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Survivor: the Chinese Communist Party

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on May 20, 2007

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

In the spring of 1989, giant crowds marched through the streets of China's cities, demanding an end to official corruption and more political freedom. Inspired by the spectacle of these dramatic demonstrations, foreign observers predicted that the days of the Chinese Communist Party were numbered. And yet, as we mark the 18th anniversary of the brutal June 4 Massacre, which put an end to 1989's student-led protests, the party remains in power.

The party's own actions have helped it stay in control. By making the surprising move of accepting entrepreneurs into its ranks, it has co-opted a potentially threatening group, and it has pulled back from micromanaging many aspects of private life, a cause of much discontent in the 1980s.

But the party has also gotten lucky breaks in the international arena and been helped by unexpected post-1989 developments in the wider world. In the early 1990s, Russia's decline and Yugoslavia's free-fall into chaos benefited the Chinese Communists. These phenomena allowed the party to say to the Chinese people, in effect: "You may be sick of Communism, but there seems to be something worse out there — post-Communism."

Closer to home, the crisis sparked by North Korea's nuclear ambitions has helped the party too. North Korea is a Communist state led by the notoriously erratic Kim Jong-Il. It is isolated from most other nations but has long had close ties to China. Whenever Kim behaves outrageously, the United States, Russia, Japan and South Korea appeal to the Chinese Communists for help, treating Beijing as the world's best hope for keeping Pyongyang in check. This allows the party to say to the Chinese people that it has been successful in raising China's status in the realm of global diplomacy.

The general instability of 21st-century geopolitics has also bolstered the party. One argument the party uses to convince the Chinese people that it should remain in control is that, in times of global unrest, nations without strong, stable governments become vulnerable to being bullied or even invaded.

How much longer can the party defy the predictions of its imminent demise that were so common in 1989? This question is impossible to answer with certainty, but recent history tells us one thing. The party's fate will continue to depend not just on what happens inside of China but also what happens in the unpredictable world that lies beyond its borders.


Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).