Survivor: Chinese Communist Party

Student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square during spring of 1989, ending with a massacre on June 4, prompted many foreigners mistakenly to predict the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP remains in power today, but confronts a growing set of challenges, both domestic and international. To counter complaints about the CCP micromanaging many aspects of private life throughout the 1980s, the government encouraged entrepreneurship and personal financial wealth. Now these same entrepreneurs have the potential to threaten the party’s authority. Some international events have solidified CCP power: Pointing to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia’s descent into chaos, the party credits its form of communism with providing stability. More recently, the international community has called on the CCP to join diplomatic efforts, including restraint of the dictator in neighboring North Korea. History professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom warns that unpredictable global events could pose many challenges and CCP power depends on fair domestic policies along with reasonable reactions to problems beyond its borders. – YaleGlobal

Survivor: Chinese Communist Party

Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Monday, June 4, 2007

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(CCP) were numbered.

And yet, as we prepare to mark the 18th anniversary of the brutal June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, which put an end to the student-led protests, the party remains in power.

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

But the party has also had some lucky breaks in the international arena and been helped by unexpected post-1989 developments in the rest of the world.

In the early 1990s, Russia's decline and Yugoslavia's free-fall into chaos benefited the CCP. These phenomena allowed the party to say to the Chinese people, "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 also helped the party led by the notoriously erratic Kim Jong-il. North Korea is isolated from most other countries, but has long had close ties to China.

Whenever Kim behaves outrageously, the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea appeal to the CCP 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, states without strong, stable governments become vulnerable to bullying or even invasion.

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 China, but also what happens in the unpredictable world that lies beyond its borders.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a writer for the History News Service.

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