Andrew Walder, Denise O'Leary and Kent Thiry Professor at Stanford University and an avid researcher on the topic of change and stability in Communist regimes, posited that contrary to its initiators’ intentions, the Cultural Revolution laid political foundations for a transition to a market-oriented economy, while also creating circumstances that helped ensure the cohesion and survival of China’s Soviet-style party-state. Wait. Wasn’t the Cultural Revolution mostly bad and only a little, if at all, good? It seemed almost heretical to say that the Cultural Revolution laid the foundations for market reform in China when its pioneer, Deng Xiaoping, was the man who exorcized China of this aberrant wound in Chinese history. Professor Walder’s thesis statement sounded counterintuitive, but in fact, is well substantiated, especially when contrasted with the Soviet Union. Deng Xiao Ping and Gorbachev had essentially similar aims of reforming their Soviet-style economies along market lines, but the history of the Soviet bloc and China diverged so dramatically largely because of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution utterly devastated the previous party and civilian state structures, and in turn, drastically weakened entrenched bureaucratic interests that might have blocked market reform. As the status quo became untenable, local officials started relying on whatever works – such as barter trade, regional and local goods exchanges, private farming etc. – resulting in market-like ‘sprouts’ emerging across China. In short, the status quo had nothing good left to defend, few elite opponents to defend it, and faced an increasing grassroots desire for greater freedoms. This made the people and party members able to permit a political program that linked national revival and state strengthening with market reform, a program unthinkable during Mao’s era. In contrast, the Soviet Union had a massive centralized bureaucracy with powerful vested interests, and had a record to defend while still having to stand up to the US, thus making market reform hard to push through. The Cultural Revolution twice purged Deng. During the inter-purge period, Mao leaned heavily on Deng by putting him in-charge to rebuild the economy and party that were damaged by the chaos and instability. This inadvertently allowed party members to identify Deng as the standard-bearer for revival and recovery.
Moreover, Deng belonged to the revolutionary generation and garnered deep legitimacy from this fact. In contrast, Gorbachev was the youngest member when he joined the Politburo and had only moved to Moscow five years prior to that. Compared to Deng, Gorbachev had a much shallower source of personal legitimacy to draw upon when pushing against opponents to his reforms. Interestingly, Professor Walder mentioned that in some ways, Xi Jinping is in Gorbachev’s situation in the 1980s, where the entrenched bureaucratic and elite opposition to his reforms have to be weakened if he were to be successful. Moreover, there is a stability trap in which many people see no need for risky and painful reforms to move China up the value-chain and wean China off investment and export driven growth when the status quo has produced stability and economic growth. However, as this article describes, such stability may be merely a mask for underlying fragility that might unravel into disorder if no steps are taken, much like the veneer of parity the Soviet Union seem to have had with the United States.
There is a Chinese saying, 时势造英雄,which means that special time periods, especially those involving societal upheaval and disorder, have the capacity to bring out the great qualities of visionary and capable persons. The interplay and dynamics between the disorderly times and the capable person made him turn out to become a hero-figure. Deng was perhaps a beneficiary of this phenomenon, while Gorbachev did not face as favorable a set of structural and political conditions as Deng faced after the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps, if Gorbachev were the leader of China after Mao, his legacy would not be ‘Poor Gorbachev, you tried.' His legacy might have been very different indeed.