areas of the Soviet Union’s economy which needed serious attention. Although Gorbachev now allowed privatisation and engagement in foreign trade and investment, much of the macroeconomic aspects of the Soviet command economy were still intact, such as price controls, and the monopolistic control of the means of production by the State. Thus, perestroika was a largely unhelpful ‘trickle-down’ policy, contrasting the SEZ policy of Xiaoping’s, which had the inverse effect. Perestroika only moved the bottleneck of the Soviet economy downwards, which failed to alleviate the continuous poverty which afflicted the country.
The conservative side of the Soviet government was appalled with Gorbachev’s actions and how the Communist Party’s power was gradually being marginalised. Gorbachev also saw this, and to quell the opposition’s protest, he attempted to avert the dissolution of the Soviet Union by installing the New Union Treaty, which proposed a new confederacy named the ‘Union of Sovereign States’ which would replace the Soviet Union. But within it, the federal system would be less centralised and there would be a greater distribution of political power, which reduced the Communist Party’s control even more.
Gorbachev was meant to sign the treaty on 20 August 1991, but was stopped by a coup d’etat attempt of Yeltsin’s (assisted by several others). On the day of the proposed signing, they issued an ultimatum for Gorbachev to declare Gennady Yanaev of the Communist Party the new President of the USSR, or call a union-wide state of emergency. Gorbachev accepted to do neither. He was consequently placed under ‘house arrest’ as the citizens of Moscow began erecting barricades around the presidential estate. On 21 August, tanks intruded on the Red Square, and an attack on the White House was imminent, but the tanks were barricaded by trolleybuses. When the coup was officially over, Gorbachev dismissed all members of the State involved with the coup from their positions.
After this incident, Gorbachev knew that his popularity was waning. His last major political decision was to establish the Belavezha Accords, which denounced the 1922 treaty that established the Soviet Union. The Belavezha Accords were signed on December 8 1991, On December 25, Gorbachev officially resigned as President of the Soviet Union, replaced by Boris Yeltsin, and on December 26 the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Conclusively, it is clear that while there were similarities between the reformation of the Chinese and Soviet political and economic systems as a response to the ‘crisis of communism’, the reason why Xiaoping succeeded this era and Gorbachev did not was because the Chinese government retained control over its people and did not allow opposition to the Communist Party. Gorbachev marginalised this power, which polarised the Soviet government. Gorbachev also relied on a ‘trickle-down’ economic policy to save the Soviet economy, which unfortunately did not achieve what it set out to do. Finally, Gorbachev’s attempts to ‘democratise’ the Soviet Union and prepare its federal system for reformation failed when it resulted in a complete dissolution of the entity.