Summer Reading: Dimitrov et. al. on Authoritarian Persistence



In anticipation of a retreat in Berlin on authoritarian persistence, I finally got around to Martin Dimitrov’s interesting collection for Cambridge (2013) Why Communism Did Not Collapse: Understanding Authoritarian Regime Resilience in Asia and Europe. (Google books, including table of contents, here). The main axis of comparison centers on the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe empire vs. the (largely Asian) survivors: China, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos and Cuba. But interesting contrasts are also drawn to the motley crew of authoritarian successor states in the former Soviet Union.

There has been a resurgence of interest in authoritarian resilience in political science and Dimitrov groups the causal factors at work into several clusters, each of which can work for or against survival: economic reforms; ideology; diffusion; and “inclusion” and accountability. The broad outlines of the comparison are relatively easily stated, even if some are more than a bit depressing for our interest in North Korea (Charles Armstrong contributes the North Korea chapter emphasizing the ideological dimension in particular):

  • Soviet reforms—largely for structural reasons such as the size and potential productivity of the agricultural sector—had more adverse short-run effects, contributing to the demise of the regime. In China, rural reforms seemed to make virtually everyone better off. North Korea clearly has not survived to date through adopting reforms. But if the incremental reforms start to have effect, we can by no means assume they will prove as destabilizing as they did in Russia; to the contrary, Dimitrov notes that such reforms can strengthen the regime.
  • By the end of the Soviet road, true believers were hard to find. Elites were cynical, publics were cynical, everyone was going through the motions. Gorbachev’s efforts to forge a third way between socialism and “global values” went nowhere and ideological support for the system collapsed. In the survivors, according to Dimitrov, elites reforged nationalist-socialist ideological blends that had wider appeal (see, for example, Xi Jinping’s populist “Chinese dream”). Again, North Korea fits the "survivor" pattern.
  • Some of the strongest pieces in the volume—by Mark Kramer and Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik—trace the complex diffusion processes that led to collapse socialist Europe: first from the Soviet Union to the stunned Eastern European party leaderships (1986-88); then back again from Eastern Europe to the Baltics (1989); and then finally in both directions during the endgame of 1990-91. The survivors, by contrast faced few such diffusion processes and where they did—most notably in the events leading up to Tiananmen 1989—crushed them. North Korea sits in the definition of a bad neighborhood in political terms, with both Chinese and Russian patrons; don’t expect pressure from those quarters to democratize.
  • The most interesting parts of the volume concern the question of inclusion and accountability. Real nuance is required.
    • First Dimitrov is blunt that Gorbachev’s efforts to democratize were plain dumb from the perspective of regime survival. The miscalculation was staggering. Gorbachev thought that he could skillfully use pressure from newly-created state institutions to check his hardline opponents in the party and military while still maintaining control. When the elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies was held in 1989, a majority of endorsed candidates won. But the elections provided an entry point and then platform for a variety of opponents—including Boris Yeltsin—that ultimately contributed to the unraveling of the system.
    • Dimitrov and his colleagues show how explicitly the lesson was learned in China. Political reforms were limited to a complex array of partial accountability mechanisms. These did not really cede power but rather enhanced the capacity of the party and state to control the public. In an interesting chapter, Dimitrov considers petition procedures in Bulgaria and China and how they collapsed in the former but survived in the latter. In another particularly interesting contribution, Eddy Malesky, Regina Abrami and Yu Zheng trace the differences between the Vietnamese and Chinese institutions in detail. The Vietnamese system has more horizontal checks, a more independent government and a more active legislature than China. But these institutions have not made the system more democratic, but rather have served as an effective means of eliciting information and continuing control.
    • The “inclusion” concept centers both on the social contract—which clearly collapsed in the Soviet Union—and the ability to incorporate groups that may seem totally anathema to a socialist order. Kelley Tsai looks at that incorporation of the private sector in China. She sees it as a crucial element of regime stability, even as it has generated the corruption that Xi Jinping is now trying to root out. If the new laisser-faire with respect to the state-owned enterprise sector yields fruit, the North Korean regime could find surprising allies in the emergent "red hat" sector: entrepreneurs making money and willing to share at least some of it with the party-state.

The broad lessons for North Korea are in line with our priors: don’t hold your breath for a collapse. The regime is highly unlikely to take the risky step of a political opening, and has so far proved ideologically adept. Byungjin is a gamble, because of its promise that citizens will no longer have to tighten their belts. But the biggest fallacy may be the belief that economic reform will prove destabilizing. The lesson of this volume is precisely the opposite, that such reforms are an adaptive response that contributes to resilience. With little external pressure from powerful neighbors, we are in for a long ride: with the possible exception of Cuba, the communist regimes in Asia are likely to be around for a while.

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