“China, Russia and Vietnam have revived and prolonged authoritarianism precisely by adapting capitalism to their own designs. Turkey and Egypt have created new forms of sultanism,” wrote the historian Brian Klaas in a package of essays for The Washington Post marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “And in east-central Europe, Hungary and Poland — once bright spots of the 1989 revolutions — are once again embracing one-party rule in all but name. Germany, once the standard-bearer for Eastern Europe, now also finds itself bedeviled by right-wing populism. Even in the United States — a country that Ronald Reagan called a ‘shining city upon a hill’ in January 1989 — a weak but dangerous would-be strongman now rules.”
With the hindsight of three decades, a host of commentators have also turned their focus to a looming hegemon in the East. China represents something altogether different than the Soviet Union as a vast nation that is on course to actually surpass the economic clout of the United States. Its emergence on the global stage since the fall of the Berlin Wall ought to have dispelled the once widely held belief that the march of democracy went lockstep with market capitalism and economic modernization.
“China is becoming more totalitarian, not less, and its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, contrary to predictions, did not turn it into a ‘responsible stakeholder’ but into a ruthless abuser of the international trade system,” wrote Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, gesturing at a broader crisis in global liberalism. “Russia has turned into an authoritarian kleptocracy. Neoliberal prescriptions (the ‘Washington consensus’) led to the global financial crisis in 2008.”
The euphoria of 1989 may have clouded the real historical forces at work. “While we blithely celebrated the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe, we wholly underestimated the significance of its survival in China,” wrote conservative commentator and academic Niall Ferguson. “In our Eurocentric way, we paid more attention to events in Timisoara than to those in Tiananmen Square, where communism had shown its true, repressive face that June. Now, 30 years on, the enlargement of the EU and NATO — even the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — seem much less significant historically than China’s spectacular rise after 1989.”
China’s Communist rulers, though, aren’t taking anything for granted. As my colleagues reported earlier this year, the leadership in Beijing has drawn its own conclusions from what followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The Soviet Union disintegrated, [President] Xi Jinping said when he became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party seven years ago, because its leaders changed their ideals and beliefs too quickly and too radically,” noted The Post’s Anna Fifield. Xi, she added, “learned from the Soviets not to denounce the party’s elder statesman and not to try any kind of political opening.”
Indeed, Xi has presided over a ruthless authoritarian consolidation, styling himself as an heir to Mao Zedong and one of the “reddest” leaders of his generation. “Today’s China is as much a product of 1989 as are the fragile democracies of Central Europe,” Timothy Garton Ash, a veteran chronicler of European politics, observed last month. “To avoid [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev’s fate, Xi Jinping and his fellow party leaders have systematically learned lessons from the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc. Along the way, as much by improvisation as by design, they have created an unprecedented hybrid system that might be described as Leninist capitalism.”
There are echoes of the past here, too. “Soviet power fragmented on the periphery first. That is why Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan are the key areas to watch today, not Beijing,” wrote Ferguson. “The Berlin Wall fell as part of a chain reaction that began in Poland in the summer of 1988 and spread to Hungary and on to Leipzig … before it reached Berlin.” He predicted that “some similar process, in the end, will bring down the Great Firewall of China.”
That may be too premature a pronouncement, but the ghosts of 1989 still hover. “I think a lot of Chinese policy is driven by fear,” Klaus Mühlhahn, a professor of Chinese history at the Free University of Berlin, told my colleagues. “This fear of losing power, of a development similar to what happened in the Soviet Union, shapes much of the policy and thinking.”