In China, Soviet Union’s failure drives decisions on reform

For his first state visit, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, traveled to Moscow this weekend to highlight the importance of his country’s relationship with Russia.

But according to officials and intellectuals in the Chinese Communist Party, Xi’s fixation on that country’s former regime — the Soviet Union — may prove even more crucial to China’s future direction.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11:  A press officer walks into the 'Elvis at the O2, The Exhibition of His Life' on December 11, 2014 in London, England. The exhibition is the largest ever retrospective ever to take place in Europe, and features over 300 artefacts from the Presley family's Graceland Archives. The show runs at the O2 Arena from 12 December to 31 August, 2015.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Day in photos

Elvis exhibit, Toys for Tots, Californians prepare for storm, Elvis exhibit, Hong Kong protest site cleared and more.

More world coverage

Pakistan bail for Mumbai siege suspect stirs outrage in India

Pakistan bail for Mumbai siege suspect stirs outrage in India

Anger in India after Pakistani judge grants bail to the alleged mastermind of 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Freed U.S. spy, never before disclosed, was vital asset

Freed U.S. spy, never before disclosed, was vital asset

The White House said the Cuban-born spy helped unravel several long-running Cuban espionage operations.

Putin: Russian economy will recover in two years

Putin: Russian economy will recover in two years

The Russian president promised better times but warned the West not to “chain the bear” with pressures.

The shadow of the U.S.S.R. still hangs over many parts of Chinese society. What is considered bygone Cold War history by much of the rest of the world, even by many in Russia, lives on in China. You see it in the hulking Soviet-style buildings that dominate Beijing and in songs such as “Moscow Nights,” which remain favorites among party leaders and choir clubs in Chinese parks.

But its presence is most vivid in China’s political system, where the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to be analyzed with a paranoia and urgency that some compare to the United States and its fight against terrorism.

Every year, the party’s top think tanks churn out piles of new studies. Books are published by the dozen. And China’s top leadership invokes the Soviet fall constantly in speeches.

“It’s hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. “They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision.”

The obsession is fueled by the fear that, with a few wrong steps, China’s Communist Party would face a similar fate. Because of that, many in the party say, some of the biggest clues about how the new generation of Chinese leaders will pursue reform in the next few years lies in their interpretation of the Soviet collapse.

Instructive failures

On Friday, as Xi’s plane was taking off for Moscow, more than 200 students at China’s top university crammed into a stadium-size auditorium for a lecture on the fall of the Soviet Union.

The class is mandatory for graduate students at Peking University, and it is considered a priority by the government and school administration even for students whose fields are far removed from politics, such as medicine and electrical engineering.

“This class tends to focus more on the problems of Stalin and what Soviet leaders did wrong,” explained the professor, Wang Chenying, a slim, severe-looking woman with tortoise-shell glasses. “We don’t talk so much about their achievements, because for China the failures are what’s most instructive.”

Such classes exist at most major Chinese universities alongside Marxism departments, a branch of study that is flourishing in part, some students explained, because it can lead to lucrative jobs at state-owned enterprises.

The Soviet indoctrination occurs at the government level as well. For a few recent years, all party cadres were required to view a classified eight-volume DVD set on the Soviet fall titled “Consider Danger in Times of Peace.”

The collapse has been studied from many angles — economic, sociological, ideological, psychological, even linguistic.

Such studies, experts say, are in part what have fueled many of Chinese leaders’ major policies over the past two decades, such as their relentless focus on expanding the economy and the tight party control over the military.

Even now, one can draw a direct line from Chinese leaders’ newest initiatives — to fight corruption within the party and cut back signs of ostentation — to lessons gleaned from the Soviet Union, said Huang Weiding, a researcher for Qiushi, the party’s top theoretical journal.

Chinese leaders can be skittish about public comparisons to the U.S.S.R., wary of getting mired in the same Cold War framework of opposition with the West. Foreign books are routinely scoured for such references before they are translated into Chinese. And in one famous case, the mere mention of “Cold War” in the 2006 James Bond movie “Casino Royale” was censored, requiring Judi Dench, who played Bond’s boss, to re-dub those two words so that the movie could be released in China.

Disagreements on reform

The endless analysis has led to differing opinions about the causes of the Soviet collapse and the lessons that should be drawn from it.

At Peking University, Jiang Shiqi, 23, a graduate student in the Marxism department, said the main takeaway “is that we need to keep reforming and opening up. Their downfall was having too rigid a system.”

Wang, the professor, however, said the Soviet leaders’ biggest failure was straying too far from the purity of Marxism’s original tenets.

It is this divergence of views that is at the heart of today’s debate within the party.

Reformers have supported the notion that without drastic change, China, like the Soviet Union, is doomed. But hard-line conservatives resistant to change point to the reforms of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as Exhibit A of how too much reform too fast can destroy the system.

So far, the conservatives appear to be winning, according to the party’s professors, researchers and analysts.

The clearest sign came from Xi himself in a private speech in December to party officials, which has not been reported by government-run news outlets but has circulated among officials and intellectuals over the past two months.

In it, Xi blames the Soviet collapse on officials who strayed from their ideological roots. He shot down one reform suggested by critics — transferring official control of the military from the party to the Chinese government — for this reason.

“Why must we stand firm on the party’s leadership over the military?” Xi asked. “Because that’s the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, where the military was depoliticized, separated from the party and nationalized, the party was disarmed.”

As far as other reforms, he later said: “The key is what to reform and what not to reform. There are things we have not changed, things we cannot change, and things we will not change no matter how much time passes.”

In the face of Xi’s public promises for reform, many have interpreted those private remarks as a truer representation of Xi’s conservative leanings.

“His remarks reveal this persistent paranoia about going too far,” said Shambaugh. “That once you loosen up the system, it will cascade out of your control.”

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying