A lot of people look at Communist China, and see the Soviet Union, only with worse clothes and better cuisine. In actual fact, there are substantial differences between the two flavors of Communism, and as the 21st Century unfolds, it is vital to understand the character and ambitions of America’s chief rival for the Pacific.
Communism, as we know, began as the ill-considered musings of Karl Marx, a self-possessed man far greater in pretension than ability. The bastard child of Utopian fantasy and bloody-handed revolution found a father in Vladimir Lenin, who used his organizational and propagandist talents to usurp a new republic with the totalitarian Communists. The series of skirmishes and counter-revolution during the next decade insured that the Soviet Union’s foundation would be based on fear. The rise of Josef Stalin was to be expected, as was the evolution of the cruel but disorganized Cheka into the much more lethal NKVD, and the largest and cruelest secret police agency known to history, the KGB.
In contrast, the road of China to Communism, though it also led from Empire through a brief republic into Communism, did so with a good deal more popular support. By the end of the Second World War, the Communists had made a name for themselves by attacking the Japanese through rebellion, while the Kuomintang was often accused of collaborating with the Occupying forces in China. Like Lenin, Mao was crafty with propaganda, as there is now significant evidence that the Communists were cooperating with the same Triads and gangs that the Kuomintang was, but without any appearance of collaboration with Japan. Also, Mao correctly surmised that following the long war, most Chinese were disinclined to pursue a long fight, and since the Communists appeared stronger and better-organized by the Kuomintang by 1948, Mao was able to suggest that a Communist victory would be a shorter conflict. Worse for the Kuomintang, their connection to the American and European governments made them appear to be dealing with outsiders, which played into an extant xenophobia in China.
After Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China in 1972, a counterforce was put into play in China, as Politburo members who wished to cultivate a relationship with the U.S. saw their stock rise, especially as the Soviet Union became less willing to treat with China as an equal partner.
The terrible atrocities committed during the “Great Leap Forward”, the brutal invasion of Tibet, and the Tienamen Square massacre may appear, at first glance, to match the brutality of the Soviet regime, but they were actually reactions, almost in panic, to demands for reform. In some respects the Chinese regime is more stable than the Soviet one, since it is based on a more responsive structure to public demand, but in other ways the Chinese Politburo is less durable than the Kremlin; if a significant movement to replace the Communists takes hold, it may well overthrow the regime. This is not necessarily a good thing; CIA assessments since 2000 have observed that the replacement regime is likely to be weaker against criminal and reactionary elements.
All of this is not meant as an apology for the Communist government of China, but to note the distinctions which may well affect their decisions politically, militarily, and in economic decisions. The acquisition of Macau and Hong Kong were primarily economic measures, and the decisions made regarding those new territories has been with a clear interest in financial stability and gain. The cooperation between the United States and China since the 2001 incident where a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American P-3 reconnaissance aircraft over International waters, is subtle but distinct, as is the character of Chinese maneuvers regarding Taiwan. One would be a fool to believe the mainland has given up the chase for Taiwan, but the nature and tone of the relationship has certainly evolved; not enough to be naïve but enough to encourage China to take further steps towards regional leadership.