China's Soviet Lessons
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China's Soviet Lessons

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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.

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