Lessons Learned

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Atrophy and Adaptation

By David Shambaugh

Woodrow Wilson Center. 234 pp. $39.95

June 4, 1989, is etched into the Chinese Communist Party's memory. On that date it crushed what it viewed as the most serious challenge to its rule. But far away from the students in Tiananmen Square, another threat was gathering. That same day, Polish voters handed a landslide victory to the Solidarity Party. Within months, the People's Republic of Poland was no more; a string of communist regimes, including the Soviet Union, soon fell.

How Beijing chose to respond is the subject of China's Communist Party, by David Shambaugh, a professor of political science at George Washington University. Contrary to the Western image of a top-heavy, ossified Leninist machine, the party that Shambaugh presents is one of nimble intelligence and restless introspection. Its response to the collapse of European communism was not to turn inward or look away, but to try to determine the errors of former communist regimes.

According to Shambaugh, the central conclusion the party drew is that it must remain ideologically flexible while continuously refurbishing its organs, outreach and message. Other lessons, he says, included the need to steadily improve living standards, retain control of the media and avoid European-style social democracy because it could open the door to political pluralism.

For the past 19 years Chinese leaders have followed this recipe. Rather than allow the country's growing entrepreneurial class to become a powerful external force, they have reached out to add entrepreneurs to the party's membership rolls. Nor has the party quietly tolerated members who tarnish its reputation: After a recent vetting, 44,738 members were expelled as unfit or unqualified. Shambaugh points out that, with the exception of Stalin-era purges, no communist leadership has had as many senior leaders stand down. In the past five years, more than half the party's Central Committee, Politburo and Standing Committee positions have turned over. Incumbents have a better chance of holding on to power in most democracies than they do in the upper echelons of the Chinese party.

Many people look hungrily for any clues that the regime may be teetering. Shambaugh's analysis will disappoint them. Although he is not blind to the serious -- and growing -- challenges to Beijing's rule, neither, in his telling, is Beijing. Such open-minded vigilance may be the Chinese leaders' best insurance against following in the footsteps of the communists who went before them. ยท

-- William J. Dobson is managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company