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Why China’s Leaders Think Gorbachev Took Wrong Path

FILE - Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev leans out of the window of his limousine to shake the hand of a Chinese child on hand to greet him as he arrived at Shanghai Airport on May 19, 1989, in Shanghai, China.

The death of the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms led to the disintegration of the former communist giant in 1991, is seen by many in China as a reminder to avoid the same fate as its neighbor.

Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at 91, is lauded in China for normalizing Sino-Soviet relations, paving the way for solid ties between the two countries in subsequent years. But Beijing also blames him for bringing about the dissolution of its ally, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

While the West saw Gorbachev as a brave hero who brought much needed democratic reforms to his country and freed the Soviet satellite states to be independent, China sees him as a weak leader who failed his country.

Both countries were at a crossroad in the late 1980s. The Soviet Union’s economy was near collapse and changes were urgently needed; China’s people were yearning for political reforms after decades of poverty and political turmoil.

Whereas Gorbachev allowed political reforms, China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping crushed protesters and put reformist General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Zhao Ziyang under house arrest.

At that time and even now, China thinks it made the right decision.

“Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping believed Mr. Gorbachev got the perestroika (restructuring) wrong,” said Victor Gao, a former interpreter for Deng. He is currently a professor at China’s Soochow University and vice president of the Center for China and Globalization. “Gorbachev was pushing political reform ahead of economic reform; China under Deng was promoting economic reform ahead of political reform.”

The Soviet flag frames the portrait of Mao Tse-tung in Beijing's Tiananmen Square as President Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing on May 15, 1989.
The Soviet flag frames the portrait of Mao Tse-tung in Beijing's Tiananmen Square as President Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Beijing on May 15, 1989.

Gorbachev loosened control over not only the USSR’s state-controlled economy but also its political society, leading eventually to satellite states such as Latvia and Lithuania and later Eastern European countries splitting off and chaos in the Russian economy.

To Deng, this was not a smart move.

“Deng believed Gorbachev got the priorities and the sequence wrong. By the end of the day, what matters the most is whether you can bring bread and butter to the table for the people,” Gao said.

Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor of international relations at the International Christian University in Japan, said the Soviet Union’s collapse led China’s leadership to harden its commitment to socialism.

To make sure that socialist principles were sustainable, Deng opened up the Chinese economy, starting by setting up special economic zones to grow prosperity, Nagy said.

His successor, Jiang Zemin, allowed the country’s growing number of capitalists to join the Chinese Communist Party. Current leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has campaigned to root out corruption to maintain the legitimacy of the party.

Today, China is much wealthier than it was in the 1980s and is soon to become the world’s biggest economy, whereas Russia still suffers serious economic problems.

The two countries’ different fates also may be because of their “very different” political systems, Nagy said.

“Russia today is a kleptocracy, it’s very few men and it’s always men who run the economy, it’s like a mafia state. They don’t have centralized control and a centralized state. It’s very corrupt,” Nagy said.

In China, the Chinese Communist Party has been able to exert centralized control to govern effectively, he said.

“Whatever you can say about the CCP, in China, 800 million people have been pulled out of poverty, they have really good infrastructure, a lot of people are well off, and this is due to relatively good governance of the party,” Nagy said.

Critics argue that China risks eventual collapse, given problems such as an unhealthy property market, a slowing economy and disruptions from its zero-COVID policy that has led to major cities being locked down.

FILE - Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, react as they tour China's Great Wall at Badaling, May 17, 1989, in Beijing.
FILE - Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, react as they tour China's Great Wall at Badaling, May 17, 1989, in Beijing.

However, a former Taiwanese official who has dealt with China believes that regardless of the challenges China may face, it is impossible for Chinese leaders to ever accept the disintegration of their country as Gorbachev did.

“Chinese people always have a sense that their country must be unified, it can’t be split for whatever reason. This mindset goes back to the first emperor who unified China. This feeling of unification is very strong among Chinese people,” he said. “The Soviet state on the other hand was made up of many countries. Their views of one nation are not so strong.

“China definitely wouldn’t let Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan split off,” added the former official, who requested anonymity to avoid problems ahead of upcoming local elections in Taiwan.

It is unclear whether China’s growing economy and attendant problems will ever lead to the kind of political reforms that Gorbachev fostered, he said.

Nagy also questions whether China will ever move toward the kind of political reforms initiated by Gorbachev.

“In the Chinese context, I’m not sure a democratic system will be able to deal with all their challenges and manage the stable economic growth without the current control of the state,” he said. “Something more fractious like Taiwanese democracy could create problems in the internal stability in the Chinese context.

“I don’t think any political system can deal with the challenges in China today: demographics, environmental problems, productivity problems in economy, quality of economic growth, debt, water security, food security, selected diversification from Chinese supply chains.”

At the end of the day, Gao said, the Chinese leadership’s top priority is maintaining political stability.

“The collapse of the USSR under Mr. Gorbachev has been closely studied and analyzed by China. China has been successful in navigating through more than four decades of reform and opening to the outside world,” Gao said.

“However … maintaining political stability has always been a most important task. … China believes reform needs to be steady, but not hasty; gradual, but not in one stroke. Stability needs to be protected at all cost,” Gao said.

“China will continue to push for greater reform and opening to the outside world, in building a unique system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

In response to Gorbachev's death, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Wednesday: "Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev made positive contribution to the normalization of relations between China and the Soviet Union. We mourn his passing and extend our condolences to his family."