China's Soviet Lessons
Image Credit: Wikicommons

China's Soviet Lessons


The New York Times today has a story making out Xi Jinping as a hardliner in sheep's clothing – during the very trip during which he laid claim to the mantle of reform in Shenzhen, they write, he undercut this promise with an internal Party speech promising not to repeat the mistakes of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Both the reporting and the analysis of this piece are based on a late January blog post by Chinese journalist Gao Yu– dramatically summed up by China Digital Times  “Leaked Speech Shows Xi Jinping's Opposition to Reform” – but the New York Times was able to independently confirm the quotes.  So far, I have not been able to find any more information about the speech in English or Chinese than was in the stories by Gao Yu and the Times.

The analysis, however, is dead wrong.  We know a good deal about how the Chinese Communist Party remembers the Soviet Union: it is not as an object lesson in the virtues of hidebound Marxism.  On the contrary, for the last 20 years the downfall of the Soviet Union has been a go-to cautionary tale for all varieties of Chinese political thinker, from hardliner to liberal.  It has also been intensely studied by academics in the great redoubts of Chinese Marxist theory – the Party Schools and Academies of Social Sciences – and the lesson drawn is usually that the Chinese Communist Party must deal with corruption and other social problems before outside forces compel it to do so.

This field – the CCP's effort to put a posthumous diagnosis on the Soviet Union – is well surveyed in David Shambaugh’s 2009 book, China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, which is necessary reading if you're trying to get your head around what reform might look like as conceived by Party leaders.  Shambaugh's study revealed a lively debate within the Party's research organs, but one which seemed to be largely resolved by the middle of Hu Jintao's term, with a variety of official accounts that emphasized corruption and dogmatic thinking alongside Western influence and premature political reform.  These studies, Shambaugh shows, formed a major part of the theoretical basis for Hu Jintao's failed plans to fight corruption by improving party discipline.

For Chinese analysts, Gorbachev's mistakes included ill-timed political reforms, but these come in a distant second to his party's failure to provide economic growth and good government.  Li Jingjie, a Soviet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told Shambaugh that the Soviet Union collapsed because it failed to change:

“It was the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) that collapsed first.  CPSU leaders did not understand economics and they steadfastly avoided reform because they dogmatically believed in their model.  The CPSU  never renewed itself and did not adapt with the times… In seventy-plus years, there was no development of democratic politics.  Once they began, under Gorbachev, they were too late and the reform strategy was erroneous – which was the precipitating cause of the collapse.”

In my experience, even young Chinese liberals are afraid of following in Russia's footsteps.  The downfall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union is remembered not as a victory for liberty but as a warning about having too much democracy too soon.  What most Chinese people remember about Russia's democratic transition is that it lost huge amounts of territory and that many of its state assets were stolen by the new oligarch class – not an entirely false picture, especially for a country whose two largest provinces both have independence movements.  More appealing are the histories of Korea and Taiwan, where established economic growth and expanding middle classes drove largely peaceful democratic transitions.

In this context, Xi's invocation of the USSR is something much less sinister: in a speech given to a Party audience, the USSR is a reminder of the reasons for reform and a chance to promise explicitly that Xi's reform plans will not destabilize the Party's hold on power – to which end, Xi evidently reiterated his commitment to the basic principles of Communism.  To be sure, the speech rules out major democratic reforms such as ending censorship or creating a national army – but these are reforms no one has ever expected of an incoming president chosen by consensus of China's previous and former leaders. 

For a Chinese leader, the Soviet analogy is an argument for the kind of incremental reforms that might actually take place within the current political system: serious efforts to rein in corruption, progress on encouraging consumption, or reversing the trend toward state domination of the Chinese economy.  It's not glasnost but it would be an improvement.

Red Socialist
March 4, 2013 at 11:46

John Chan thank you for your kind insight. I am happy to see Chinese people are not fooled by western propaganda outlets such as the New York Times. Im a soon to be ex-pat going to serve in China. Please ignore these imperialist slaves my friend 中国共产党万岁!中国人民万岁!

February 27, 2013 at 14:59

When does Cadre 2nd class John Chan finish his 9-5 job being his government’s internet monkey?

CCP dont know how to do PR

February 21, 2013 at 01:57

The CCP regime's ultimate goal is to hold on to power as long as possible, which means no meaningful political reforms.  At some time they will collapse hard and will pay for the crimes they did to the Chinese people since they seized monopolistic control of China.

February 21, 2013 at 01:47

Are you insane or stupid, or both?  The per capita income for China is about $10K, the USA is about $50.  At least 20% of China's peopulation still earns less than $2 a day and the USA should learn from the barbaric CCP regime?  What a brainwashed waste!

February 20, 2013 at 01:51

@John Chan,

The article is about the Soviet lessons that Xi Jinping is probably keeping as his Bible. Elsewhere, I have already given you some Vietnamese lessons to the Chinese. I will give you a number of lessons Chinese may learn from Fillipinos, at the appropiate time. For this, you need to reach a level that you don't see it as an humiliation. You have to understand that we all have something to learn from others. You are not there yet. I am afraid that you are still at the level where you think it is only China that can teach other a lesson (Deng Xiaoping's obssession).


John Chan
February 19, 2013 at 23:36


1. USA continues to seek external enemies and carry out destruction rampage is a fact.

2. The West’s mainstream media formed a Great Fireweb to manufacture consensus for imperialist insidious purposes is a fact.

3. USA’s Ultra-nationalism that will react with hysteria to other nation’s patriotism is a fact.

4. USA has been at war with everybody that is not to its liking on fabricated accusation since WWII is a fact.

5. USA stirs up hostility in Asia-Pacific to destroy peace so that Asia-Pacific cannot surpass the West is a fact.

While China has done nothing of the sort the USA has been doing, it is a responsible member of the international community focusing on peace, trade and building prosperity for the humanity. Hence all your narratives regarding China’s imperialist power are conjecture. Then what shall we call your conjecture that smears China? Manufacturing consensus, imperialist propaganda, an old man stilling living in the Cold-War, or a White supremacy paranoid?

John Chan
February 19, 2013 at 23:09


How about restore liberty, equality and justice in the USA, ban private funding and enforce public funding for political campaigning in the USA, eliminate all laws that contravene constitutions in the USA or cut pentagon spending by half and use the saving to pay healthcare, education and food stamps?


John Chan
February 19, 2013 at 11:34


1. Filipinos are still in the stage of colonized mentality, they are not qualified to give opinion on issues regarding how to build a stronger and better independent nation. Please go to your uncles Sam and cry for China’s bullying.

2. Benugno Noynoy Aquino III is the third person in a family to be the president of the Philippines, he is playboy and couldn’t care less how the Filipinos live; therefore Filipino bashing princelings is simply hypocrisy. Pinoy should look in the mirror first before opening their mouths.

3. More than half of the population in Manila lives on street, and Filipinos have no food and shelter after flood and typhoon; how about the Philippines elite and rich look after the suffering Filipinos first instead of spending money to buy useless weapons from the rich American weapon merchants?

John Chan
February 19, 2013 at 11:04


Why don’t you take some responsibilities to lecture Kangmin Zheng degrading the quality of debate on this site, so that you don’t have to read my harass words lecturing Kangmin Zheng’s misbehaviour.

February 19, 2013 at 10:18


i would argue just the opposite, in fact; remember that both the PRC and the ROC (in taiwan) both have the goal of restoring China to its "correct and natural" place in the world; this means, effectively, the ressurection of the Chinese Empire and–with it–the dissolution of the current international order that heavily favours the Western-Europeans. This would be replaced, i suspect, with a sino-centric order that would not be too dissimilar to the Sino-Centric tributary system, which existed between approximately the 7th and 18th centuries C.E; the smaller neighbors of the Chinese Empire would direct their fealty and trade towards China in exchange for the guarantee that the Imperial Army would not invade them, conquer their peoples and strip their leaders of political independence. Judging by the comments emerging from Chinese political and military leaders (most notably "China is large, and other nations are small"), we can expect to see more of the same. For evidence of this, one need only look at PRC efforts in the South China and East China Seas; other nations are expected to simply sit by and surrender their resources or trade to the PRC lest they be "taught a lesson" by a short, sharp, war designed to cow the opposing government into submission; military force enough to eliminate any major resistance and to let the leaders of the victim nation know that they rule at Beijing's pleasure.

To focus on the main topic, however, i think the major lesson that the PRC learned with the fall of the USSR (and its subsequent troubles) is the necessity of popular control, both in mind and action; this explains the Great Firewall, as well as the continous conjuring of external enemies. A good example of this is the continous reinforcing of the notion of China's victimization at the hands of "imperialist powers". This has grown to such an extent, however, that i am beginning to think–juding by news reports–that the CPC is losing control of the Ultra-nationalism it has sired in its populace, to the point that at some period, i expect that the CPC will go to war just to satisfy the nationalism of its populace and prevent the stripping of its power in favor of another political entity willing to go to war in order to cement China's "natural" position in the world.

Kim's Uncle
February 19, 2013 at 10:08

One lesson the CCP has learned that the Soviets did not: "To Loot is Glorious"!  And to that I might add, to keep looting as long as possible, while a princeling procure a Western passport in order to secure an exit strategy in case of a peasant rebellion is the new motto of the CCP.  Keep looting comrades!  The price of extortion will keep the red family safe!   

February 19, 2013 at 01:41

@John Chan …  your master is Communist Party of China !!! …. and you serve them Well !

February 19, 2013 at 01:23

The Soviet lessons to China:

1. The Red Army chose not to shoot at its own people => train the army to be loyal to the Party, not to the people.

2. The Soviet built Goulags, not low-wage factories => Make Great Leaps Forward to impoverish the mass then teach them to be happy with the "dictatorship of proletarians", at 2$/day.

3. The Soviet leaders did not build dynasties => Train your children to become princelings, put your relatives in key posistions.

4. The Russians do not understand Humiliations => Without ennemies, you can't build an Empire.

5. The Soviets thought they had camaraderie => There is no difference between a black cat and a white cat. Under the Heaven there are only Han and barbarians.


John Chan
February 18, 2013 at 13:43


The collapse of the Japan is still unfolding, the LDP is made of the princelings of the WWII war criminals, they know no liberty, equality and justice; all they know is to steal lifesavings from Japanese retirees and the compensation for the victims of Fukushima nuclear disaster then hand over the money to their American masters as a tribute.

JSDF is made of younger generation of the underlings of those WWII criminals, they are blood thirst Yakusa. Japan is so barbaric and so wicked.

John Chan
February 18, 2013 at 13:18

@Kangmin Zheng,

Abe and his cabinet are traitors; they steal billions of dollars from the Japanese retirees and the victims of Fukushima nuclear disaster as a tribute to the USA, so that they can get a pat on the shoulder as a reward of good lackey during the pilgrimage of their master Obama.

February 17, 2013 at 12:14

Perhaps the Soviet Union should have allowed the CPSU members to enrich themselves massively to ensure that they stayed loyal to the party and so it didn't collapse…This method seems to be maintaining party loyalty in China quite well!

February 17, 2013 at 00:46

The only way war between the US and China will be avoided is the democratization of China,


Kim's Uncle
February 16, 2013 at 10:03

The demise of the CCP is still unfolding while the CPSU has been consign to the relic of history! The Red Army had officers who were principled and moral enough not to follow orders to fire on Russian civilians. These officers can differentiate the difference between a political party and a country! They were loyal to Russia and not loyal to a wicked CPSU! Now in contrast in china the PLA is the private army of the CCP! PLA are unthinking robots who can kill without remorse or question! Tiananmen Square is a prime example of PLA fidelity to a wicked party instead of to a country or people! China is so backward n so primitive!

John Chan
February 16, 2013 at 08:31

Good article, CCP and Chinese are just peaceful and pragmatic people, improve people’s living standard under an incremental changing environment that can meet the changes of the world.

Hope David Cohen could give a lecture to Obama and the US Congress about China’s Soviet Lessons, so that the American can follow China and put improving living standard of its people first, instead of making the world a pig’s breakfast so that the MIC can make sinful profits at the expenses of other people’s prosperity.

Kangmin Zheng
February 16, 2013 at 06:20

Why would Xi want to reform?   Xi and his family steal billion of dollars from innocent Chinese people and he wants to be that way.

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