This special issue focuses on the resilience of the communist regimes in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, all four not only survived a hostile post-communist world dominated by liberal capitalism but have thrived economically. The five articles in this special issue hope to build on existing scholarship on authoritarian resilience while contributing in the following ways. First, by adopting a regional framework, we hope to offer a fuller examination of varieties in communist Asia. After all, this is the only world region with such a large concentration of surviving communist parties. Second, while highlighting the critical role of revolutionary origins, our approach corrects the tendency in scholarship on democratic transition that neglects the totalitarian legacies. Third, the articles support the institutionalist approach by showing how ruling parties in authoritarian regimes are critical; yet we also seek to balance between historical legacies and contemporary developments and to analyze the interactions among ideologies, organizations, and resources.

The substantial scholarship on authoritarian durability and resilience has produced many explanations for such phenomena, ranging from effective political strategies to clever institutional arrangements both to share power among elites and to control the population (e.g., Geddes et al., 2018; Gerschewski, 2013; Svolik, 2012; Gandhi, 2008). More recently, scholars have increasingly turned to regime origins, especially revolutionary origins, as a major explanation (Smith, 2005; Slater, 2010; Levitsky & Way, 2013; Lachapelle et al., 2020). While revolutionary origins undoubtedly had decisive impacts on a regime’s durability and resilience, these accounts still need to be supplemented with analyses on subsequent historical developments, especially those regimes’ ongoing adaptations to contemporary conditions.

This special issue focuses on the resilience of the authoritarian regimes in Laos, Vietnam, China, and Cambodia. These four regimes share a revolutionary communist past, and the first three are still led by communist parties today. The last, Cambodia, historically underwent two communist regimes that shared basic features yet varied by their degrees of radicalism: from a genocidal regime under Pol Pot (1975–79) to a Vietnam-installed, more moderate regime (1979–92) led by Hun Sen and other Cambodian communists who had opposed Pol Pot.1 In 1992, Hun Sen’s party changed its name to Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and accepted sharing power under a peace agreement brokered by the United Nations. Since 1997, however, the CPP has been able to restore its monopoly of power, turning Cambodia into a single-party system today. In contrast, Laos, Vietnam, and China have experienced uninterrupted communist rule and still proclaim loyalty to the communist doctrine. At the same time, these ruling communist parties have abandoned revolutionary goals and overseen decades of market reform that now tie their economies firmly to the global capitalist system.

The four cases thus share a largely similar past of communist revolution and reform, but they are different in size and ideological loyalty. They also differ in age: the Chinese regime was established on mainland China in 1949, whereas its Vietnamese counterpart was proclaimed in 1945 but established in North Vietnam since 1954 and in South Vietnam since 1975. The Lao regime took control of Laos in 1975, whereas Hun Sen’s CPP came to power in 1979. The four regimes began their reform at a similarly low level of national income and have since joined the ranks of “middle-income” countries ($1,000 to $12,500).2 Remarkably, three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, all four not only survived a hostile post-communist world dominated by liberal capitalism but have thrived economically as well. China is the most successful of the pack, having established itself as a global power and a counterweight to US dominance in East Asia. These regimes have not simply been durable like North Korea and Cuba (Smith, 2015; Morgenstern et al., 2018); they have adapted much better in the aftermath of the immense shock caused by the collapse of global communism.

Such resilience of these communist regimes in a liberal world is puzzling, especially given the circumstances when these regimes began their reforms. In the late 1980s, China was still emerging out of the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen protests exposed its deep vulnerabilities. Heavily dependent on their Soviet and Eastern European patrons, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia suffered from abject poverty and hostile relations with all their neighbors, including the former ally and patron, China, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The odds seemed stacked against them as the euphoria about “the end of history” spread worldwide (Fukuyama, 1992). This was why early scholars of transition and democratization such as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan assumed their impending doom (Linz & Stepan, 1996).

Together with a substantial body of scholarship that examines the general question of authoritarian durability (Luong, 2002; Geddes, 2003; Smith, 2005; Brownlee, 2007; Gandhi, 2008; Slater, 2010; Svolik, 2012; Geddes et al., 2018), a significant literature focuses specifically on the five surviving regimes (Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea) of the former Soviet Bloc (e.g., Saxonberg, 2012; Dimitrov, 2013). Scholars have considered coercion and ideological and institutional adaptations as among the most important factors that explain their durability and resilience. Among Asian cases, China, Vietnam, and North Korea have received the most attention while Laos the least. Much scholarship on Cambodia considers it a kind of hybrid regime, neglecting the legacies of its communist past (e.g., Morgenbesser, 2017).

The five articles in this special issue hope to build on existing scholarship while contributing in the following ways. First, by adopting a regional framework for the special issue, we hope to offer a fuller examination of transitioning varieties in Asia’s communist world.3 After all, this is the only world region with such a large concentration of surviving communist parties. As demonstrated by Tuong Vu in the theoretical article, the regional framework is especially useful to connect the origins and outcomes of these cases as these regimes share national borders and have in fact developed alongside and depended on each other during most of their existence.

Second, the historical approach employed by the theoretical article and by the case studies of China and Cambodia joins the latest scholarship on revolutionary regimes to highlight the critical role of revolutionary origins in the resilience of communist regimes (Levitsky & Way, 2012, 2013; Lachapelle et al., 2020). At the same time, our approach corrects the tendency in scholarship on democratic transition that neglects the totalitarian system’s deep legacies in surviving communist regimes (Linz & Stepan, 1996; Saxonberg, 2012).

Third, all five articles in the special issue support the institutionalist approach by showing how ruling parties in authoritarian regimes are critical to their durability and resilience (Geddes, 2003; Pepinsky, 2014; Meng, 2021). This has been a major explanation in the literature that our evidence on Asia’s communist regimes strongly confirms. The strengths of the ruling parties in our cases come from their historical development, their internal cohesion, their dominant position in society, and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Yet institutions are not the only explanation we offer. Instead of monocausal accounts, contributors to our special issue aim for a holistic approach, which we believe is necessary for a fuller understanding of the phenomenon under investigation. This approach is deployed not only for the four single-case studies in this special issue but also for the theoretical article. At varying degrees, the five articles seek to balance between historical legacies and contemporary developments and to analyze the interactions among several major explanatory factors, including ideologies, organizations, and resources. No single factor is sufficient; yet there is a limited number of factors that together capture most specific elements in each case while pointing to the shared causes of these regimes’ resilience.

The special issue is organized as follows. The first article builds on extant theories to offer a theoretical framework for the study of strengths and vulnerabilities of communist Asia. Each subsequent article focuses specifically on one of the four Asian regimes, namely Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China.

The first article, by Tuong Vu, is titled “Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Surviving Asian Communist Regimes from a Historical, Regional, and Holistic Approach.” In this article, Vu proposes a historically grounded, regionally framed, and holistically constructed framework that treats Asian communist revolutions as they emerged in collaboration with each other, and as they created not only communist regimes but also modern nation-states. Vu uses this framework to analyze the strengths and vulnerabilities of communist regimes, focusing on how resources, ideologies, and organizations have been deployed and have contributed to their strategies of legitimation, co-optation, and repression.

In their article titled “The Role of “Resources” in Regime Durability in Laos: The Political Economy of Statist Market Socialism,” Simon Creak and Keith Barney argue that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Laos, draws upon three key types of “resources” in consolidating regime durability. The authors’ conception of resources encompasses not just natural and human resources as in the first article, but also the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP)’s ideological and institutional resources that underpin its controversial program of industrial resourcification and modernization. Their argument focuses on the mutual constitution and coproduction of natural, ideological, and institutional regime resources using a triptychal model to understand their integrative contribution to regime durability in Laos. This analytical triptych seeks to illuminate an evolving, pragmatic, but carefully calibrated form of “statist market socialism” that contrasts in key ways with the common view of Laos as an aspiring if imperfect market-based developing economy. After defining statist market socialism and the regime’s three key resources, Creak and Barney present a case study from Laos’ strategic hydropower sector to demonstrate how the triptych of regime resources combine in practice to support and sustain LPRP rule.

The next article, titled “Organizational Strength and Authoritarian Durability in Cambodia,” draws from multiple sources of data including longitudinal field research including interviews with diverse stakeholders—party apparatchik, leaders of civil society organizations, and representatives of international institutions operating in Cambodia. Analyzing these data using the literature on the durability of single-party authoritarianism, Jing Jing Luo and Kheang Un argue that authoritarian durability in Cambodia is associated with the CPP’s strength, which has its roots in the party’s evolution from a liberation movement and counterinsurgency struggle from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Such movement and struggle fostered shared hardship, ideational cohesiveness among the party’s leadership that in turn generated enduring partisan identities, rigid interparty boundaries, and strong party organizational structure. Additionally, Luo and Un postulate that distribution of patronage largesse made possible through rents associated with extraction of natural resources, foreign aid, and foreign investment further strengthened the ruling party, allowing it to project infrastructural power for surveilling and mobilizing voters, and for exercising coercion against its challengers.

In the next article, titled “Exploiting Ideology and Making Higher Education Serve Vietnam’s Authoritarian Regime,” Thuy Nguyen examines the case of Vietnam, showing how the Communist Party of Vietnam has proactively deployed ideological indoctrination in the higher education system to raise submissive youth as well as to suppress dissenting academics. By demonstrating the use of organizational constraint and ideological exploitation strategies, Nguyen proposes that post-totalitarian regimes’ political ideology should not just be viewed as a static set of theories or some official claims by the ruling party. Rather, an examination of how these regimes strategically use ideological principles on a day-to-day basis gives us a more nuanced understanding. The article illustrates how educational organizations, once having their norms and disciplines embedded in political ideology, can act effectively to consolidate authoritarian regimes at a deeper level.

Like all authors in this special issue, Qingming Huang takes a long view of China’s evolution as a revolutionary state. His article, titled “Founding Myth, Institutional Adaptation, and Regime Resilience in China,” focuses specifically on the foundational and institutional resources that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accumulated in the earlier stages of regime development and their lasting influence on regime trajectory. At the stage of regime establishment, Huang shows that the CCP successfully constructed the founding myth of the party-state as the foundational resource to legitimize its rule. At the later stage of regime adaptation, institutional adaptation during the process of achieving modernization allowed the CCP to accumulate substantial institutional resource to further buttress the regime. Huang argues that, while negotiating the space between the state and society, the Chinese regime demonstrated high capacity in granting more autonomy to market and economic actors to accelerate growth. It also managed to increase the embeddedness of economic strata in the system through informal and formal institutional arrangements. When confronted with a serious regime crisis in 1989, the CCP was able to draw strength from the foundational and institutional resources to survive the crisis.

By bringing together a group of Asian specialists, this special issue hopes to contribute to readers of Communist and Post-Communist Studies diverse perspectives of national and regional experts on the subject matter. With diverse methods from three disciplines of political science, history, and political geography, we build on existing scholarship but seek to integrate various lines of arguments into a holistically framed, regionally mapped, and historically-grounded theoretical framework that highlights the uniqueness of this group of regimes as well as the characteristics they share with other communist or post-communist systems. Informed by theories of authoritarian resilience in comparative politics and seeking to enrich such theories with our cases, our framework suggests that far from being irrelevant, the communist past still casts a long shadow on these regimes, explaining both their particular strengths and vulnerabilities.

1.

Although Pol Pot and his murderous comrades would have been unable to come to power without the critical assistance of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, they turned against Vietnam after seizing control of Cambodia in 1975.

2.

World Bank data of GDP per capita based on current US$ up to 2015. Available from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?end=2019&locations=VN-KH-LA&start=1960&view=chart. For a comparison of economic development in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, see Vannarith and Wong (2014) or for these countries within East and Southeast Asia see Vu (2020).

3.

While the special issue does not include an article specifically on North Korea, the theoretical article by Tuong Vu discusses North Korea together with other surviving communist regimes in Asia.

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