According to Wikipedia there are only 5 Communist States at present: China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. In the past there have been a large number of Communist States existing at the same time all over the globe. But the wave of dramatic events between 1989 and 1991 saw communism collapse in Europe and thereafter fade away elsewhere leaving China as the sole Communist superpower.

Before the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989-91, China had a markedly defensive foreign policy, especially in terms of restricting acess to world media agencies, and strict internal regulation based on communist ideology. 26 years later, China is a major global economic power and a diplomatically well-regarded World Leader which seems to have successfully adopted certain capitalist principles that rather ironically have strengthened the survival of the 'Communist State.'

The overall economic reforms made by China (not just post-soviet-collapse) have been covered in this Wikipedia article on Chinese economic reforms -- notable extracts:

China had one of the world's largest and most advanced economies prior to the nineteenth century. (...) The economy stagnated beginning in the 16th century and even declined in absolute terms in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century (...) Economic reforms introducing market principles began in 1978 and were carried out in two stages (...) From 1978 until 2013, unprecedented growth occurred, with the economy increasing by 9.5% a year. The conservative Hu-Wen Administration more heavily regulated and controlled the economy after 2005, reversing some reforms.

This question, however is not so much about economics as it is about rethinking political ideologies. I specifically want to know how China has reconciled seemingly capitalist policies with the underlying Communist political ideology and and economic principles that form the foundation of the 'People's Republic': in particular, how has China's judicious infusion of capitalist principles strengthened the Communist state?

Wikipedia provides reliable information but not much analysis -- other sites including blogs provide only opinion -- but Stack Exchange answers provide analysis, insight and context. That is why I am asking this question here:

Which redesigned political and economic policies of China have enabled it to survive the 1989-91 global crisis for communism, and prosper even while remaining a 'Communist State'?

EXTREME CONTRAST: Then and now... See how the huge red area that represented USSR and allies is red no longer, and the red is gone from Africa as well, but 26 years later the Chinese red literally shines brighter:

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    @English Student: But "communist" and "dictatorship" are mutually independent. There are a lot of dictatorships that aren't communist (some with successful economies), while it's at least theoretically possible to have a communist state with free elections.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 17:56
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    A communist state is formally defined as 'dictatorship of the proletariat' @jamesqf, which as you know is quite different from just a 'dictatorship' in that the dictator is all the people themselves, although there are no elections and the Party acts on behalf of the people.The excellent answer now posted by user16116 clarifies how "There was no revision in politics(...)China is a still communist state by definition because the state is the sole owner of land. The advantage of this ownership is shown in its ability to relocation millions of people to make way for infrastructure development." Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:38
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    @English Student: The state as sole owner of land criterion is just plain wrong. The state is the effective owner of land in every country I know of: you just (in the US) rent it from the government by paying property taxes.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 0:30
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    You are claiming China is still communist because it is a "dictatorship of the preletariat" (as opposed to simply a dictatorship). However I don't see the distinction. The common people don't have anymore say in their government in China than they do in any other dictatorship. This question is important because the answer to how China survived the "communist crisis" is China stopped being communist. It has become very capitalist. How they managed to do so without the kind of economic collapse Russia suffered is a good question, but they didn't survive by remaining communist.
    – Readin
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 4:55
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    @English Student: I'd argue that " dictatorship of the proletariat" is a meaningless term. If there isn't a single dictator, like Stalin or Mao, power rests in a party elite. To me, China today looks like a political oligarchy with a capitalist economy (albeit with a lot of state involvement & control) because people can become wealthy through individual enterprise. Indeed, I see it as closer to Facist (without Hitler's racial theories) than anything. But I'm not a political scientist :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 18:27

4 Answers 4


In a nutshell: there was no “global communist crisis”. The criteria used to draw the maps are arbitrary. It seems to be based on COMECON membership but the notion that states like Angola and Madagascar were unambiguously communist in 1980 and very different nowadays is highly doubtful.

What happened is simply the fall of the USSR-Soviet/Russian empire. States relying on its support all the way from the German Democratic Republic to Afghanistan could not withstand it. That's readily apparent when you look at the details of the events rather than trying to create some high-level narrative. It's true that you can find half a dozen or so Warsaw pact countries that opened up to capitalism and trade with the West in the last decade of the 20th century but that's a direct result of what was happening in Russia. And the transition has been a mixed experience, if you look at places like Albania and Romania, there wasn't really a revolution or a complete change of the ruling class, far from it.

What happened in African states like Angola is more complex but it's hard to see a radical change (after all José Eduardo dos Santos is still president) and even there the developments in the USSR had some influence.

If you give up the notion of some abstract “global communist crisis”, there is not much left to explain. China did not feel the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union so strongly because it had already broken with it decades ago and had enough resources (economy, people, military…) to not depend on it.

  • Thanks a lot for actually answering my original question!In short you'd say what some call the 'global crisis for communism' was nothing more than the internal collapse of its major patron USSR and most communist states couldn't survive this loss simply because most of them weren't politically or economically self-sufficient except notably China: _ China did not feel the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union so strongly because it had already broken with it decades ago and had enough resources (economy, people, military…) to not depend on it. _ This point is very convincing indeed! Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 9:03
  • @EnglishStudent Yes, exactly, you put it even more eloquently than I could have but that's precisely my point.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 10:12
  • Thanks again for helping me clarify my understanding, @Relaxed. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 10:15
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    @English Student: Not quite. If you look at eastern Europe, those countries did not WANT to be Communist. They were so only because of post-WWII military occupation & control by the USSR. Once the USSR collapsed, they (like many of the USSR's republics) threw out the Communist regimes that had been imposed on them. In the same period, China kept its home-grown regime, but abandoned Communism in practice. AFAIK, only Cuba managed to keep its regime and remain even approximately Communist.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 3:20
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    @jamesqf You're still talking about “people” choosing this or that, I don't think this type of language is particularly enlightening. Of course, none of this would have happened without the influence of the Soviet Union! That doesn't contradict EnglishStudent's original comment, which was what you were apparently trying to do…
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 19:12

You ask what innovations caused the PRC to outlive the USSR, but the answer is as much about what innovations caused the USSR to collapse. I'll however start with a quotation about what isn't the issue, from Melvin Goodman. Head of Office for Soviet Affairs CIA 1976-87.

I think probably one of the greatest myths in America, in the political discourse now, right now, is that actions of the American government were responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards. It rotted away from within. The economy was rotten, the political process was rotten, they had developed a central government that was no longer believed by people outside of Moscow, there was total cynicism throughout the Soviet system of governance, there was no real civil society. But the Reagan Administration and their—the minions of the Reagan Administration, will tell you that Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself—the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the East European empire. We were saying that this was entirely fanciful. And the United States missed all of this, because they believed their own myths and their own fanciful notions. They had become their own victims of their own lies.

So what actually happened? We need to go back to 1953... perhaps as far back as 1922. Lenin hoped that Bolshevik victory would inspire revolutions across Europe. But his gamble failed, and with it the prospect of global communist revolution faded. Lenin believed that a communist society could not compete with a capitalist one, and without global revolution a change of strategy was required.

In 1922 Lenin initiated the New Economic Policy, or "state capitalism". The USSR would liberalise its economy; allowing private enterprise and operating state industries for profit. Additionally he proposed Socialism in One Country; another compromise with the failure of global revolution. Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin came to power. Stalin had been initially supportive of the NEP, but he changed his mind, favouring rapid collectivist industrialisation over gradual economic liberalisation. Stalin however did not reject Socialism in One Country, this became a central pillar of his own ideology.

Stalin's Russia became the standard model for communism, and his political and economic policies were copied by Mao's China and Kim Ill Sung's North Korea. The most important part of Stalinism was the cult of personality. Stalin's Russia and Mao's China both experienced dire famines resulting from the poor management of collectivised agriculture. But this wouldn't be a problem, because it was unthinkable that the leader was wrong. Even more unthinkable that one would complain about it. Stalin's brutality kept the Soviet people in line, and meant that their happiness, prosperity, and even their lives were an irrelevance.

In 1953 Stalin died, and his successor Nikita Khrushchev began de-Stalinisation. This aimed the USSR towards political liberalisation, culminating in Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reforms come 1986. The PRC and North Korea however chose another path. Mao's Cultural Revolution, which lasted 1966-76, was a particularly bloody and horrible moment in Chinese history. One seemingly inspired by Stalin's Great Purge of 1936-8.

Mao died in 1976, and was effectively succeeded by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese did not get rid of their late leader's personality cult. Importantly, Deng's reforms (Deng Xiaoping Theory) were said not to reject, but to adapt Marxist-Leninism and Maoism. Even when these policies were polar opposites to what had come before. Perhaps his most famous phrase is:

"It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice."

This sentiment should seem familiar, as what Deng did was to follow Lenin's New Economic Plan. Today the PRC's largest corporations are state owned heavy industry operating for profit, and free enterprise is a cornerstone of Communist party strategy.

In 1968 the Czechoslovakian Communist party attempted to promote political and economic liberalisation; Socialism with a Human Face. The reforms were put down by a Soviet invasion, in what would become known as the Prague Spring. Years later, when Gorbachev was asked what the difference was between his reforms, and the reforms proposed by the Czechoslovakians, he replied "Nineteen years."

The main difference between the USSR and the PRC in 1989 was the degree of authoritarianism which was accepted by the people and enforced by the party. The Tiananmen Square Protests went the way of the Prague Spring as the Communist party feared they were about to lose control. There's intriguing parallels between the Tiananmen Square Protests and the Prague Spring. The latter happened 15 years after Stalin's death, and the former happened 13 years after Mao's death. This implies that the USSR and PRC were in a similar place psychologically in these respective moments.

In 1989 the Chinese Communist party had yielded little political control over their society. Contrast that with it being 51 years since Stalin's Great Purge, and by then the USSR had gradually become a far more liberal society, far more willing to criticise authority and far less willing to put down dissent with violence.

The PRC and DPRK both endure, not because of economic factors given North Korea's poverty, but because of unrepentant authoritarianism. Without de-Stalinisation the USSR would likely still be with us, because it would still have the brutality required to enforce its existence.

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    Good point. That explains why the current regime renewed Mao worship.
    – user16116
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 23:24
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    Thanks a lot for a detailed and very illuminating answer, @inappropriateCode -- which part looks very convincing? This: "(...)what Deng did was to follow Lenin's New Economic Plan. Today the PRC's largest corporations are state owned heavy industry operating for profit, and free enterprise is a cornerstone of Communist party strategy." Also: "The PRC (...) endure, not because of economic factors (...) but because of unrepentant authoritarianism." Your point is valid: social liberalisation can weaken a Communist State's ruthless will to do whatever it takes to 'protect the Revolution.' Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 8:52
  • I think you miss a point. If Russia had adopted Lenin's "New Economic Plan", it would thereby have abandoned Communism, in fact if not in name. Just as modern China has abandoned Communism while keeping the name.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 18:44
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    @jamesqf I'm not saying you have to agree with them, I'm just saying this is the intellectual framework which Communists have established and debate to justify their own policy. I've also addressed the question of how policy affected the survival of the PRC. In the PRC the state owns the "means of production". Coal, steel, finance, transport, and until a decade ago private land ownership wasn't even codified. It's debatable, sure, but there is an argument that state capitalism is communism because the state controls the means of production, and the government is a one party system.
    – user8398
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 20:43
  • @inappropriateCode: It may be the intellectual framework in which Communists debate &c, but what does that matter if the party leadership in China has abandoned all but a pretense of communism? Even if many large companies are state-owned (or largely so), doesn't the mere corporate structure and/or the fact that they compete with non-state companies, make China non-communist?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 3:12

There was no revision in politics. China was still guided by Marxist political economic theory, which says politics is superstructure; economic relation is the base. Unless the economy has created demands for a change of superstructure, a superstructure that is meant to serve an advanced economy is unfit for the present. As Marx had pointed out, the French revolution came after the rise of the bourgeois class; British democracy came after the industrial revolution. China up until year 2000 had neither a mature bourgeois class nor modern industry to speak of.

After decades of political turmoil, the Chinese political moods can best be described as weary; people were simply tired of any political movements. The student movements in late 1980s called back the chaotic scenes of the red guards and instantly lost popular support.

China's economic reform also contributed to political stability because politically ambitious individuals quickly discovered that their time was better spent in making money. The period between 1980 to 2012 can be characterized as China's gilded age: so long as you don't make trouble for the government, you are absolutely free in the quest for wealth. A lot of powerful individuals were corrupted, which effectively ended their political career; they can still enjoy their wealth but they have to renounce their political ambitions.

China is a still communist state by definition because the state is the sole owner of land. The advantage of this ownership is shown in its ability to relocation millions of people to make way for infrastructure development.

  • Thanks @user16116 for an excellent and eminently sensible answer which covers my most important questions with these statements: "There was no revision in politics (...)China's economic reform also contributed to political stability (...)China is a still communist state by definition because the state is the sole owner of land. The advantage of this ownership is shown in its ability to relocation millions of people to make way for infrastructure development." Thanks again and I upvote! Commented Aug 19, 2017 at 21:16
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    The state as sole owner of land criterion is just plain wrong. The state is the sole effective owner of land in every country I know of: you just rent it from the government by paying property taxes. The Federal government, and the states & munlncipalities, are able to relocate people for infrastructure development, or to line the pockets of their political cronies: see "eminent domain". That the numbers affected tend to be in the hundreds & thousands rather than millions reflects the fact that the US is not quite a single-party state.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 0:38
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    These points of yours offer the valuable insight that China might now be 'no longer a communist state' and in fact -- but for elections -- the same type of state as any other modern state including the USA, @jamesqf, which is why I strongly recommend you should please combine these 4 comments and post your own answer. Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 5:05
  • @English Student: But if I try to make an answer, people will insist on references &c. I don't have the background to provide such without spending much more time than I have to spare.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 18:29
  • @jamesqf Your concerns regarding references are well founded. I am saving these comments under your name in a deleted answer so that you can later put them together if you feel like, when you have the time, even if these comments disappear for some reason. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 20:45

Absolute totalitarian control of it's citizenry and the ability and willingness of the state to outright kill it's own citizenry if / when they threaten the states monopoly of power in any way shape or form. They are, arguably, the greatest human rights abusers on the planet right now.

Example: The Communist Party maintains absolute control of all search terms and social media posts. The people of China live extremely sheltered and insular lives inside of an information vacuum. Reality flows through a Communist Party filter before being distributed to the citizenry themselves.

Example: The Communist Party ran over people with tanks for protesting in Tienanmen Square

Example: The Communist Party kidnapped the leaders of the Buddhist Religion and planted their own party affiliated leaders in their places.

Example: The Communist Party kidnaps thousands of practitioners of Falun Gong because the movement was becoming more popular than the party itself. They're currently using them as walking storage containers that they execute and harvest organs from at-will.

Great place, China.

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    While the Chinese government is certainly not composed of angels, I'd argue that it's quite a ways from being the greatest human rights abuser. Iran, Saudi Arabia, some African countries all seem even worse.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 5:46

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