An expert's point of view on a current event.

What China Didn’t Learn From the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Xi Jinping sees the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale. But Beijing is learning all the wrong lessons.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.



It’s been 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and in that time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has generated tens of thousands of internal papers, roundtables, and even documentaries on the issue. Like most intellectual products in the mainland, 95 percent of these have been worthless regurgitations of the political line of the day by mediocre careerists. But the official angle on the collapse, which once seemed to be pushing the country toward reforms that were more sensitive to public needs and opening the economy, has shifted sharply in the last few years. Today, the lessons Beijing is drawing seem likely to keep sending it backward.

It’s no surprise that the party is obsessed with the collapse of its former rival and ideological partner. The most bizarre thing about the brief spate of articles in 2012 and 2013 describing the newly appointed CCP general secretary, Xi Jinping, as a potential Mikhail Gorbachev for China was that some of the writers seemed to think they were paying him a compliment. In China, though, Gorbachev is seen not as a far-sighted reformer but as a disastrous failure, a man who led his country, and his party, to national calamity. That’s not an unfair view: China has no desire to lose a quarter of its territory, watch GDP drop by 40 percent, and see male life expectancy cut short by seven years, as Russia did in the 1990s.

Before the Soviet leader’s failed gambit, though, many Chinese looked favorably on Gorbachev. The Soviet Union and China had tentatively made up after their vicious — and nearly world-ending — split in the 1960s, and both were looking to learn from the other’s experiences. Moscow was increasingly convinced that China’s “reform and opening up” was a way forward for its moribund economy, and Chinese intellectuals, inside and outside the party, were intrigued by the possibilities offered by glasnost and perestroika — the pillars of Gorbachev’s heralded reform platform.

The Soviet collapse prompted hard self-reflection, albeit couched within the even harder limits of Chinese political correctness. (Even in relatively liberal moments — such as the fervent intellectual debates of the late 1980s — raising fundamental questions about national identity, the leadership of the party, and the correctness of socialism was a risky move for anyone inside the system.) What were the causes? Was China inevitably heading down the same path if it didn’t change its ways?

Virtually every aspect of the early People’s Republic, from the organization of its railways to its party structure to its ethnic minority policy, was copied from the Soviet Union. As Marxist theorists saw it, like the Soviets, China had leapfrogged from peasant feudalism over industrial capitalism straight into socialism. But in reality, both slapped a veneer of socialism over a fusion of new nationalism and old-fashioned empire. And both followed mass famine with cultural revolution (originally a Soviet term) and bloody party purges.

At first, part of the Chinese response was to use the Soviet example to spur further reform inside the party itself. As political scientist David Shambaugh has argued, critical analysis of Soviet failings pointed to a top-heavy, incompetent, and stagnant Soviet Communist Party and prompted efforts in Beijing to transform the CCP into a more modern, flexible, and resilient organization. That didn’t mean sweeping democratic reform, but it meant a party more sensitive to public opinion — and more interested in steering it, through both subtle and unsubtle means, in the right direction.

There were also more immediate shifts. Fear of the popular changes unleashed across Eastern Europe had already played a powerful role in prompting the brutal crackdown on protesters in Beijing and elsewhere in 1989. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, deeply conscious of the role that rising nationalism, from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, had played in bringing down the Soviet Union, policy around China’s autonomous regions and ethnic minorities tightened, and the language shifted. Minzu, the Chinese term for non-ethnic-Han groups, shifted from being “nationalities” in official translations to “ethnic minorities.” Meanwhile, worries over Soviet economic stagnation boosted Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s final big push for economic reform during his 1992 “Southern Tour” of the country’s newly booming commercial cities.

Running parallel to this, however, was always a counternarrative that suggested the disaster hadn’t come from inside but outside. It was the reformers who had caused the fall of a superpower, this argument went, by shaking faith in the system through acknowledging the Soviet Union’s past crimes, letting in dangerous foreign influences, and abandoning hard-line Marxism. This idea has now received official stamp from the very top of Beijing’s leadership, and one can see it reverberating through the new wave of paranoia about foreign influence, reassertion of party power, and hostility to civil society.

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As Xi himself put it in a 2013 speech: “Their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels.”

Historical nihilism” has become a favorite shibboleth for those looking to demonstrate loyalty under Xi, as has the hysterical defense of every bit of past propaganda. Manufactured Maoist hero Lei Feng, once idealized by Chinese youth in the 1960s, has been dragged, yet again, from the grave to serve as inspiration for utterly indifferent Chinese youth despite the “Western conspiracy” against him.

The new line is simple: blame the West and blame the Soviet leaders — like Gorbachev — who let the West in. It’s one reason why China has pushed through harsh new laws designed to force out foreign nongovernmental organizations, why the national press is getting shriller and shriller in its hostility to the United States, and why censorship is worsening. At the same time, there’s no sign of the political reforms that some Western observers once confidently predicted.

What’s behind this shift? Part of it seems to be Xi’s personal conviction in the essential truth of the party — and in his own right to rule as a revolutionary scion. That would be enough to shift the entire course of discussion by itself, in a country where following the leader’s signals is second nature for anyone who wants to climb the ladder. (It’s a habit that carries over into other contexts: Before President-elect Donald Trump’s Taiwan call, visiting Chinese groups in Washington were ending speeches with, “Together, we can make America and China great again.”)

But Xi’s own convictions have been empowered by the events of the last decade. The deepest Chinese fear is of regime change similar to the kinds that swept across the former Soviet space and let loose the Arab Spring. “Color revolution” is a useful phrase, because it detaches these events from true, rightful revolution — of the kind that made the People’s Republic of China and all its “revolutionary martyrs” — and puts it firmly in the realm of an organized, U.S.-led conspiracy designed to destabilize potential opponents.

The belief that all of these revolutions were U.S.-orchestrated plots isn’t just propaganda, but sincerely held; I argued with a People’s Daily editor after a visit to Iran just after the Green Revolution in which he’d claimed that the Iranians loved their regime. “All the so-called protesters were CIA spies!” he told me.

In Beijing, American promotion of democracy and human rights is seen as just a tool to ensure U.S. dominance and one that therefore has to be constantly resisted. “Peaceful evolution,” the nationalist tabloid Global Times proclaimed, was just another name for color revolution. Even seemingly harmless cultural products have been caught up in this. Zootopia, a recent Disney animated children’s film, explained a People’s Liberation Army newspaper, was an American plot to weaken China’s morale.

The hostility toward the color revolutions and the chaos they’ve unleashed has thus been projected backward. The Soviet fall, once seen at least in part as a result of the Communist Party’s own failings, has become reinterpreted as a deliberate U.S. plot and a moral failure to hold the line against Western influence. That has ended what was once a powerful spur to reform — meaning that, barring a major change in leadership, the likely course of Chinese politics over the next few years will be further xenophobia, even more power to the party, and an unwillingness to talk about the harder lessons of history.

Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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