Why China has succeeded where Russia failed?

China by satelliteThe explanation that is most widely shared is that the Chinese rulers kept political control and used it to reform the economy gradually. They pursued Deng Xiaoping's "four modernizations" (of agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology) but rejected calls for the so-called "fifth modernization" (democracy). In the Sovi
et Union at the same time, in contrast, Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the levers of totalitarian control. He allowed the Berlin Wall to be pushed over. The Soviet communist party imploded; insiders "stole the state." The Soviet Union collapsed and Russia entered a decade of near anarchy.

This explanation has obvious appeal but is incomplete on closer inspection. It is widely believed that the Soviet leaders did not try the China solution of gradual economic reform without political reform. The historical record shows, however, that this is untrue. Over a period of many years, while their system of one-party rule was completely intact, the Soviet leaders tried all the reforms that the Chinese communists followed to revitalize their economy. This included several experiments with a household responsibility system, the so-called zveno, in agriculture (1933, 1947, and 1966); a regional decentralization (from 1957 to 1965); and several rounds of public sector reform (beginning in 1965), culminating in new laws to reduce the compulsory obligations on state-owned enterprises, allowing them to supply the market directly at higher prices (1987), and to permit private enterprise (1988).

In other words, rash political reforms are not the factor that decided why communism failed in Russia. The collapse of Soviet rule came only after the gradual economic reform initiatives that worked in China failed in Russia.

We must look somewhere else, therefore, to explain China's success. In a survey of Communism and Modernization (Harrison 2012), I suggest that the answer must begin with China's capacity for continuous policy reform. To break out of relative poverty and catch up with the world technological leader, an economy must undergo continuous reform of its policies and instutions. Continuous policy reform is fragile. The reason for its fragility is that, as the economy undergoes successive stages of modernization, policy reform at each stage must infringe upon the vested interests formed in the previous stage. Where continuous reform becomes blocked (as in Italy, for example), the economy will lag and fall behind. From the 1970s, the Chinese economy institutionalized a capacity for continuous policy reform. This is what has enabled China's spectacular rise.


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