The war in Ukraine drew attention to the complicated China-Russian relationship. Since the Soviet Union era, Beijing has had mixed sentiments toward Moscow. The Soviet Union was the “big brother” and “China’s tomorrow” during the golden decade of the 1950s. However, it soon became China’s ideological archrival and security threat following the Sino-Soviet split. Despite the hostility, China viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy of the global communist movement and an alarming sign for itself. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, perhaps no country has studied it more thoroughly than China.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducted an in-depth study between 1993 and 2004 and revealed the result at the 16th Party Congress’ Fourth Plenum in 2004. The political sponsor of this study was Zeng Qinghong, Jiang Zemin’s close political ally. According to Professor David Shambaugh, the most crucial lesson the CCP drew was that political ossification, elite entrenchment, ideological dogmatization, a dormant party organization, and economic stagnation were the leading causes that doomed the Soviet Union.
In his book “Chinese Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation,” Shambaugh listed 44 lessons the CCP drew from the Soviet collapse and categorized them into four factors: economic, political, social, and international. The party believed that the political factor was the most important, with 17 lessons, including “all features of totalitarianism,” party dominance of the state, and overconcentration of political power. The second most important factor was the social factor, with 15 lessons such as an isolated society, dogmatism among intellectuals, and disillusioned youth. The economic factor had 14 lessons, including stagnation, an overly centralized economy, and bias against capitalism. The CCP only drew six lessons from the international factor. Among these, the party only blamed two – “peaceful evolution” and “containment” – on the West; the other four lessons – expansionist policies, an arms race, chauvinism, and domination of client states – were Moscow’s own mistakes. As Shambaugh illustrated, the CCP saw the USSR’s systematic weaknesses as the primary reasons behind its collapse; the West did not play a dominant role in it.
Following this study, the party highlighted the importance of improving its governance capability in the 16th Party Congress Fourth Plenum report. Zeng Qinghong, a Politburo Standing Committee member between 2002 and 2007, sponsored political reforms to find a solution to China’s governance problem. The goal of this reform attempt was to enhance local governance and invigorate party branches through the introduction of consultative democracy. During this period, the CCP experimented with competitive elections at the township level. Citizen activism also became tolerable in a pluralized policymaking process. Andrew Mertha’s research shows that grassroots participation in decision-making through policy entrepreneurs was prevalent in the mid-2000s across many policy areas. In addition, the discussion of democracy and political reform became an open topic. Yu Keping, a top CCP theorist in the Central Compilation Bureau at that time, captured national attention by arguing that “democracy is a good thing.”
On the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse in 2011, the CCP conducted further research on the cause of this event. The new study highlighted four reasons behind the collapse. First, then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev blindly chased democracy and undermined the pivotal role of the Communist Party in Soviet politics and society. Second, Gorbachev allowed rapid privatization of state-owned enterprises and caused economic failure. Third, Gorbachev ended the Communist Party’s ideological monopoly, which led to widespread historical nihilism and attacks on socialism. Fourth, the West promoted peaceful evolution by incubating a pro-Western “fifth column” within the USSR.
Compared to the previous study, this study deemphasized the Soviet Union’s structural deficiencies and focused on Gorbachev’s “great betrayal to the socialism cause.” In this understanding of the Soviet collapse, the West took advantage of Gorbachev’s betrayal and Soviet chaos to realize its goals. The primary reason for this change was China’s tightening social control and increasing emphasis on stability since 2008 due to the rising mass incidents. The Color Revolutions, the Great Financial Crisis, and the Arab Spring also propelled the CCP leadership to highlight the danger of losing political, economic, and ideological control.
When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he had his own idea of the Soviet Union collapse. In a 2013 speech, Xi famously claimed that “no one had the balls to stand and fight for it [the Soviet Union] when it was being dissolved.” In the same speech, Xi emphasized the danger of “historical nihilism,” historical records that oppose the official historical narrative. He concluded:
Why was the Soviet Union dissolved? Why did the CPSU collapse? One important reason was the struggle in the ideological field. Historical nihilism rejected Soviet Union history, CPSU history, Lenin, and Stalin; it messed up the thinking. As a result, party branches perished; the party could not even control the military. Therefore, a big party like the CPSU was dissipated; a big socialist power like the Soviet Union collapsed. This is a vital historical lesson.
In this new understanding, Soviet Union’s systematic deficiencies are completely absent. The new narrative downplays, even phases out, the Stalinist brutality, the political ossification and economic stagnation of the Brezhnev era, and the failure of the Soviet minority policy. Gorbachev’s mistakes also played a secondary role. Instead, Xi’s interpretation focuses on the role of peaceful evolution, especially the part of the United States in supporting liberal democratic values.
This view reflects Xi’s deepest paranoia. During an informal meeting with then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2012, Xi suggested that China was the target of a “color revolution” that aimed to overthrow the Communist Party; the “Arab Spring” uprising, under which a string of Middle Eastern dictatorships fell like dominos, only confirmed this fear. Widespread anger over corruption and inequality within China only made this fear more imminent.
Following this speech, the CCP took concrete steps to annihilate so-called historical nihilism. In 2016, the party adopted a resolution to punish “words and deeds” that “distorted and vilified” the history of the party, the state, the army, the policy, and the leadership. In 2018, China passed the Martyrs Protection Law, which established a “pocket crime” that allows the CCP to purge any expression that it considered “disrespectful“ to revolutionary heroes.
In 2021, at the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union, the CCP launched a national campaign to educate all cadres on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Local government officials must study political lessons thoroughly by watching a documentary on the cause of the Soviet collapse. This documentary primarily attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to historical nihilism. It argues that the Soviet government did not exterminate anti-official historical narratives, which led to ideological erosion and provided an opportunity for Western ideological invasion.
In one study session, local cadres concluded, “In order to prevent the Soviet Union collapse from repeating, we must attack historical nihilism and strengthen the ideological security defense line. We must… understand the ideological trap of historical nihilism… Cadres must uphold correct understanding of the party history.”
This campaign also aimed to strengthen Xi’s personality cult, which paves the way for him to take a third term as China’s top leader in 2022. Zheng Keyang, former vice director at the Central Policy Research Office, the CCP’s most high-profile in-house think tank, claimed, “To subvert a country, one must start with attacking the party and its leadership.” He further concluded, “It is important for the party, the country, and the nation to have a strong core leader everyone loves and supports. The love of the party leader is not personality cult.”
The campaign against “historical nihilism” reached its apex in Chinese academia: Professors are banned from expressing views that deviate from the party line, while students are encouraged to snitch on their professors who do not obey this guideline. The biggest victim has been the Russian studies field. China has some of the best Russian and Soviet Union scholars worldwide. Professor Shen Zhihua, a world-renowned Soviet Union scholar, has his own Soviet Union archive collection, which he bought from Russia in the early 1990s. Using previously unavailable Soviet archival documents for his research, Shen received domestic and international praise; he even presented his findings to Jiang Zemin. However, the strike against historical nihilism affected his research. His former Ph.D. student admitted that due to new academic restrictions, Shen is forced to switch his research focus away from Russia.
Shen is not an isolated case. A Russian studies scholar in the United States visited China for an academic conference and decided to give a guest lecture on the Soviet Union at a Chinese university. However, the dean called off the lecture at the last minute. Instead of Soviet Union history, the dean suggested, he should just talk about “how great socialism is.”
The Soviet collapse is a mirror for the CCP. The lessons CCP drew from the Soviet collapse reflect the party’s deepest concerns, which shape national policies. Xi’s understanding of the Soviet collapse foreshadowed power centralization, ideological control, and hostility toward the West, especially the United States. Therefore, even when China ends the zero-COVID policy, increasing socio-ideological control and hostility toward the West will stay for the rest of Xi’s long reign.