The Unrealized Hopes Of 1989

Feb 9th, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Thirty years ago, in 1989, we in the West were convinced that a new democratic order was dawning in the world.  The Berlin Wall was gone and the democratic protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China fed the hope that a new world of democracy and freedom was dawning.  The old, corrupt regimes of totalitarian communism were unraveling and the passion for democracy in both the Soviet Union and Communist China would surely produce a new world in which everyone embraced the same democratic values so central to Western Civilization—and especially to the United States.  Those optimistic hopes are now dashed.  The regimes in Russia and China are economically and financially different, but both remain authoritarian and brutal in their respective rules.  What happened?  Why were those hopes never realized?

British professor Margaret MacMillan offers an analysis of why this dream of two totalitarian regimes adopting Western democracy and Western values crashed.  Her basic argument is that a study of history in both China and Russia should have shown the West that their optimism was ill-founded.  Let’s examine MacMillan’s evaluation of both regimes:

  • First, Deng Xiaoping, China’s ruler in 1989, argued that the Tiananmen Square protests had to be crushed: “Stability must take precedence over everything.”  If China’s economy was to develop and its billion people to be cared for, unity and stability were necessary.  MacMillan writes that “China’s history had left its elites, as well as its ordinary people, with a deep-seated fear of anarchy and social chaos—and with resentment at the way in which a once-great power had been degraded.  The ‘century of humiliation’ started in 1839 with the First Opium War and continued with China’s repeated defeats at the hands of outside powers, up to the massive invasion and occupation by Japan, starting in 1931 with the assault on Manchuria and ending in 1945.  Internally, China suffered from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the huge Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, which may have killed between 20 and 70 million Chinese, and then the unrest and civil war in the 20th century, which ended only with the triumph of communism.”  The unmitigated disasters of Mao Zedong’s rule (e.g., the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution) demonstrated to the Chinese leadership that democracy and liberty, which the Tiananmen protesters demanded, would produce further disorder, even anarchy.   So, as the highly authoritarian regime began to introduce economic liberalization to China, Western leaders believed that the emerging middle class would demand free speech, the rule of law and some representative type of government.  China mixed economic liberalization with authoritarian rule—and in doing so it has transformed Chinese society, raising millions out of poverty and produced a new world power that rivals that of the United States.  The Chinese people are generally willing to accept this combination and not make major demands for reform and change in terms of the government of China.   Therefore, because of China’s amazing success in carrying out this model, other Asian nations and others throughout the world are seriously considering China’s authoritarian model as a viable choice.  MacMillan correctly observes that “Foreign experts are noticing that Chinese elites are increasingly willing to talk about how the West is finished and how China is the benevolent hegemon of the future.  In Beijing, the Belt and Road Initiative to link China and the world through a massive infrastructure investment is said to be all about friendship and cooperation [but is really about fostering Chinese hegemony].  China has come a long way in only 30 years.”


  • Second, the West was certain that, with the collapse of Soviet communism in Russia, Russians would quickly embrace the Western values of liberty, rule of law and human rights. We assumed that building new sorts of regimes and societies would be quick, easy and peaceful—“and that Mikhail Gorbachev, with his attempts at liberalization and democracy, was the new face of Russia.  We were wrong.”  In both Russia and the Eastern European countries that Stalin had conquered, “the old communist elites hastily renamed themselves and hung onto the levers of power.  Corruption, repression, electoral cheating, the sale of state assets to cronies, even the use of violence—all served to give democracy a bad name . . . Since then, many post-Soviet electorates have switched off politics or voted for autocrats promising stability at the very least.”  Furthermore, Vladimir Putin and the many Russians who support him resented the expansion of NATO and being told that Russia was a failure that needed to model itself on Western countries; they were humiliated that Russia was treated internationally as negligible.  Putin has helped weaken international norms by his illegal seizure of Crimea and his destabilization of ‘near abroad’ countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.”  With the weakening of the European Union and the trend among some Eastern European countries to embrace authoritarianism (e.g., Hungary under Viktor Orban and in Poland), the role of the US is even more critical in promoting world order.  Since 1945, the US has been prepared to guarantee a world order of free governments, citizens and trade, but no longer is willing to do so.  President Trump has withdrawn the US from key international agreements and even raises serious questions about the value of NATO, for example.  Into this vacuum, Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are delighted to move.  There is also increasing evidence that Putin and Xi are forming a loose alliance to challenge the US on every continent and in every area militarily.

The new “Cold War” is not between capitalism and democracy vs. communism and totalitarianism; it is now between democracy and a world order rooted in Western values vs. authoritarianism and international disorder.  In 1989 we were optimistic about the future in terms of which option would emerge victorious.  In 2019, we are not so certain!  We live in very dangerous times.  What we thought was nailed down and certain, no longer is.  We in the West face a precarious future if our leaders do not take seriously the growing threat of both Russia and China.  May God give these leaders great wisdom.

See Margaret MacMillan, “The Year of Hopes Still Unfulfilled,” Wall Street Journal (29-30 December 2018).

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