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Liberalism: The Light that Failed
How The CCP Learned from 1989
In his memoir The World as It Is, Ben Rhodes writes that on the day Obama left the White House, what haunted him the most was: ‘What if we were wrong?’ That is, what if liberals had misinterpreted the nature of the post-Cold War period?
‘What if we were wrong?’ is the question Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes set out to explain in their recent The Light That Failed: A Reckoning, which takes Eastern Europe as exhibit A. The book meditates on how liberalism lost its appeal and its themes have clear echoes in East Asia. The following is a transcript of a podcast recording we recorded a few weeks back. Guest hosting is Eddie Fishman.
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Were The Revolutions of 1989 a Failure?
Stephen: There were certain things we did not see an ‘89. We didn’t see that the transformation that everyone heralded for the spread of the liberal democratic model could produce a politics of resentment and grievance, which is what it did.
Was at least one of the reasons the promise of liberal democracy and the attempt to democratize and liberalize Central Europe produced a backlash and a politics of grievance, resentment, and vehement anti-liberalism?
Jordan: Exactly what kind of failure was the revolution of 1989?
Ivan: George Orwell used to say that every revolution is a failure, but not the same failure. One of the paradoxes of 1989 was that it was the success of the idea of 1989 that was at the root of some of the problems that we’re seeing now.
Back in 1989 something very important changed from the point of view of Eastern Europeans. Normally revolution is about building a new society—people are talking about the future as something that is ahead in time. For the Eastern Europeans, the future was just next to them in space. It was one border away. The future in the East was the West.
In 1989, one of the most important concepts that was used in Central and Eastern Europe, which we have been trying to unpack, was the idea of a “normal society.” Western liberal democracies have been defined as normal societies. So in a certain way, to be a liberal democracy means to be normal. From this point of view, you start to try to make your society into a Western society: imitation is critically important. It’s important to keep in mind that imitating is absolutely fine. Normally this is how societies develop. But one thing that was missed in 1989 was that the relation between the model and the imitator was an asymmetrical relation. If one society says “I want to be like you,” it means that I think that you’re better than me. The question follows “what is the problem the problem with me?” And I do believe this type of resentment came exactly when the Central and Eastern European societies, more than ever before, felt like being like the West.
The Paradox of Exit: Liberal Gift or Curse?
Eddie: I want to go back to a point you made, which is that the revolutionaries of 1989 were trying to imitate a form of normality in the west. One of the things I want to do is intersect your story with politics in the US, because of course normality and liberalism as it as practiced in the US evolved over the course of the Cold War. And the unwinding of the Cold War coincided with a very peculiar moment: the heyday of Reaganism, the apotheosis of neoliberal economic thought. Do you think things might have turned out differently if the Cold War had ended with a different set of ideas ascendant in the West?
Ivan: The idea of the West in the East was very different from the way the West actually was. The major change that came with Reagan and Thatcher was not perceived as important in the East as it was in the West. We were trying to see the different tensions within the Western models, the different visions of how the West was going to look. There was a very high idealization of how Western societies function because nothing is as beautiful as the West in the eyes of the Eastern beholder.
Stephen: One of our points in the book is that the Reaganite-Thatcherite form of liberalism was very different than the Rooseveltian-Keynesian social-welfare liberalism, which is much more based on a social compact. The Thatcher-Reaganite liberalism was really based on the implication that there’s no such thing as too much inequality. That idea became very toxic in the East for the simple reason that an attempt to become normal—that is to become Western by imitation—was bound (despite what Havel and Michnik thought) to be a radical experiment, which was going to produce outcomes that no one expected.
If you take standard-model Thatcherite privatization and import it into a country like Hungary with no private capital, the directors of the enterprises are going to use the assets of the enterprises to privatize the public patrimony of the country. The consequence of that was that some people became very wealthy. Some people became very impoverished.
In 1989, the main liberty being offered by the West to the Eastern Europeans was the freedom to leave their country. In countries where there’s a hemorrhaging of youth—particularly young people who have been educated, who know foreign languages who go to work abroad—there’s a sense that those who stay are just being left behind. And certainly, they cannot identify freedom with the power the right to leave your country. That is an injury.
So these two deeply liberal values—protected individual rights and the freedom to leave your country—have become in the Eastern European setting sources of resentment.
That is something we could never have imagined in 1989, and therefore we didn’t predict the form of politics of grievance that arose out of it.
Ivan: This is critically important. Opening up the borders is the best thing that has happened to all of us. If you look at the surveys from 1989 that and ask people what they want most, the majority of the responses in every single Central and Eastern European country was to open up the borders.
But if today you ask the question, “what hurt your society the most?,” it is also opening up the borders, because suddenly your kids, your doctors, your professionals, have left. This is the paradox of the liberal revolutions. Revolutionaries always want to live in the future. If the future of Poland is to become like Germany, why wait for Poland to become like Germany and not simply move to Germany.
Jordan: Ivan, do you want to connect this to the state of the Bulgarian health-care system? Just to make it even more personal?
Ivan: Covid-19 is a great example of this. When Covid-19 came, suddenly we started to be very interested in how our national health services looked. What Bulgaria discovered is that more than 50 percent of the Bulgarian medical personnel is older than 50, and this is regardless of the fact that Bulgaria is producing a lot of doctors and nurses every year through all these medical universities. All these young doctors immediately move to practice and work in the West.
Suddenly if you’re living in the countryside, you have a feeling that the European Union’s opening of borders, this newly gotten freedom, is great, but it’s also depriving you of your kids and of your doctors. This is extremely important to understand why some of the populist parties managed to get political support totally based on the idea of resenting the revolutions that everybody loved.
Stephen: You can’t stop them from going. You can’t say “No, you may not leave your country, you must stay here,” because that’s such a deep idea of what individual freedom is about. It is a paradox. Even parents who are proud of their kids who got a medical degree and are now practicing medicine in Berlin, I think they’re proud, but they are also sorrowful and resentful and unhappy and they say, “But don’t come back, it’s so bad here, but why don’t you come back?” It produces these paradoxes.
This kind of psychological trauma cannot be reduced to neoliberalism, particularly in a society that has no private capital. Much of the psychological trauma produced by the transition cannot be traced to this economic ideology. For example, you get multispeed modernization in these post-communist countries, where people who are journalists became very quickly Westernized. People working in the prosecutor’s office, however, it took them decades. And this moment produced all kinds of disharmonies and disjunctions. That’s a very particular thing, but it’s not neoliberalism.
The economic downturn in Hungary was not replicated in Poland. Poland had economic success, a pretty good economic development, and it has the same kind of populism. So we're not dismissing the economic factors, but the book really is focusing on what we think has not been attended to the most. We are saying that we did not anticipate the psychological factors that created this politics of resentment. We didn’t see that coming.
The Politics of Resentment and Far-Right Populism
Eddie: The psychological story you tell in The Light That Failed I find to be the most original and most engaging part of the book. I also find it compelling myself, but it leaves me with a troubling question: If the appeal of Orban or Kaczynski or Trump is primarily psychological, and the voters don’t actually expect the material quality of their lives to improve under their leadership, is there anything that can actually turn voters against them? This 40 percent for Trump in the US has been incredibly stable.
Ivan: Particular in the case of the Law and Justice party in Poland, they come with social policies that normally you expect from the left-wing social democratic party. They redistributed public wealth, and this gives them certain support. If you look at who voted for them, this type of social policy mattered.
Secondly, what is interesting with this psychology of resentment is that part of the thing that brings populists to power is also the thing that destroys them. Resentment against the populists emerged because they cannot solve this basic contradiction: people want to have the right to leave the country and travel freely and have liberal freedoms for themselves, but they are very afraid that these types of freedoms are going to destroy the cohesion of their society. Populists cannot solve this problem. This is why what we have now in Central and Eastern Europe is a new type of liberalism that is much more rooted in resentment against the populist politics and the divisive way they talk. For example, the vote for the new mayor of Budapest, or for the new president of Slovakia is evidence of a new type of liberalism. What is interesting is that neither of them speaks English. It’s no longer about imitating the West. If populism brought resentment and was politically empowered by resentment, now you have the anti-populist resentment in the making.
Stephen: Populism is producing its own resentments, just like liberalism did, and that’s of course natural. Every political order produces disappointment and disillusion.
I want to underline two things Ivan said. One is that the difference between Kaczynski and Trump is that Trump’s democracy is really just a democracy of sports fans. Sports fans don’t have any material benefit from their team winning, but they just enjoy watching him. There is a parallel which struck me: the Archbishop of Krakow recently said that in 2050, the white people of Europe will all be living on reservations. That’s an amazing thing for a Bishop to say. This is like the Trump supporters’ anxiety that they feel like white lumps of sugar that are going to dissolve in brown cups of coffee, that their identities are going to be destroyed, and that that whole world is dissolving around them. White supremacy sounds like a ridiculous thing as a political project, but if Trump is appealing to the sense “we’re losing our white supremacy and I’m going to voice your anxiety” … you can get votes that way.
Of course, you can't actually implement it and recreate an all-white America. But you can touch that nerve that something is disappearing. In Poland, which is an ethnically homogeneous society, that is in fact a project. You can say, “We’re going to keep out the foreigners.” And they have more or less.
Ivan: Today when people talk about diversity—cultural, ethnic, religious diversity—it’s very important to look at the maps of Europe. If you look at the ethnic map of Europe in the year 1900, you’re going to see two Europes: One was very much diverse culturally, ethnically, religiously, and this was Central and Eastern Europe. The other was quite ethnically homogeneous, and it was Western Europe: Germany, France. If you look at that map for today, you’re going to see how diverse Western Europe is, and how ethnically homogeneous Central and Eastern Europe is, because the movement of populations throughout the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe was about ethnic homogenization: revolutions, wars.
Language map of Europe, 1914
By the way, this was not done by Eastern Europeans. Take the destruction of the Jews, the expulsion of the Germans. So then to be European or Central European meant to be ethnically homogeneous, and then 1989 comes and tells you, “Listen, with this ethnic homogeneity you’re not European anymore.” There is a sudden and major change of paradigm that comes over all these people who have been frozen during the Cold War when they discover that the West is very different than the West they have been thinking about.
I do believe on the one hand you don’t want this schizophrenia of the transition because it destroys your identity; but on the other hand, you do want it because you’re following the model societies. This painful feeling of, “Not everything is what we expected it to be,” created this atmosphere in which comes to populist parties, some of them with a totally symbolic politics. People thought, “Probably they don’t have a solution, but at least they express the anxiety that we feel.”
The anti-meritocratic nature of all these types of populist movements. They’re not against the rich, but they’re against the rich who got their money through a good education and the networks that they made in big universities.
They also discovered that this type of global elite is mobile: they can always leave. If you look at the language of populist parties—and this is true for Kaczynski, this is true for Orban, this is true for everybody—they talk about society as a family: “I’m with you not because you deserve it, but because you are one of me.” Liberal talk about society, however, particularly this meritocratic talk, is about society as a school. We all are in school. Some of us are doing better than others.
Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in China
Jordan: We were talking earlier about this idea of the most ambitious and educated leaving. One of the scholars who you point to a number of times in your book is Albert Hirschman, author of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty—the “exit, voice, loyalty” paradigm of what to do when you’re faced with a challenge and you’re in a group. It seems that when 1989 fell, everyone who could leave did leave, and that sparked this resentment you guys walked through.
In China, of course, there was also an increasing exodus of first tens and then hundreds and hundreds of thousands of the smartest, most connected, most ambitious students looking to get their education abroad, and increasingly live abroad. Do you have any sense of why this situation played out in China that didn’t necessarily engender the sorts of resentments that you see, for instance, in the Bulgarian hospital system?
Ivan: I’ll start with something which is very obvious but important: It’s the size. China has one billion people. And Bulgaria has eight million people. So when somebody is leaving the country—and this is critically important. For example, Bulgaria-Romania. Around 15 percent of the population left. With this in addition to aging and a relatively low life expectancy, you see a major shrinking of the population. In 1989, there were nine million people living in Bulgaria. Now there are around seven million.
This very loss of population is perceived as a defeat.
The problem of exit is also psychologically changing the idea of success. Imagine you’re a professor or a middle-class businessperson, and you’re doing well in your country, but you’re living in a country in which most of your friends want to leave. How relevant is your success if it is success in a place that others want to leave? I do believe these aspects were underestimated because most of the talk about Central and Eastern Europe about either principles or institutions. Suddenly, we were not very much interested in the experience of people.
This experience is contradictory, because they like certain things, they like the European Union. Did you know that Poland and Hungary are two European societies where the support for the EU is the highest, but at the same time they vote for governments which are very much Euro-skeptical.
Jordan: In terms of the exit question ... after 1989, if you were open-minded and liberal and smart enough (and then going into the late nineties and early 2000s if you had money) then you could achieve a life in the US and Canada and UK and vote with your feet. That makes life for the CCP easier in the way that Castro did in the sixties and seventies of letting everyone who potentially wanted to change the system just say goodbye.
Ivan: One of the reasons the level of caution in the Russian political regime is relatively low for Russian standards is in fact the open borders.
You don’t need to send everybody who disagrees to Siberia because 90 percent of them will go to London anyway.
Paradoxically opening up the borders started to work for certain authoritarian regimes.
The idea of liberalism being about individual rights and “it doesn't matter where I am, my homeland is where I feel okay” makes it very easy. We have been rereading Exit, Voice, and Loyalty a lot, and interestingly Hirschmann is not defining what loyalty means, because he was taking it for granted. For his generation it was obvious that it is not easy to leave your political party, it is not easy to leave your religion, it is not easy to leave your marriage. But we are now living in a world where all these things are quite easy.
The Imitation Imperative
Jordan: Coming back to the psychological challenges that the imitation imperative puts on a country, I’m curious if you have any thoughts on Japan post-1945. I don’t know if that played any role in your research, but this seems like a bit of an exception to the rule in which the country has had a very unique relationship with imitation and the West since the mid-1800s. The fact that they were able to pull out of World War Two and reshape a narrative that did not lead to these sorts of psychological scars is an interesting contrast to what we’re seeing in Eastern Europe.
Ivan: My knowledge of Japan is lower than zero so what I’m saying should be discounted, but there are two things that I find critically important: It is one thing to imitate somebody who defeated you. In Japan’s case, the victory was very much perceived as a military victory—the fact of the defeat proves the victory of the other society. In the case of Central and Eastern Europe, however, the idea was that it was a common victory: dissidents in the East and others in the West.
The most difficult people to imitate are people who are culturally close to you.
For the Poles and for the Germans, imitation is much more complex than for the Japanese, for whom the Western culture is a foreign culture. So for you, they imitate without losing their identity, which is much more difficult for the Eastern Europeans. I believe this also explains the animosity of Russia with respect to the West than with respect to China, because in a certain way, there are no Russians who want to become Chinese. Even if they like the political system, they don’t feel cultural affinity. The problem of imitating your neighbor is that this is a much more psychologically tense relationship.
Jordan: Let’s spend a little more time on Russia’s experience: How did not actually being defeated and the legacy of the Soviet Union impact the way Russia processed liberalism post-1989.
Ivan: In 1989–90, the Western leaders, contrary to what is said today, were not these triumphalists. For them, it was very important to try to avoid the problem of Versailles. The message was, “this was our common victory. This was the victory of both the East and West against communism.”
For the Russians, the biggest problem was that on the one hand, they liked the narrative, but on the other hand, they cannot find themselves in the narrative. Because if you don’t know anything about Russia and you just see what happened on the economic and the social side in the 1990s, it’s going to look exactly like a country that was defeated in a war. They lost one-third of the economy, there was a seven-year decrease in life expectancy, and they lost social status.
What is extremely important is that they lost the country. One of the most misinterpreted things, when you try to understand why the Russians wanted Putin in the 21st century, is that there are quite a few Russians who were really nostalgic about communism, but there were many of them who had been against communism but wanted to keep the Soviet Union. This loss of a country is a story in which something that was taught as a victory turned out to be defeat and humiliation, and then there comes a political leader who says, “I’m going get Russia up off its knees.” This was quite important because this type of resentment was not simply the resentment that you lost without being military defeated, but that somebody was telling you that the defeat should feel like a victory.
Trump feels psychologically so close to Putin because, for him, America’s story is no different from Russia’s story. He said, “American elites are telling the American people that we have been the winners of the post-Cold War period, but in fact, we have been the losers, and we are celebrating our defeat as victory.” This story of mixing victory and defeat is very important to understand the psychological roots of Russian society’s support for Putin, particularly at the beginning of this century.
How Responsible is the West?
Jordan: One thing we haven’t talked about is the role of Western advisers in their interactions with these states as they were trying to shape their institutions. Can you talk about what role they played and what sorts of misinterpretations of the situation and mistakes of attitude helped lead to the situation we’re in today?
Stephen: I have a couple of examples of the legal profession. In Albania in the early 1990s, the American Bar Association sent a mission to Tirana, and they discovered that judges who were causing problems for the government were being dismissed without cause. This scandalized the American legal advisers, and they formulated constitutional-level law that said judges could not be dismissed except for high crimes and misdemeanors. Shockingly this law was actually incorporated into the Albanian constitutional law. And then from that point on, judges were no longer dismissed without charge ... they were charged with crimes and imprisoned. So this was the consequence of the great legal reform.
It’s like the famous introducing a rabbit into the Galapagos islands: you take a principle from your own society and own legal environment and try to introduce it into another in which you do not understand the array of forces. You don’t understand on whose side you’re fighting, which side you’re against. Another classic example is introducing American-style bankruptcy law into a country—this is true in Russia in the early ‘90s, where all the transactions had occurred in barter. So all companies were in fact bankrupt in some legal sense, but of course, they were functioning in their own way.
There are many of these: we exported anti-discrimination law in countries where the problem wasn't discrimination, it was clientage and patronage. These are just misunderstanding the social environment. So there was a rage to export worked-out models of legal rights and so forth, which don’t fit.
There are hundreds of examples of this mismatch: not understanding well enough the texture of the social reality and trying to bring in from outside.
Ivan: This book, unlike many others, is not about who is guilty for what happened. Many of these advisers were extremely well-meaning, idealistic people who really wanted to help. You come and you try to do something, but what you’re doing is first universalizing your experience to the extent that the model is totally divorced from the social reality that has produced it.
After 1989, every Westerner who went to the East was a kind of adviser.
When you assume the role of adviser you stop understanding your own system because when you’re exporting your system you’re idealizing it.
For example, people are going to tell you “in the United States, the nominations in the Supreme court are totally nonpolitical. This is a natural institution.” But then you must understand that one of the most important things in every presidential election is who is going to win to appoint a judge in the Supreme court. Suddenly many of the Western societies, because they were trying to transform the East, stopped understanding themselves. They lacked critical perspectives on their own problems. One of the problems in the US, UK, Europe, is very much the result of this misunderstanding. It’s not simply that you got the East wrong; you started to not understand your own society.
Jordan: The interactions China had with Western advisers started much earlier, right? Deng was bringing in folks even back in the late seventies and eighties. But the sorts of things that the political discourse allowed them to advise on was mostly economic: they would have people giving basic 101 lessons in market economics, how to run a central bank, etc. But they were never looking for a complete system because the leadership was willing to kill to keep the CCP in power.
When you have that bound of what you’re looking to the Westerners for, you’re not going to be hit with this sort of disappointment that inevitably comes in the late 1990s and 2000s when you don’t end up getting the idealized version of Jeffersonian democracy.
Stephen: I was once by chance asked by Justice Kennedy to go to his chambers at the Supreme Court when I was living in Washington. I didn't have any idea why he was doing that. He knew that I had been studying Russia, and I went in and he said, “I’d like to talk to you. I’m going to Moscow and I'm going to give a lecture.”
I said, “that’s very nice, and what are you doing?”
He said, “I’m going to teach them about judicial independence. I’m going to teach them how great it is. And so I want them to know that they should be like us.”
That was his thing. As Ivan said, although juridical independence is very political, judges are political appointees; it’s an ideology. But he was freed from all of that by going to a foreign venue, talking about it as if it was some kind of pure ideal, and he could talk about it in the most ideal way abroad. Because all the realities of it were left behind, and people who knew what it meant were also not there to criticize him.
I think the pleasure of proselytizing Western institutions, that’s what Ivan has just said, is partly that you can gloat in this idealized version. And the more you do that, the less you understand your own society. I think part of post-‘89 is not that we imposed ourselves particularly well or convincingly anywhere, but it allowed us to have a fantasy. It allowed us to not have a sense of the imperfections of our own order, which during the Cold War because we were being challenged.
As the civil rights movement shows, there’s a whole literature on the influence of the Cold War on the civil rights movement, because we were being beaten up internationally about the way white Americans were treating black people. There was a sense that we have to do something about this as a matter of national security.
There’s a level of self-doubt or self-questioning that goes along with the competition with another power. Once that other power is viewed as defeated and we as victorious having vanquished them, then this sense of self-questioning is diminished. After Guantanamo, the high ground of being able to say “Let’s all of us look at the Chinese prison system and see how they actually treat their prisoners” is diminished. If we would enter into a value controversy with China on this level, that could be an impetus to reform in America.
“Racism—The Shame of America” political poster, 1969
Ivan: China was important for us because communism was a radical experiment, and a radical experiment rooted in the European enlightenment. Both the Soviet regime and American liberalism were transformative regimes. You believe that modern societies are going to be like you. Modernization theory was very powerful, both on the Soviet and on the American side, but they have a different idea of what the final destination is. What struck us with China was that China is a very hegemonic power—they believe that they should dominate the world—but they are not a classical transformative power.
Part of it comes from their complex of superiority. They don't believe that anybody can be like China, which is very different. Americans were much more egalitarian. You believed that this was possible because America was a melting pot in which people were coming from all parts of the world and becoming Americans. People are going to imitate China’s economic policies and so on, but it is not about making others dream of becoming like China. The story is that they simply want to hegemonically control the world. From this point of view, the rivalry is going to have ideological aspects because we’re very different. We have different values. But we don’t see China as a transformative power in the way the Soviet Union was or the United States is.
What’s More Important: Ideology or Power?
Jordan: Let me throw a few counterarguments and then maybe you can respond to them or take the hypothetical of “If you're wrong, then what happens to the West and liberalism?”
First off we have the argument that Xi isn’t particularly ideological. Given the fear he’s expressed about liberal ideas, the way he’s trying to put the party back in the center of the education system and increasingly push towards having more and more party-run and state-run influence in private life (both culturally and economically), I think what you guys miss is that there’s a superiority complex of, “We have 5,000 years of Chinese history. We still read Confucius and no one in the West reads ancient Greek.” But there’s also a bit of an inferiority complex of, “We had a hundred years of humiliation—look how far we fell from the great Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties, to really being on our knees in the first half of the 20th century.”
You also see this sort of ideological inferiority playing out in the incredible overreaction we seen in Western China, where any other Chinese empires historically have been able to interact with their minorities in a much more comfortable way than Xi, who saw a population which wasn’t 100 percent on board with the way he wanted to lead China and decided to throw a million and a half people in indefinite detention in order to stamp that out.
The other thing that I think throws a bit of a wrench in the thesis of China not necessarily wanting to keep itself safe: there’s a different definition of what Xi believes is it to keep himself safe. You hinted at it, Stephen, and what you were talking about earlier is that it’s not just the Australian reporter in China. It’s also the NBA and Western discourse. China was not trying to pull this stuff in the 1990s, because its leaders knew that it didn’t have the sort of wherewithal to really influence opinion abroad.
But if you’re a sort of regime that sees Falun Gong as an existential threat and is going to send state security all around the world to infiltrate it (which means necessarily violating the principles that we in the West hold to be true) and sees the human-rights promotion that the US does de rigueur as something that is incredibly aggressive, you’re going to end up doing things.
If you’re a government that sees a diaspora community as something to be leveraged, then you’re going to end up running into these value contradictions where the CCP is increasingly going to make demands on the US and on Western societies in general, which, with whatever vestiges of liberalism are left, is going to have a very hard time stomaching.
Ivan: What was interesting for us when we looked at the Chinese Communist Party at the end of the 1980s, and the Soviet Communist Party under Gorbachev, was what they decided to preserve from the old system.
Gorbachev believed that the tragedy of the Soviet Union was communist power, which was dysfunctional, inefficient, corrupt … but what really mattered was the ideology—the Soviet idea of socialism. On the Chinese side, we saw just the opposite. They thought the ideology didn’t work, but what was really important was the power. In my view, this is why we probably can be wrong about Xi. He’s probably ideological, but who’s going to be the next leader? If you have a classical ideological regime, of course, they’re ideological in a different way, but Brezhnev was not simply an authoritarian leader. Chernenko was not simply an authoritarian leader. All his views of the world were based on the idea that the future belongs to communism. This is what for me is much more interesting about China, because obviously they try to protect any criticism against them, and here you’re absolutely right.
This would be seen as interference American or Bulgarian society. They don’t care. Bulgaria could be governed by a party that is based on the model of the Chinese Communist Party, which was going to be the Mao idea. They simply want the Bulgarian government to do what China wants them to do.
Jordan: It’s interesting thinking about how Gorbachev came to be created in the Soviet system. The frustration and disillusionment that it took in order to have someone with his ideological background rise to the top. I think those sorts of ingredients are very different from what you’re seeing in China today.
Stephen: The thesis was not that there is no indoctrination within China—obviously there is some kind of ideological conformity being requested. It was that the international conflict between the US and China is not going to be a conflict between two powers, each of which is trying to replicate its system. It was about the nature of the conflict in the US and China. As far as I can see as an outsider observing this, what China’s doing is not trying to seduce people, or maybe it is, you tell me. But the bullying, the ramming of the fishing boats, the building of those islands, the damming of the river—they’re doing a lot of things that are just very heavy-handed.
They’re saying, “If you don’t act the way we want, we’re going to hurt you.” That's not ideological induction. There’s a threatening, bullying quality to their expansion agenda that doesn’t fit with selling a worldview, even though they can point out, I’m sure happily, how dysfunctional America is and how liberal systems are a mess.
You can make a distinction. They indoctrinate and they have a nationalist party, but they don’t define their battle with the West the way the Soviets did.
Jordan: China contains multitudes, and it’s hard to take one data point and say this is our conclusion. But coming back to what it would take for a ruling party to fall out of love with the system that they’ve been living under, and reflecting on if and when a Gorbachev-type figure could emerge within the CCP, I’m curious if you guys have any thoughts on the Soviet experience and the experience of Eastern European leaders. What would need to be in place for a reform movement, which Xi has done a pretty aggressive job of stamping out over the past ten years, to reemerge within the Communist Party?
Ivan: Here is a major difference with what we saw in the Soviet experience: What was important about the dissident movement. The dissidents were normally ex-communists who started to attack the system from the point of view of ideology. They were telling the communists not that communism is bad, but that the Communist Party is not real, that it’s the bad Communist Party, that it is false. In a certain way, many of these people started as true believers. After that, they developed in a very different direction. They ended up as the major critics of communism. But for them, the promise of communism was very strong, and I don’t know to what extent this is there in China. For me the West’s biggest problem with China is on an ideological level—China challenges the most fundamental assumptions of 1989, which is that capitalism brings democracy.
Stephen: It also undermines the ideology that explained why America beat both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. We thought, “Because we’re democratic, we’re prosperous. It’s because we’re democratic that we’re prosperous.” That’s the flip side of saying “If we become economically developed, we will become democratic.” But it turns out that the reason that we prevailed, with Russia's help, over Nazi Germany, was that Nazi Germany was small. Not that it was autocratic.
Can Xi Learn from Soviet Reactions to Dissidence?
Jordan: Ivan, you mentioned how the dissidents and the critique from the left was the one that ended up resonating the most. Xi has definitely internalized that, and the fear of a proper Marxist critique of the contemporary CCP has been pursued really aggressively. I remember back when I was on a PKU campus in 2017 and 2018, there was a proper Marxist society that organized a handful of trips where they would go and meet with some factory workers that were striking, and it was really the union of the students and the worker in a proper communist sense. And that quickly led to these folks getting kicked off campus, pulled out of their beds, and thrown in indefinite detention, which was a pretty dramatic thing for most of elite Chinese society, which very rarely ends up interacting with the sharp end of the CCP. Interesting to see that the Eastern European and Russian experience of that side of the critique is something that Xi is very much aware of and worried about.
Ivan: If anybody was really studying seriously the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the Chinese Communist Party. Think of the famous six-episode documentary that they created and showed to every single party organization in China. Many of the things that I do the Chinese are also doing, especially the reaction to what they believe was wrong and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While for us the Soviet Union was simply dead and buried, I believe it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that was a very founding moment for the Chinese to understand what they’re doing about their own regime—how they’re dealing with the West and why imitating the West is destructive for their own system. From this point of view, you’re also right that even if they are going to be ideologists, it is going to be very different than it was before because they know this important thing: If China is a communist party, you cannot stop people criticizing you from the point of view of true communism. In a classical authoritarian regime, you don’t have a language to criticize power, because the major statement of the power is, “I’m in power because I’m the strongest.”
How Covid Weakened Liberalism
Eddie: What effect do you think Covid-19 will have on the story that you tell in the book?
Ivan: For the United States, unfortunately, I do believe that this is going to have extreme consequences. I’m not necessarily talking about what’s going to happen in the United States, but the image of the United States in the world was dramatically changed. I was reading a lot of surveys that have been done in Europe in the last several months, and we’re talking about the most pro-Atlantic countries—it’s about Germany, it’s about Denmark, it’s about the Netherlands—and you see for the first time Europeans felt pity towards America. We have been jealous, we have been admiring America, some had been hating America, and suddenly it was not about American intentions—suddenly you see it as a dysfunctional society.
Of course part of it was Trump, but this time it was not only Trump.
So from this point of view, part of the period that is over is that America has not simply been very attractive for many people in the world, but America was perceived as much more powerful than it was. People are now seeing it through these eyes, and suddenly American looks weak, dysfunctional. This is going to hurt liberalism because the idea of America is very much the idea of liberalism. This is also going to change certain power constellations. I also read some polling being done in China, and as a result of Covid-19, we saw the respect of the Chinese public towards the West declining, and suddenly they become self-confident about themselves.
Stephen: One of the characteristics of these populist regimes is the reward of loyalty over competence. You see this basically everywhere: populist leaders don’t really like a lot of competent people around them. When Trump confronted the question, “Am I going to make Covid the greatest problem that Americans face? Am I going to lift it to the level of the main issue of my presidency?” he realized quite quickly that if he did that, his own talents would be devalued because it’s the kind of crisis that needs to be dealt with by scientists, doctors, people who deal with logistics, the military, others who know how to ramp up production in the case of emergency. So he downplayed it because the more important Covid was, the less important were his talents and his skills.
Democracy is a competitive system, whereas Covid is something that you need a unique, coherent single message.
The countries that have succeeded that are democratic are those that have managed to keep the elite fragmentation out of the business of messaging about how to respond to the crisis.