Communist leaders no longer fear revolution, but the demands of an emerging middle-class

ROGER COHEN, The New York Times

THE Vietnamese Communist Party, like its fraternal party in China, has identified the No 1 threat it faces. The looming danger is called "peaceful evolution".

The architects of Market-Leninism, who have delivered fast-growth capitalism to one-party Asian states, are in earnest. The nightmares they have are not about revolutionary upheaval, but the drip, drip, drip of liberal democracy.

Twenty years after Tiananmen Square, revolt is dormant and students docile from Beijing to Hanoi. They've bought into development over democracy for the foreseeable future. They may want more freedom, but not to the point that they will confront the system, as the Tiananmen generation did.

In China and Vietnam, moving up from motorbikes to cars is more likely to occupy the next generation than pushing for multi-party democracy.

This pragmatic sentiment is related to trauma. Both countries saw civil wars in the second half of the 20th century that exacted tremendous tolls. So, stability is prized, especially as it has brought fast-rising living standards.

But there's more to the shift that has made "peaceful evolution" the spectre keeping Asian politburos awake at night.

Technology has taken the "total" out of totalitarian in wired societies. Neither China nor Vietnam is free. At the same time, neither is so un-free as to make their citizens ache for liberty.

Mr Shi Guoliang, who researches the social outlook of young people at Beijing's China Youth University for Political Sciences, told the Financial Times: "Students don't do sit-ins, they blog and use Twitter."

In Vietnam, where things are generally more lax than up north, that freedom is far greater. In both countries, communication and the online world serve as safety valves for one-party states where Communism is little more than the brand name given to power retention.

In general, I'd say the era of revolutions is over. Google has gobbled the insurrectionary impulse. That is the main difference between the Tiananmen generation and Asia's rising "Generation Global". Heat rises in a confined space. When walls and borders are porous, it dissipates.

So, what's a party functionary, having digested the lessons of Mao and Ho, to fret about, if not "peaceful evolution"?

The almost noiseless implosion of the Soviet system and the velvet revolutions of central Europe have made an indelible impression on the architects of 21st-century soft repression. They're alert not to bangs but to whimpers.

Their systems are quiet. They are based not on terror and gulags, but on the establishment of red lines that only impinge on freedom where freedom begins to mean the right to denounce or organise against the authorities.

So, what the custodians of repression-lite Communism with a capitalist face fear are not revolutionary cells armed with AK-47s but harmless-sounding non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They are on the watch for puffy-faced, over-educated Western idealists who, behind talk of human rights and the rule of law, may be blurring those red lines and sucking the fibre of a Communist cadre.

"You can register a company here in a day, but forget about registering an NGO or charity," Mr Jonathan Pincus, who runs a branch of Harvard's Kennedy School in Ho Chi Minh City, told me. A Russian delegation was in Vietnam recently giving advice on how to counter the NGO menace.

That's regrettable but hardly disastrous. The rapid rise of China and Vietnam, accounting between them for some 20 per cent of humanity, has ushered hundreds of millions of people from poverty since totalitarian Communism fell. The West is in no position to say it knows better.

America, born as a liberating idea, must be true to that and promote its values. But, sobered and broke, it must be patient. As the emergent middle classes of Vietnam and China become more demanding of what they consume, they will also be more demanding consumers of government.

They will want more transparency, predictable laws, better health care, less corruption, broader education, freer speech and fewer red lines.

One-party states will be hard pressed to provide that. Another quarter-century down the road, I'd bet on more democracy and liberty in Beijing and Hanoi, achieved through peaceful evolution, no less.

From, World News – Tuesday, 26-May-2009; see the source article here.

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