China Power

China Is Not the Soviet Union

Chinese analysts should stop asking China to follow in the footsteps of the USSR.

Yang Hengjun
China Is Not the Soviet Union
Credit: USSR flag image via Shutterstock

Right now there’s an interesting phenomenon: whenever something happens in China, there will always be someone who trots out the Soviet Union to exaggerate the situation. Here’s the latest example. Director Zhang Yimou’s new movie, Coming Home, is a story about life and love during the Cultural Revolution. As soon as the film came out, China’s mainstream official media immediately released an article called “Coming Home: Exaggerating Ugliness and Destroying Mainstream Values in the Name of Exposing Truths.” [Ed. Note: the original article has since been deleted from China’s news sites]

This article’s main point is directly equating the ideology of Chinese Communist Party to that of Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He takes a rising, post-“opening up” China and drags it back to share the trenches with the former USSR. This sort of sleight-of-hand is very confusing. Before many people can even stop to think, the author has seized the upper-hand to shout out his thesis: To avoid the death of the Party and of the nation, China must hold fast to the USSR’s Stalinist Marxism. China must never join with the West, particularly the United States. China must not reform, much less marketize the economy… and yes, China cannot even fight corruption!

On the surface, it seems that the author is trying to protest the CCP government, but really he is exerting his efforts to protect the Soviet regime — and using this comparison to denigrate today’s CCP!  Let’s look at some simple facts: the USSR clung dogmatically to its own brand of socialism, fighting wars of aggression while its people had no way to earn a living. On one hand, the USSR posted a million soldiers on the Sino-Soviet border; on the other hand, it continued to confront the West. After assuming power, Gorbachev was unable to change the system — until the USSR fell, there was no true progress in implementing reforms to the economic system (including marketization) that could raise the people’s living standards. As for the fight against corruption, it hadn’t even begun a year before the USSR’s collapse. Forget about catching any “big tigers”!

Now let’s take a look at the CCP. The Party began major economic reforms during the time of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Under Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, China continued its market reforms and entered the World Trade Organization. During the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era, the government began to pay attention to disadvantaged groups.  Now Xi Jinping’s government has proposed “comprehensively deepening reform” with 60 aggressive reform targets. At the same time, Xi has followed the people’s will by beginning a powerful anti-corruption campaign.

The ideologies of both the CCP and the USSR derived from Karl Marx, the German theorist. However, the words and theories created by a German over a hundred years ago cannot be put into practice unless they are combined with the national mood and the actual situation of a specific country. Looking at it this way, the space between the ideologies of the Soviet Union and of China was bound to be larger than the 5,800 kilometers between their capitals. Because of this, after many years of rivalry, China and the USSR did not begin to improve their relationship until Gorbachev took office. And China has had friendlier and more harmonious relationships with the 15 former Soviet Republics, including Russia, since the dissolution of the USSR. If the author is really speaking from China’s perspective, how can he have such fond memories of the evil Soviet empire, which so frightened China at that time that it had no choice but to join with America to counter the USSR?

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The author wants to deconstruct modern China’s development model using the USSR’s ideology. The article repeatedly uses the term “mainstream social values,” but from start to finish there’s not a word about what these values are. Can it be that the author believes “mainstream social values” are the crooked arguments that were on display during the Cultural Revolution? As the film Coming Home revealed, the political struggles of that time ripped families apart and encouraged father and sons, mothers and daughters to denounce each other, going completely against Chinese tradition.

What the author never mentions are the “12 socialist core values” put forward by the18th Party Congress! These 12 words have been repeatedly emphasized and discussed by Xi Jinping, from a May 4 speech at Peking University to a May 30 talk at a Beijing elementary school. Could it be these “12 socialist core values” are not the “mainstream social values” spoken of by the author?

These 12 words, or 24 Chinese characters, are “prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice , rule of law,  patriotism, dedication, honesty and friendship.” These 12 words are extremely powerful, but never appeared in the history of the USSR. Because of this, under the USSR there was no opportunity to talk about socialist values that also matched mainstream human values.

The collapse of Soviet Union was inevitable for many reasons. They did not reform. The USSR was too conservative; they didn’t advance with time but instead distorted Marxism to fit the ambitions of a few interest groups. Many of their policies were outdated or even inhuman — so the USSR couldn’t and indeed didn’t dare to define its socialist core values. This sort of an empire could be destroyed by a mere movie! An empire like this is doomed to collapse — if it didn’t fall yesterday, it could fall today, and it certainly has no way to escape the judgment of tomorrow!

The reason China has a future and hasn’t followed the USSR’s disastrous road, the reason the CCP is still in power today, is because of reform. It’s because China has chosen the road of marketization. It’s because, in the fields of society, culture, and even some political areas, China has appropriately opened up space for diversity. It’s because China has “opened up” and taken great pains to keep up with the global mainstream. It’s because China is resolutely fighting corruption, and because China is bravely admitting the mistakes made during the Cultural Revolution. China has kept up with the times, putting forward the “three represents” theory and reforming the ruling party, always holding fast to the goal of deepening reforms.

But in the eyes of the author, all of those factors I just listed helped cause the Soviet Union’s collapse! Even someone without an academic background should see that the policies mentioned above, from reform and opening to anti-corruption, were never really carried out by the USSR. The USSR refused to reform or open up; refused to fight corruption; refused to advance with the times;  refused to embrace the values and spiritual treasures universally accepted by humankind. Is there any reason such an empire would not perish? Around the world,  including in the former Soviet republics (including Putin himself), there’s no one like the “theorists” represented by this author, who hold up a collapsed, corrupt, and evil empire to serve as a model for China. Such theorists are still researching how to safeguard, save and defend the Soviet Union.

Looked at through the lens of China’s socialist mainstream values (the “12 core values” emphasized repeatedly by our top leaders) no one can deny that Coming Home presents a tragic love story set in the time of the Cultural Revolution. The film exposes the damage caused to people by political alienation. Actually, this story is a reminder that today’s life and social environment have been hard-won. We need to continue reform and opening up, seeing reforms through to the end.

But the article commenting on Coming Home wanted to revive the Cultural Revolution, sending China back to join the USSR — even though the Soviet Union has been dead and buried for over 20 years. That article wants China to don the noose that killed the Soviet Union — what is the motive for this?

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at