The repression of Chinese anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong is part of a political crackdown on scores of activists, journalists, and intellectuals. This crackdown involves increased internet controls and a Marxist-Leninist ideological purification campaign for Chinese journalists on which I have commented earlier.
What is particularly fascinating about this new and predictable round of Chinese communist repression is that it has been accompanied by an official anti-corruption campaign organized by none other than Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping. This is uncannily reminiscent of the official Soviet reaction to corruption within the ranks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Effects of corruption in the USSR
In the Soviet case, this corruption was the tip of an iceberg of a much larger crisis — namely, a crisis of Party discipline. It was this crisis that was one of the central reasons for the collapse of the communist enterprise in the Soviet Union.
What is the connection between this crisis and the Soviet collapse?
First of all, one must recognize that the CPSU had grown to be a massive bureaucratic monstrosity with over 20 million members. Most of them were ideological workers — i.e., propagandists and agitators — and prefects, who were non-productive monitors of what productive activity was undertaken in the USSR in order to ensure conformity with the Party line. The fundamental problem that had developed within this system was that orders issued from the top would suffer from erosion and ultimately would not be implemented efficiently or at all when they reached the lower and local levels.
This lack of discipline was partly a function of bureaucracy and partly the result of corruption. The corruption, in turn, originated from the black market, which the Party had to tolerate because it was the only vehicle ensuring literally the physical survival of the labor force. It was the only means by which acute shortages of goods and services could be filled — and this was done through the price mechanism.
The underground economy always existed within the USSR, even during the harshest periods of Stalinist repression. Over time, the underground entrepreneurs, led by the mafia, gained ever greater influence and freedom of operation because of their success in bribing Party officials. Eventually, those officials began to invest in illegal underground commercial ventures.
So, both these investments and the bribes meant that ever larger numbers of Party cadre were developing forms of self-interest that were at variance with the Party’s interest. This was called a crisis of partiinost’ (Party-mindedness).
A crisis of Party discipline
By the time of the General Secretaryship of former KGB Chief Yuri Andropov, the Party leadership had recognized this crisis of discipline and had begun to initiate measures to combat it. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he intensified these measures. He conducted an ideological purification campaign of the Party membership. He arrested and prosecuted 250,000 members of the Party and managerial elite for various types of corruption. He conducted a massive crackdown on the underground economy, during which 800,000 underground entrepreneurs were arrested or fled their jobs for fear of arrest.
Gorbachev launched the glasnost’ campaign, which Soviet propaganda gave Westerners to believe was a campaign of increased openness, transparency, and even freedom of speech, when in fact, it was designed to encourage people to tattle on and denounce Party corruption. The irony of this situation was that ordinary people took advantage of this campaign, exploiting a critical vulnerability of the Party state. This vulnerability grew out of the crisis in the Soviet military economy, which was unable to remain technologically competitive with the United States.
The only way the Party could remedy that military industrial crisis was to seek an economic bailout from the West. But to do this, Gorbachev could not present himself and the Party as ruthless oppressors of their own people or active enemies of the West. So, in one of the few such periods in Soviet history, there opened a window of opportunity for people to criticize the regime, denounce its corruption, and call for radical political change without the usual risk of being thrown into the Gulag.
Let us not be under any illusions, however. Gorbachev was forced against his will into presenting both an image and a partial reality of liberalism. But he did invade Lithuania. His regime incited inter-ethnic conflicts in many of the Union republics as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The KGB spurred pogroms by Azeris against Armenians. His armed forces invaded Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. His goons used poison gas on freedom demonstrators in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and slaughtered them with sharpened military shovels. Most of these ruthless measures remain unknown in the West, as they were overshadowed by Gorbachev’s charm campaign.
It is for this combination of reasons that close to a million people could take to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate for radical political change in 1991, putting immense pressure on the regime.
Corruption in China today
The Chinese communist regime has worked mightily to learn from, and avoid, a repetition of this Soviet experience. It has attempted to make self interest compatible with Party membership as part of its controlled economic reforms, where most major enterprises are under the control of Party officials or People’s Liberation Army officers.
But there is no escaping the corrosive effects that corruption has on Party discipline and the social alienation that this corruption causes. So long as there is this amazing level of corruption in the Chinese Party, the regime will continue to be the target of anti-corruption activists. It will continue to suffer from pandemic civil disturbances — over 70,000 of these nationwide on an annual basis. And it will continue to have to crack down on all of this.
The Chinese communists are riding a tiger that they may not be able to control. The question for the United States is: should we continue to allow our trade with China to provide the regime with resources that help it survive such pressures?