Beijing sees lessons in Soviet past

Xi's fixation on collapse of communism drives decisions on reform

The Washington Post

For his first state visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow last weekend to highlight the importance of his country’s relationship with Russia.

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

The shadow of the USSR 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 “Troika” and “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.

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 class on the fall of the Soviet Union.

The lecture 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 Chunying, a slim, severe woman with tortoise-shell glasses. “We don’t talk so much about their achievements, because for China the failures are what’s most instructive.”

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 growing 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.

The endless analysis has led to differing opinions about the causes of the Soviet collapse, and the lessons that should be drawn from it. Reformers have supported the notion that without drastic change, China, like the Soviet Union, is doomed. But hardline 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.

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.

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.”