What China Learned from the Soviet Union’s Fall

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What China Learned from the Soviet Union’s Fall

Why the process of assessing blame for the collapse of the USSR is still a hot topic in Beijing

In a major speech on July 24, 2012 China’s President, Hu Jintao, called for the country to “unswervingly” carry out reform and opening up and to fight against rigidity and stagnation.  This follows on the heels of other calls (Premier Wen Jiabao’s being the most notable) to continue the reform process in China.

Why the increasing vociferousness?

China is gearing up for one of its historic leadership transitions which will culminate in the 18th National Party Congress some time this fall. This begs the question, how will the transition affect the future trajectory of China, its economy, and its people?

The ascendancy of China’s new “fifth generation” leaders has led me to ruminate on the topic of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) resiliency. In spite of everything, the CCP has managed to stay in control, and I might dare say flourish, though most of its communist brethren have ended up in the dustbin of history. In fact as of today, there are (not including the PRC) only four remaining communist regimes – North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba.

But all has not been “smooth sailing” for the CCP… far from it. One of the Party’s favorite mantras is that it values stability above all else and seeks to build a harmonious society, yet official and unofficial statistics continue to show an exponential increase in the number of protests within China’s borders. This keeps questions regarding what is in store for the CCP at the forefront of discussions about China’s future.

What is China’s Secret?

I am not an alchemist and therefore cannot turn hypotheses into fact. However, I would hazard a guess that the secret to China’s success is that there is no secret; rather the Chinese Communist Party has simply been much more adept and successful at tweaking the foundations on which its present day legitimacy is based. And China’s neighbor to the north provided it with some of its most valuable lessons. By this of course I mean the former Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was one of the most pivotal events of the 20th century. Communism, as an ideology and as a form of government, and its manifestation in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its Soviet satellites (particularly in Eastern Europe), was an “evil” which the Western world, led by the United States in the Cold War, could rally against. It was also a “model” which other communist countries and governments, particularly the CCP could use to bolster and legitimize their own communist experiment.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when the USSR’s decay led to outright collapse, few countries were as concerned by these events as the PRC. After all, the Soviet Union was the birthplace of the world’s first, and to date, still longest socialist experiment, and as such, China’s own modern political history and development were deeply influenced by it. It was, and still is, critical to the survival of the CCP to determine how to avoid a similar fate.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse and so it seemed to be an appropriate time to step back to analyze some of the different schools of thought that emerged in China during, and soon after, these tumultuous years. However, after reviewing many of these new materials and determining that there is not one uniform or monolithic view in China about the reasons why the Soviet Union became undone, three major viewpoints do seem to dominate the Chinese discourse. What I call “The Three Blames”: “Blame the Man,” “Blame the System,” and “Blame the West.” And it seems that everyone loves to play the blame game.

Blame the Man

For many in China in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and even until today, assessing blame for the Soviet Union’s collapse begins and ends with a single individual, Mikhail Gorbachev. This view seems to resonate most strongly with China’s more conservative leftists. During the height of Gorbachev’s reform efforts, there were people who argued that “within the CCP and within China intense ‘ideological struggle’ would be waged against Gorbachev’s ‘revisionism.’” Of course, since the Communist Revolution of 1949 few, if any, labels are more dreaded than “revisionist.” Even as recently as last year, the “Blame the Man” school of thought was en vogue. On March 1, 2011, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) released a new book, Preparing for Danger in Times of Safety: Recollections on the 20-Year Anniversary of the Collapse of the Russian Communist Party (居安思危: 苏联亡党二十年的思考), which concludes that the root cause of the collapse of the CPSU was not the Russian socialist system itself, but rather the corruption of the Russian Communists led by then-President Gorbachev.

The debilitating affects of corruption are manifesting themselves in China today, so it’s no wonder that the CCP certainly in word, if not always in deed, seems desperate to wage war against this dreaded foe.

Blame the System

A second influential camp comprised of more liberal or reform-minded individuals saw the impetus of the collapse as being systemic – not a flaw in the socialist model itself, but rather in how it was executed in the Soviet Union. These people blamed domestic causes such as economic stagnation, mismanagement, excessive dogmatism and bureaucratic ossification for the Soviet Union’s collapse. These problems were certainly not solely the result of Gorbachev-era policies, but like a cancer that had been allowed to metastasize, spread over time throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

One could see why this “Blame the System” idea would gain traction with reform-minded Party members in China. After all, many of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were an effort to combat just this sort of stale, stagnant thinking. It is interesting that Hu’s latest speech also cautions against such perils.

Blame the West

The “Blame the West” camp differentiates itself from the other two because it seems particularly consumed by fear of the United States’ policies and influence in the region. In fact one of this camp’s overriding concerns is that Washington would use its power to step up pressure on China to initiate regime change. Articles appeared in places like the People’s Daily and Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po stating that the CCP was fearful of growing influence by “aggressive” Western powers as well as of outward signs of Party disunity. (No doubt an issue that is on the leadership’s minds today given the recent events surrounding the now disgraced Bo Xilai.) These sentiments are still echoed and diatribes against American hegemony often find their way onto many a Chinese Op-Ed page.

“The Soviet Union’s Today will be Our Tomorrow”: Not if they can help it

Yet more interesting than mere identification of these “Three Blames” is determining to what extent they influenced CCP policymakers and policy. At one level, one of the major outcomes within China’s elite politics circles is that Deng Xiaoping and the reformist agenda were declared the de facto winners over China’s more conservative forces led by Chen Yun, the Chairman of the CPC Central Advisory Commission at the time.

However, in addition to this “factional” win, there were some very real policy shifts, or at the very least, policy adjustments, that took place because of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Some of these include China’s replacement of the Soviet model of multinational state-building with its “one nation with diversity” policy, and its institution of the patriotic education campaign to try to shore up CCP legitimacy. Another area where policies may have been implemented to quiet critiques from the “Blame the West” camp is in China’s increased development of its social welfare policies. Pensions, the minimum livelihood guarantee, the “New Socialist Countryside,” and healthcare reform in the form of medical insurance, are all intended to strengthen the “socialist” claims of the PRC as an alternative model to the unbridled capitalism of the West.

Looking at CCP reactions to the collapse of the Soviet Union and attempting to understand how they chose to intuit these “lessons learned” seems to demonstrate that the CCP has been engaged in a continual learning process culminating in a type of policy-planning plasticity. Each of the “solutions” the CCP came up with to militate against Soviet-style collapse addresses some area where they found the Soviet Union to be lacking. Perhaps China’s most important lesson was how to become an adaptive authoritarian regime when so many people had lost faith in Marxism-Leninism, the socialist economy, and communist orthodoxy.

My question is: How long will this tree continue to bear fruit for the CCP?

A. Greer Meisels is the associate director and research fellow for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.