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.