Illusions of Change: China was supposed to have transformed itself into a modern, democratic state by now, but this was not to be. What went wrong--and what should the United States do now? A conversation with Hoover fellow Stephen Kotkin.

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Author: Peter Robinson
Date: Summer 2020
From: Hoover Digest(Vol. 3)
Publisher: Hoover Digest
Document Type: Interview
Length: 2,451 words
Lexile Measure: 1030L

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Peter Robinson, Uncommon Knowledge: A professor of history at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stephen Kotkin is one of the nation's most compelling observers of global affairs past and present. He is now working on the third and final volume of his definitive biography of Josef Stalin. Stephen, welcome to this special work-from-home edition of Uncommon Knowledge.

Stephen Kotkin: Great to be back.

Robinson: We'll come to the coronavirus in a moment. First, China and what's gone wrong. Here's a quotation, the late Hoover fellow Henry Rowen writing in 1996: "When will China become a democracy? The answer is around the year 2015. This prediction is based on China's impressive economic growth, which in turn fits the way freedom has grown elsewhere in Asia." China was supposed to follow the pattern of South Korea and Taiwan. You start with economic freedoms, you achieve economic growth, the population begins to demand political freedoms and you end up with democracy. That has not happened, how come?

Kotkin: First of all, God bless Henry Rowen. And unfortunately, he did not predict the future properly. It would have been better had Henry been right. I'll give you two quick answers to your opening question, Peter. First, an important point is that it's nonsense that authoritarian regimes have some type of unwritten social contract with their population, so that the population agrees to give up their freedom, and the regime promises to raise standards of living. The reason that's nonsense is because if the regime fails to uphold its side of the bargain--for example, if it fails to continue to generate economic growth--the regime doesn't say, "oh, we failed to uphold the contract and so we're leaving power voluntarily."

The regime instead says, we're going to use more repression. And we're going to ramp up the nationalist xenophobia or whatever tools it has in the toolkit. So, it's very important to understand that there is no unwritten social contract or bargain with authoritarian regimes. They do not leave voluntarily; there are rare exceptions.

The second important point and answer to your question is that China is ruled by the Communist Party. We forgot about this. We tended to downplay the idea that it was still ruled by a Communist Party. But we've seen how important that dimension of the question is. Communism in rule is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can't be half-communist. In other words, you're either a monopoly regime, or you begin to disintegrate; either you're a sole party, and you don't brook any possible competition in the political sphere, or there are people who want different political parties and who don't need your monopoly anymore. This is the prime lesson of the history of communism, that the party rule is an all-or-nothing, monopoly-or-dissolution proposition.

In fact, the Chinese Communist Party spent a great deal of time studying this question and has taught all its cadres why the Soviet Union fell. They study the Soviet collapse endlessly, and Xi Jinping, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A636403712