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Why the Soviet Union’s 20th Party Congress Continues to Haunt China

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Why the Soviet Union’s 20th Party Congress Continues to Haunt China

A lesson from 1956 continues to affect China’s understanding of political security — especially as the CCP’s own 20th Congress draws near.

Why the Soviet Union’s 20th Party Congress Continues to Haunt China

First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev speaks at the 20th CPSU Congress in the Kremlin, 1956.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the prolific number of analytical articles on China’s harsh response to COVID-19 this year, most have attributed Beijing’s zero-COVID policy to concern about political security in the face of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But few essays answer this question by going into detail about where those fears come from: the historical perspective of Chinese political development and foreign policy during the Maoist era.

In retrospect, the consequences of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956 profoundly affected the CCP’s decisions on domestic and international politics – and perhaps led to extra sensitivity about the CCP’s own 20th Party Congress.

A Controversial Soviet Congress and Its Political Impact on China

The CPSU’s 20th Congress of 1956 is famous for First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s surprise speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” which especially denounced the personality cult and dictatorship of Joseph Stalin in seven points, including his violation of the party norm of collective leadership by launching a purge since the 1930s, deportations of whole minority nationalities, and the exaggerations of Stalin’s role in the “Great Patriotic War,” and so on. Khrushchev had his own political motives: Through the speech, Khrushchev consolidated his position within the party and weakened the influence of potential challengers, such as Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich. Those conservatives, as well as the former great leader’s adherents, had to compromise with the speech’s delivery to disassociate themselves from their participation in the denounced actions under Stalin.

Khrushchev also put forward a debatable diplomatic strategy that the Soviet Union was willing to coexist with the capitalist bloc. Specifically, he thought the socialist states could surpass the latter peacefully while the working class in the Western world could also seize power democratically by parliamentary elections, which was beneficial for the two blocs to coexist without armed conflict. While peaceful coexistence was the rational choice from an international affairs perspective, it was in contrast to the conventionally antagonistic contradiction principle of Communist theory that socialism and capitalism could never coexist in peace.

These two outgrowths in domestic and international politics from the 20th Congress sowed the seed of political unrest in the socialist states.

After the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the CCP faced an extremely complicated political situation. On the one hand, the top leadership felt relieved when the strictly hierarchical system carried out for decades in the socialist bloc – which put the Soviet Union firmly on top – no longer existed. However, the wave of de-Stalinization in Moscow’s satellite states soon threatened the alliance’s unity. Moreover, the rising tide asking for political reform and anti-sovietism in the fall of 1956 in Poland and Hungary caused bloody conflict between dissidents and Soviet troops.

Additionally, the ideological divergence between the Soviets and some skeptics in the Eastern bloc, led by the CCP, triggered a debate around “who was the pure socialist in international communist movement?” Beijing censured Khrushchev as a “revisionist” in his peaceful coexistence theory, which the CCP saw as tantamount to surrender to the capitalist states. This criticism gradually escalated into the all-out ideological attack on the Soviet’s political, social, and economic institutions under Khrushchev, which turned into one of the most significant factors leading to the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

Meanwhile, the 20th Congress in Moscow also indirectly resulted in domestic unrest throughout the 1950s and ‘60s in China. In the view of the CCP leadership, although the Soviet move to downplay of Stalin as the spiritual leader in socialist states helped the party to localize revolutionary theory by elevating Maoism, the possibility of a Khrushchev-style political liquidation in China always plagued Mao. His paranoia ultimately brought on the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

Moreover, escaping from the Soviet governance experience failed to translate into either a flexible political environment or economic growth in China. On the contrary, the “Hundred Flowers Movement,” which aimed for citizens to express their opinions to the CCP openly, gradually spun out of control and finally turned into a political campaign of purging intellectual elites. Moreover, the exaggerated agricultural policy and the unbalanced distribution of resources in rural areas led to the largest famine in human history, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 23 million to 55 million.

The Lingering Impact of the CPSU’s 20th Congress for the CCP’s 20th Congress

Is there a link between the CPSU’s 20th National Congress in 1956 and the CCP’s later this year? Despite the different historical periods, two similar phenomena now underway in Chinese domestic politics and foreign affairs should not be overlooked.

First, since 2012, the Xi administration has increasingly broken some unwritten rules, especially the principle of collective leadership established since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping returned to power. A clear signal was sent at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2018 when an amendment to the PRC constitution removed term limits for the state’s president and vice president. The change is widely considered to be meant to pave the way for Xi to remain his position for life.

The upcoming 20th Congress of the CCP will test the extent of China’s collective leadership under Xi. In recent years, the domestic propaganda machine has attempted to depict Xi as the “core” leader, more extraordinary than other members of the Politburo Standing Committee. For example, the effectiveness of China’s strenuous efforts to contain COVID-19 was described as profiting from Xi’s “personal guidance and deployment.” However, the push to place Xi as the “core” has generated discontent that may form the nexus of potential resistance, with the opponents at the Party Congress potentially accusing Xi of repeating the past of “the cult of personality” in Maoist era – and echoing Khrushchev’s attack on the late Stalin. Hence, no doubt the authorities will view domestic political security as the most important task during the period before the 20th Congress of the CCP in order to maintain the regime’s stability.

On the foreign policy front, the Sino-Soviet split after the 20th Congress of CPSU also calls to mind the current debate on China’s economic and political decoupling with the Western world led by the United States. Under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war and the ongoing trade conflict between the two states, the issue above has become notably complicated. As one of Moscow’s remaining partners, Beijing’s ambiguous attitude on the crisis on the crisis in Ukraine deepened  Washington’s concern about China-U.S. relations. In April, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai noted that dealing with the challenge from China is the real priority for Washington, because China “will matter to our economy in ways that are going to eclipse what we are grappling with in terms of Russia today.”

Domestically, Beijing’s insistence on carrying out a zero-COVID policy has intensified the risk of decoupling between the China and the world market, given the impact on the global supply chain. According to Alicia García-Herrero, the chief economist for the Asia Pacific at Natixis, 40 percent of China’s GDP is already “in some form of lockdown.” Goldman Sachs cut its 2022 forecast for China’s economic growth  from 4.8 percent to 4.3 percent due to the government’s increased restrictions on business activity to contain the Omicron variant.

Compared to economic decoupling, the political divergence between China and the United States is more like a sequel to the Sino-Soviet split. The official propaganda tends to instigate nationalist sentiment through portraying the governments of the U.S. and other Western countries as enemies threatening China’s national security. In practice, Beijing has adopted tit-for-tat tactics toward the West’s behavior regarding Chinese affairs, with the spokespeople at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs frequently invoking the terms such as “human rights lecturer,”  “fake democracy,” and “troublemaker” in their comments regarding the issues of human rights, Hong Kong, and NATO.

How Should We Understand the CCP’s Behavior Before the 20th Congress?

This essay does not mean to directly link the 20th Congress of CPSU with the CCP’s 20th Congress this fall. But the events of the late 1950s can help us understand Beijing’s increasingly tightened domestic policy. While such restrictions have become a routine every five years, they are even more conspicuous this year. The upcoming Party Congress is particularly important for Xi, who is responding to a sequence of external and internal challenges to his political goal.

In the view of the CCP, the sequence of negative reactions after the Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1956 holds lessons that may impact the ruling party’s legitimacy and political security today. The authorities’ strict measures in dealing with domestic and international politics, bound up in their worries about the number “20,” will continue until they break the spell after the peaceful end of their own 20th Congress.