Asymmetric Mobilization in Comparative Perspective Rethinking Regime Transitions from Communism


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date22 Jun 2018


This thesis proposes a new dynamic model of transitions from communism. The current transition literature tends to focus on relatively static regime types and short-term strategic decisions by governing elites and opposition leaders. This transition model stresses the importance of two additional aspects that are often neglected in the literature: the impact of societal mobilization and the international system on transition outcomes. This thesis looks at these variables (regime type, societal mobilization, and international system) with a longer-term perspective. Thus, this dissertation attempts to analyse regime transitions in the context of three key variables: evolving regime types, asymmetric social mobilization, and changing centre-periphery dynamics. It also argues that these three variables are mutually dependent. However, the relative importance of each variable depends on the strategic decisions of the elites, type of political culture, and the scope of the regime’s sovereignty.

This leads to a broader understanding of the term “transition” in this thesis. First, a transition is a long process of regime evolution, which is affected by internal conflicts within the regime, episodes of societal mobilization, and international factors. Second, a transition does not equal democratization. The scope and direction of the transition processes depends on the goals of the regime elites, the goals of the opposition, and the international environment. Third, regime transitions are not linear processes from totalitarianism/authoritarianism to democracy but cyclical processes of liberalization and repression that might lead to democratization or authoritarian resilience depending on how well the regime can adapt to changing domestic and international factors. Thus, a regime transition is understood as a chain of interactions and adaptations between the regime, the mobilized society, and international system. Correlations between these key variables are examined at the unit and system levels. The unit level analysis focuses on domestic factors but also examines to what extent the international environment provides or limits the opportunity structure for regime transitions. At the system level, the focus is on the extent to which domestic factors affect the centre-periphery system, and how changes in the centre-periphery system shape transitions within the international system.

To illuminate the dynamic model of transition, I focus on a comparison of the Chinese and Polish transitions at the unit level. Comparison of the Chinese and Polish cases before 1989 reveals surprising similarities between them and contributes to a new way of looking at regime transitions in general. The Chinese and Polish regimes faced the most mobilized societies among communist systems and therefore these regimes reacted in more flexible ways to these challenges compared to other communist regimes. The high degree of societal mobilization in China and Poland through 1989 was shaped by two major factors. First, China and Poland share a distinctive political culture based on long mobilization chains linked to nationalist protest. Second, much like in Eastern Europe since Stalin’s death in 1953, in China after Mao’s death in 1976 there was growing societal protest after the ideological decompression as well as a divided leadership following the transition from totalitarian to post-totalitarian rule. Yet different positions in the centre-periphery system affected different goals of the opposition and regime elites and led to different transition outcomes. The essential difference between Chinese and Polish communist rulers was the nature of the international structure and the position of the regimes within it, which will be examined within a framework of centre-periphery relations in the context of emerging and declining regional powers.

Therefore, at the system level, I compare two centre-periphery systems: the Soviet Bloc and Greater China. The definition of “centre” and “periphery” depends here on the context of international relations and changes over time. Both China and Poland were on the periphery of the international system during the late Western colonial period. Furthermore, China and Poland were initially part of the Soviet socialist-style “colonial” system after World War II, but with the former gradually developing its own “colonial rule” within its own borders. After the break with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s/early 1960s, China became an independent communist system in which Mao was able to unleash the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese leadership, though in a country which at the time was on the periphery of the world system, was at the centre of the emerging Chinese communist “empire”. In this sense the Chinese centre was like Russia in the Soviet System where nationalism worked in favour of the regime, also because it was linked to a successful communist national revolution (which was more recent in China than Russia). Thus, the central position of Beijing in China enabled a fully sovereign regime to claim nationalist legitimacy and react flexibly in order to survive a major societal challenge while peripheral Poland lacked both the national self-determination and nationalist credentials it would have needed to repress protests in 1988-89.

Although focused on societal challenges to the Chinese and Polish regimes in 1989 and the different outcomes in the two countries, this thesis also explores, to a limited extent, the divergent paths taken by these two countries in the nearly three decades since. In China late post-totalitarian rule could be consolidated due to extensive economic reforms that allowed the regime to impose varying degrees of repression without substantial societal protest, also because it was able to use nationalist appeals. Poland democratized and was re-incorporated into Western Europe, gradually becoming member of European Union, although being a vanguard case of regime change has run Polish democracy into major challenges. In this sense Poland is a relatively pure case of double asymmetric mobilization (domestic and peripheral), while China is a mixed case, with a high societal mobilization level in the centre until 1989 but since then it has become increasingly like the Soviet Union in the late post-totalitarian period with the highest degree of mobilization on the periphery. “Salami tactics” of the Chinese centre has sparked societal mobilization in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thus, the increasingly mobilized civil societies in Hong Kong and Taiwan have begun to resemble pre-1989 Poland within the Soviet System.