Reflections on June-4th Incident (One)

Reflections on the June-4th Incident (One): why endogenous communist countries reject Western-styled democracy?
By He Qinglian on June 1, 2012.

This year marks the 23rd anniversary of the June-4th incident, and it has been more than  21 years since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc in Eastern and Central Europe. In most of the countries where the socialist system was imposed on them, for example Eastern European countries, the humiliation and pain caused by Communism gradually fades away after the generation(s) that personally experienced it has grown old. In endogenous communist countries like Russia and China, however, the former remains in the state of enlightened despotism, the latter has yet to reach that state.

It is interesting to compare the history and cultural background of the two countries.
In general, there are two types of Communist countries: endogenous and externally imposed. The places of origin of the Communist Revolution, endogenous Communist countries are where the Communist Parties established their rule through domestic armed uprising. The former Soviet Union and China belong to this category. As for the countries that had the Communist system externally imposed upon them—in Eastern European countries for example, during their occupation by foreign forces, local Communist cadres that were trained by foreign government were transported home, and Communist regimes that relied on foreign tanks and guns to maintain their rule were established. Leon Bernhard Wolfgang, a cadre of former East German Communist Party, published in 1980 a book that contained a section about the details of him following Walter Ulbricht back to Berlin to establish the Communist regime in East Germany with the escort of the Soviet Army.

If these were to be illustrated with the graphic description of “games of cards”, in endogenous communist countries it would be a game between the ruler and domestic opposition forces. Neither Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported Vladimir Lenin, or the Soviet Union, which backed the CPC, made formal appearance. They only secretly sent a few good cards to support one of the two sides. Yet in countries where Communism was imposed upon, the games were played not just between the ruler and the opponents who scarcely amounted to anything, there were outsiders who, with trump cards in their hands, had enough power to change the political landscapes of these countries. The two different card games dictated the dissimilar historical fate of these two types of countries. The dissolution of endogenous Communist regimes would mostly due to their internal collapse; the situation of those implanted communist regimes depended on external vicissitudes.

In countries where Communism was imposed upon, the history of their market economy, civil society, liberal thinking, and free speech, among others, had deep-rooted influence; the people there did not embrace the Communist ideology and the dictatorship from their hearts. Instead, they often saw political oppression as the last resort of the foreign-backed domestic puppet regimes. There was a close connection between their dissatisfaction with the local communist regimes, and their will to defend national independence and preserve their own cultural tradition. This was the social root of the uprisings against communist regimes that broke out in succession in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia from 1950s to 1970s. In these countries, once the game player with the most decisive power withdrew—the foreign patron abandoned its position of interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, the puppet regimes might collapse at any moment.

Both the Soviet Union and China belongs to home-grown Communist states. The reasons that Communist regime would emerge in these two countries could be attributed to both profound inner social background and some so-called external historical accidents.

Let’s first begin with the “historical accident” factors. For instance, if the First World War did not break out, Lenin could not have obtained economic support from Germany; the Russian army would not have developed anti-war sentiment, and the October Revolution might never have happened. Likewise, without the support and aid from the Soviet Union, the CPC could not have survived its early days. And without the Japanese invasion of China, the CPC could in no way grow large enough to win the civil war. However, the two countries have a feature in common: the agricultural society occupied the main component of the economy, and peasants constitute the majority of the members of society. In this type of society, it would be easier for the utopia propaganda of the Communist party to secure the trust of the people; the civil community in the cities, the traditions of liberal thinking and free speech were very fragile and could easily be overwhelmed by the ocean of peasants. All these were what comprised the social background for communism to be home-grown. 

On the eve of the revolution, both Russia and China were at a time when huge number of peasants had become bankrupted and semi-proletarianized. In 1861, Russia began its Emancipation reform. Serfs could become free persons after they paid a substantial amount of redemption tax. Many peasants were left with no means to grow their own crops. Moreover, at that time the Capitalist way of production placed pressure on the original way of production, and led to the bankruptcy of a large number of peasants. The friction between the Capitalist way of production and the Russian feudal system, and the deterioration of the peasants’ livelihood were what gave rise to populism. It was in this time of dramatic social change that a batch of young intellectuals representing the interests of the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie rose to the Russian politics arena, where they set off a massive movement “to the people”. The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English. Without making any analysis, the populists in Russia saw the massive scale of production of capitalism as a decline and a scourge. They detested goods produced on a large scale and had an air of Utopian socialism, an ideology that left noticeable impact on Russia in 1860-70s.

In the mid- and late 19th century, the massive population in China had already been too much for the country to bear. To make matter worse, capitalist industrial products severely impacted the natural economy of China. The peasant economy went bust. The painful process of semi-proletarianization gave rise to numerous farmers who had lost their land and city-dwelling proletariats—who later became vagrants and constituted the main body of the rebels and insurgents. Through the large number of students who studied abroad, various schools of thinking entered China. But whether it was liberalism, anarchism, or some other variety of doctrine, none of them were comparable to the populism and socialism originated from Russia in terms of social impact.

A society with too many people in destitution would develop a natural affinity with populism. Such a society would also naturally reject liberalism that features individual freedom and is prone to accept socialism, which calls for the elimination of class differences and the equalization of wealth. Communist regimes established in this type of society belong to the endogenous category. In general, once such regimes are established, they would hardly be dissolved because of external forces, unless there is serious internal rift or an economic crisis that makes them unable to sustain themselves. The longevity of such regimes led to the alienation of modern democracies in societies. Sometimes, populism and thinking that supports authoritarianism and resists democratization would even emerge as nationalism. 

Even if reform is implemented, and democratization process initiated, these countries could not possibly develop a social atmosphere that makes a clean break with the communist system as those countries ruled by externally imposed communist regimes had done. Therefore, the ghosts of the old system would form multifarious alliances with the privileged during the transition, sway the public opinion, and deceive the people with demagogy. As a result, these countries would undergo a long and winding process of transition.

There is but one difference between China and Russia. Since the time when Peter the Great was in reign, Russia the twin-headed eagle had turned one of its heads to the West. In the modernization process that spanned centuries, Russia had been wavering between liberty and democracy of the West and autocracy of the East. At times it expresses its love of Western cultures; at times it emphasizes its oriental features. It is precisely this swinging in directions that led to the marginalization of the Russian culture. Russia has never been seen by the West as part of European cultures; it has not been regarded as an Asian country by the East, either. Caught between cultures of the East and West for a long time, frustrated and bewildered, Russia developed its unique national character, which determines the country’s current political characteristics: on the outside there is an election system modeled after democracy of the West; on the inside it practices strongman politics that embody autocracy of the East. 

China, however, has always had just one head, which never once changed its direction. Although there were calls to learn from the West—from “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application” that was proposed in late Qing dynasty, to present day’s “Marxism and Mao’s thoughts as the principles; Western technologies for practical use”, the inherent political endowment of the country has never changed.

If it is said that at present Russia has already entered the stage of enlightened despotism, the political opposition is demanding the establishment of a wholesome, fully-functional democratic system, then China has still has a long way to go before it reaches this stage. The “shared bottom line” of the various political opposition forces is nothing more than hoping that the authorities would implement enlightened despotism. The only difference is whether the CPC should continue to rule as a whole or the party should split into two factions and then decide through democratic procedure within the party which faction rules.