On Christmas day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union called president Bush of the United States to wish him a merry Christmas, then transferred the codes required to launch a nuclear war to Yeltsin, the Russian leader, and signed the decree that officially terminated the existence of the Soviet Union. This was the culmination of the uprisings that had taken place across Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980’s which resulted in the disintegration of the USSR and its network of Communist satellite states.
Arguably, Gorbachev’s role in this is famous not for his actions but instead for how he was acted upon. In 1989, he did not object to the new finding that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution which was so ruthlessly crushed was a “popular uprising against an oligarchic system of power which had humiliated the nation”. He stood idly by when Imre Nagy, the leader of the revolution whom the Soviet Union had ordered executed, was reburied at a massive state funeral. This emboldened Hungarian authorities to remove the barbed wire fence between the Austro-Hungarian border which numerous refugees had tempted to flee across in 1956. This prompted thousands of East Germans to drive their cars through Czechoslovakia and Hungary to the border and abandon them at the border and walk across from there. The still staunchly communist East Germans naturally protested this to Moscow but the shocking reply from Gorbachev read “we can’t do anything about it”.
The rise of Solidarity (a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement) in the Polish parliament through the 1989 elections which everyone had expected to be rigged in the Communist Party’s favour was met with a similar response from the Kremlin. It was “entirely a matter to be decided by Poland” commented one of Gorbachev’s top aides. He even slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall due to the time difference with Moscow and could only tell the East German authorities the next morning that they had “made the right decision” by opening the gates and allowing a flood of East Berliners into West Berlin.
With the breaching of the Berlin Wall came a spate of Communist government collapses throughout Eastern Europe as Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania deposed of their incumbent rulers. Eventually, the USSR itself completely unravelled as Gorbachev was powerless to his political rival Yeltsin abolishing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and installing in its place a council composed of representatives from the republics of the USSR. The independence of the Baltic states was soon recognised by the council followed by the Ukraine, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Gorbachev was now without a country.
Machiavelli famously conjectured that it was better for a prince to be feared than loved. Gorbachev refused to heed this advice and chose to be loved and was mostly successful in obtaining it. However, it cost him his authority, his state and his ideology. His refusal to use force arguably contributed to his undoing and certainly its rapidity but in turn precipitated one of the most bloodless revolutions in history. Though this had little geopolitical logic, Gaddis suggests that it made him “the most deserving recipient” of the Nobel Peace Prize ever.
As luck would have it, I did not get the chance to meet Xi Jinping during my term at Tsinghua University in Beijing and therefore could not ask if he had read Machiavelli or heard that famous piece of advice. However, it could be an especially pertinent question given the escalation of violence and protests in Hong Kong. Although he does not have quite as much as stake as Gorbachev did and his hand has not been forced as of yet, his choice between fear and love will have impactful and far-reaching consequences. The streets of Hong Kong turned into a venue of huge protest marches and street battles in 2019 not dissimilar to Cold War Budapest, Prague or Warsaw. However, police response has been unapologetic with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and live fire all used to try and quell the unrest. The protests have shown no sign of easing as the runners up for Time Magazine’s person of the year ushered in the new decade with a New Year’s Day rally and a tens of thousand strong pro-democracy march. Violence once again broke out as police fired tear gas in some areas and used water cannons to clear the streets. A more fundamental military crackdown which would put Xi firmly in the “fear” camp has so far been avoided, sending in the army might not even offer a political solution anyway as it is likely to trigger international outcry.
Therefore, Beijing finds itself bound to Hong Kong by a sense of historical destiny while Hong Kong continues to harbour deep ideological opposition to Beijing. Furthermore, there is no coherent strategy available which ensures the stability and control that Beijing seeks to maintain while offering the ideological freedom and democracy which Hong Kong wishes to attain. The situation which greeted Gorbachev when he assumed the role of Soviet leadership was fraught with contradictions as well as he wished to save socialism but did not want to use force to do so. While Gorbachev dithered in the contradictions without solving them, Xi may wish to take decisive action to meet the biggest challenge to Communist Party rule in China for over a generation. Whether he will do so with fear or love remains to be seen.