This fall, the world will mark the 60th and 20th anniversaries of two of the biggest events in communism's history. And though both dates will be marked with jubilation, the anniversaries being celebrated could not be more different. On Oct. 1, massive festivities in Beijing will commemorate the founding of the People's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) rise to power. Then, in early November, events will be held in Germany to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the obliteration of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.
This juncture makes for an interesting reflection on the perils of prediction. Growing up during the Cold War, it seemed to me as if the Berlin Wall and the divisions it symbolized might last forever. The CCP, however, looked doomed to die by the early 1990s, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and June 4 massacre triggered a massive legitimacy crisis. Celebrating a 50th birthday in power looked like a pipe dream, let alone a 60th.
What turned the tides? It's impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, the CCP went from looking like it was on its last legs to looming as a global force majeure. But in fact, the mistaken predictions of my generation may have had much to do with it -- and with events in Berlin as well.
I learned why a decade ago, at a Budapest conference devoted to revisiting the end of the wall. After a presentation by a group of American print and broadcast journalists, including New York Times writers Flora Lewis and R.W. Apple Jr., Central European University historian István Rév made a comment that, to him, was off the cuff, but to many of us was stunningly profound. The journalists had expressed pride in how they had described and analyzed breaking news events 10 years earlier. But they lamented their failure to predict sooner the dramatic changes these protests would yield. They failed to foresee that the marches and rallies were not just newsworthy -- they were of great historical consequence.
Rév, however, thanked the journalists for their "failure" to predict; he and the countless others who had longed for change owed them a debt of gratitude for their lack of clairvoyance. Living under Communist Party rule, he said, taught people that taking actions deemed of "world historical importance" would end in bloodshed. In essence, if the world had believed the wall would come down, many ordinary citizens in communist-run parts of Europe would have stayed home, fearing that the governments of the Iron Curtain would act forcefully to crush their protests. What happened instead was that the world's disbelief in radical change emboldened the participants in the European upheaval of 1989. Ironically, the marches' perceived futility helped make the year's miracles possible.
That conference in Budapest led me to a different but complementary conclusion about prediction relating to China. Namely, one reason the CCP had endured was that, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, its demise had seemed so inevitable.