Lessons for Asia from the Collapse of Eastern European Communism


So this month is the 20 year anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Most of the retrospective focus, naturally, on Europe. But here are a few thoughts for Asia:

1. National unification with communist basket-cases is ridiculously expensive. Germany has dumped a staggering 1.2 trillion euros into East Germany, but the east is still only 9% of GDP with 20% of the population. The South Koreans are downright freaked out by these sorts of numbers. The Korean situation is worse than the German one. The GDR was a more functional economy than the DPRK is today, and its people far less brutalized and abused. West Germany was a wealthier and more politically mature country than South Korea is today. So the costs (economic and social) to the South will be higher than they were to the West, at the same time that the South’s ability to pay for and manage (political capacity) them is lower than the West’s.

2. Have no illusions about just how bad communist governance really is. Before the Wall came down, all sorts of western liberals, neo-marxists, social democrats,etc. hemmed and hawed about the economic and human rights performance of the communist bloc. We constantly heard hopeful rhetoric about how Yugoslavia was a possible model, that East Germany was an ‘advanced’ economy, that the Czechs/Poles/Hungarians were putting a ‘human face’ on socialism, that communism might somehow turn a corner and become what Western academics wanted it to be. Open sympathy with the egalitarianism of communist theory lead far too many otherwise intelligent leftists to constantly forgive Soviet-style governance, to indulge the Koestler-esque notion that the bloodbaths and privation were just ‘transition steps,’ and give credence to shallow excuse-notions like ‘real existing socialism.’ (This willful leftist blindness about the East Bloc also helped birth US neo-conservatism.)

In the end, it was pretty much as right-wing Cold Warriors feared though – lots of repression, lots of misery, an ‘egalitarianism’ of brutalizing poverty side-by-side with a pampered, hidden elite, plus an ecological catastrophe to boot. When the Wall came down, the captive populations sprinted as fast as they could to the West. No one wanted socialism, a ‘third way’ for East Germany, or the foggy notions of communist equality so dear to the western left.

And the same will happen when NK, Vietnam, and China begin to unravel. When NK opens finally, the inside will look much, MUCH worse than we ever thought, and defenders like Bruce Cumings will be ashamed they ever defended the camps, family executions, forced labor and all the rest.

3. Autocracies can learn. China has very clearly learned from the Soviet implosion, as Kim Jong Il did from Ceausescu. This is critical in explaining why the PRC and DPRK keep hanging up, despite the 1990s optimism they would implode. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom that autocracies don’t adjust well because information flows are highly politicized and communication tightly controlled and regulated. (In other words, bad news does not make it up the food chain, and dogmatic elites don’t want to hear it anyway.) Azar Gat even thinks that China is the new model for IT-age autocracy.

4. Communist autocracies collapse rapidly. This lesson is most applicable to NK, as China is not really communist anymore and is reasonably stable. And Vietnam too is trying the China path, albeit more haltingly. But the DPRK is hanging tough on confucian stalinism, with all the explosive potential that suggests when the change finally does come. South Koreans frequently talk of a gradual reunification, a slow integration in which a North/South Korea federation would be like China and Hong Kong – 2 systems, 1 country. I find this highly unlikely. Stumbling reform like China or Russia in the 90s is likely insofar as radical change can be demonized as a foreign/western plot. But in Korea, the nationalist card will be neutered, because unhappy North Koreans will simply look at SK and say, why can’t we live that way?

This is what happened in East Germany in 1989/90. East Germans had little time for western stability notions of gradual integration, or GDR intellectuals’ notions that a reformed East Germany could somehow find a third way between capitalism and communism. Quite the opposite. East Germans rushed to unity as fast as possible to get all those things so long denied and so tantalizing close – legally protected freedoms like human rights and travel, and nice products like telephones and good quality cars. Once unleashed, the nationalist passion was impossible to stop. The momentum for unity in 1989/90 rolled a like snowball going downhill. It got bigger and faster, and no one could stop it without massive, illegitimate intervention. Helmut Kohl had historic insight and audacity to ride this tiger rather than fight it.

Korea would do well to prepare for unity on such fast-moving, erratic terms. The Kim NK regime is so illegitimate, so hated, so obviously awful and unsuccessful, that it is extremely likely that change will produce an explosion of popular desire, first in the North and then throughout the peninsula, for rapid unification regardless of the economic or diplomatic costs. In fact, South Koreans should welcome this likely explosive popular enthusiasm, because its intense nationalism and tremendous speed will help deter the Chinese from seriously intervening to slow or otherwise structure Korean unification.

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