Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Gorbachev taught communist China how to survive

  • The last Soviet leader, who has died at the age of 91, served as a negative example of what could go wrong when a communist system tries to reform, thereby inadvertently contributing to China’s rise

On May 18, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev ended his visit to China; and his counterpart Zhao Ziyang met protesting student leaders in Tiananmen Square in a failed bid to convince them to stand down.

Zhao and his followers were open to what may be called the Chinese versions of glasnost and perestroika. But before the year was out, Zhao was placed under house arrest, for the rest of his life.

The Tiananmen tragedy and the collapse of the Soviet Union would convince the communist leadership that to survive, it needed to learn from Gorbachev, that is, to avoid all the mistakes he made.

In the West, the last Soviet leader, who has died aged 91, has been celebrated as the statesman who helped end the Cold War and secure America’s unipolar dominance. Among Russians and Chinese, though, the view is much more negative.

Part of the underlying rationale of Vladimir Putin for the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been to restore the empire lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War, dead at 91

For the Chinese, in a most paradoxical way, Gorbachev had been a great teacher, in a wholly negative sense.

How? “Western” liberal values and doctrines must not be tolerated. They will spread like cancer to foment domestic unrest, regional ethno-nationalist conflicts and break-ups, and hostility towards the communist state.

This view still holds today, and it’s the basis of Beijing’s official analysis of why Hong Kong went berserk in 2019: the city had become a fertile ground for the spread of liberal values and practices, and Western influence and agitation. A similar hardline view applies to Tibet and Xinjiang when it comes to the need to counter ethno-nationalism.

But while Beijing was hostile to political reform, it was open to economic restructuring. In this sense, it has been argued that both Gorbachev’s perestroika and Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening were similar.

The time Gorbachev appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial

Both men were responding to the ossified system of state planning and wanted to “liberalise” the economy. Both targeted industries and state-run enterprises for reform. But Gorbachev was unable or unwilling to do much with foreign investment and international trade.

The Chinese learned from that fatal mistake. Instead, it went full on with both foreign investment and trade, from joining the World Trade Organization to encouraging joint ventures. Many Western critics say Beijing learned all the wrong lessons from Gorbachev. The Chinese point to their economy and counter that they must have done something right.