China’s Gorbachev phobia
2 Sep 2022|

There was a time when well-meaning, if not wishful-thinking, Westerners thought that ‘China’s Gorbachev’ was the highest compliment they could pay a Chinese leader who looked like a reformer. But when Zhu Rongji, the straight-talking mayor of Shanghai, visited the US in July 1990, and some Americans called him that, the future premier was not amused. ‘I am not China’s Gorbachev’, Zhu reportedly snapped. ‘I am China’s Zhu Rongji.’

We will never know what Zhu, widely admired for implementing key reforms in the 1990s and spearheading China’s successful efforts to join the World Trade Organization, really thought about Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who died on 30 August. What we do know for certain is that, in the eyes of most leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, Gorbachev committed the unforgivable crime of causing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the most practical level, the CCP’s vilification of Gorbachev makes little sense. Sino-Soviet relations improved dramatically during his six-year reign. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also a geopolitical boon to China. The lethal threat from the north nearly disappeared overnight, while Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet space, suddenly opened up, enabling China to project its power there. Most importantly, the end of the Cold War, for which Gorbachev deserves much credit, ushered in three decades of globalisation that made China’s economic rise possible.

The only plausible explanation for the CCP’s antipathy towards the former Soviet leader is its fear that what Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika accomplished in the former Soviet Union—the dissolution of a once-mighty one-party regime—might also happen in China. Chinese rulers do not share Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a ‘major geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century. To them, the fall of the USSR was a major ideological catastrophe that cast a shadow over their own future.

Evidence of the CCP’s lasting vicarious trauma is readily visible even today—more than three decades after Gorbachev sealed the fate of the Soviet empire. In late February, the party’s propagandists began to screen Historical Nihilism and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, a 101-minute documentary that blamed the Soviet Communist Party for failing to enforce strict censorship, particularly regarding history and Western liberal ideas.

Still, the CCP’s obsession with the Soviet collapse seems odd, given the party’s three decades of undeniable success at avoiding a similar fate. The CCP’s most obvious achievement was to gain legitimacy by delivering ever-rising standards of living. It was no coincidence that less than two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 87-year-old Deng Xiaoping rallied a demoralised party to restart stalled reforms and prioritise economic development over everything else.

Another less well-known, but no less important, success was the CCP’s effort to prevent a Gorbachev-like reformer from rising to the top and dismantling its rule from within. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the party took extreme care in vetting its future leaders. Only officials whose political loyalty was unimpeachable would be entrusted with power.

The party also scored an unexpected propaganda coup when much of the former Soviet Union descended into chaos and economic crisis in the 1990s. By playing up the suffering of ordinary Russians, the party crafted a persuasive message to the Chinese people: putting the economy ahead of democracy is the right path.

Yet, despite the CCP’s impressive achievements in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is still haunted by the legacy of Gorbachev. Some may argue that, as in all dictatorships, the party’s insecurity and paranoia have no cure. But China’s rulers have been determined to prove otherwise.

In the 1990s, the CCP’s top leadership commissioned a series of academic studies exploring the causes of the Soviet collapse. Participants in this intellectual effort included both well-respected scholars and party hacks. While they could agree on many less controversial factors, such as poor economic management, an unwinnable arms race with the United States, imperial overreach and ethno-nationalism in non-Russian republics, they argued fiercely over the role of Gorbachev.

The party hacks insisted that Gorbachev was primarily responsible for the Soviet collapse, because his ill-conceived reforms weakened the communist party’s grip on power. But scholars with genuine expertise regarding the Soviet Union countered that the fault rested with Gorbachev’s predecessors, particularly Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the empire from 1964 to 1982. The political stagnation and economic malaise of the Brezhnev era left behind a regime too rotten to be reformed.

Today, judging by China’s official narrative of the Soviet collapse and enduring hostility towards Gorbachev, it’s obvious that the party hacks won the debate. But it is doubtful that China’s leaders have learned the right lesson from history.