Screen shot from In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, which mainland cadres have been urged to watch.

Paranoia from Soviet Union collapse haunts China's Communist Party, 22 years on

Party cadres made to watch documentaries on failure of Russian communism, by new leader determined not to see history repeat

Carry Huang

In the heyday of Sino-Soviet socialist brotherhood in the 1950s, Chinese liked to say that “today’s Soviet Union is tomorrow’s China”, as Beijing faithfully followed Moscow’s every footstep in development.

But since the collapse of communist rule and the Soviet Union in early 1990s, the old saying has become an evil omen haunting China’s communist leaders. 

A photo of the late Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Photo: SCMP
And there are renewed shudders among the Beijing leadership following a warning from President Xi Jinping calling for the need to pay greater attention to the dramatic events in Moscow more than two decades ago.

Significantly, officials ranging from top central government ministers to heads of grassroots party organs have been called on to watch a four-part DVD documentary about the historic events. 

The video, In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, is jointly produced by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection,  the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences  and its affiliated Research Centre of World Socialism. It tells the story on how a once great power stumbled to become a second- or third-class nation. 

The video blames Mikhail Gorbachev’s radical moves to introduce Western-style democratic reform and to relax the party’s monopoly control of ideology and also Boris Yeltsin’s rush to privatise state-owned enterprises as the main reasons behind the collapse of Communist rule and the dismantling of the Soviet empire.

Another new video co-produced by the National Defence University  that was leaked late last month tells how the West, the United States in particular, has schemed for a Soviet-style collapse in China. 

Entitled The Silent Contest, the 100-minute video begins with a lament for the end of the Soviet Union, and proceeds through recent history to show the supposedly evil motives behind America’s relations with China and other communist countries. 

General Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the military institution and son-in-law of former president Li Xiannian, produced the work.

Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered
Xi Jinping

Analysts pointed out that the renewed fear of a Soviet-style nightmare in China might reflect the leadership’s anxiety over slowing economic growth, rising social tensions and growing calls for political reform following the leadership transition last November.

They said that whether the new generation of Chinese leaders will pursue reform in the next few years lies in how they interpret the Soviet collapse. 

Xi, the party’s general secretary, appears more fascinated by the ideological aspects of the Soviet downfall than his predecessors. 

In an internal speech early this year, Xi told party officials that China must still heed the “deeply profound” lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. 

“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” Xi asked, according to a summary of his comments that has circulated among officials, but has not been published by the state-run news media. 

“An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered,” he said. 

The mainland’s propaganda machines have responded to Xi’s call, publishing more articles warning about the possibility of a Soviet-style collapse in the last major communist-ruled state.

Guards march on Tiananmen Square on a smoggy day in late September, 2013. Photo: Xinhua
Steve Tsang,  director of the China Policy Institute  at the University of Nottingham,  said Xi was clearly setting out his “policy line”, which is to strengthen the party’s capacity and determination to adhere closely tight to the existing system, and resist any demand for democratisation or constitutional rule as understood in the West.  

“The sense of crisis has been reintroduced to warn the rest of the party not to be complacent and to embrace changes that he is introducing,” he said. 

Kerry Brown,  executive director of the China Studies Centre  at the University of Sydney,  said that although Chinese think tanks had expended huge effort and time on trying to understand why communism in the Soviet Union failed, there remains a lack of consensus over the cause. 

Was the most critical issue a lack of economic reform, over-hasty political reform, issues intrinsic to the structure and culture of power within the USSR, or the failure to reach consensus within the leadership? 

“The one point upon which most Chinese intellectuals, politicians and officials seem to agree is that, contrary to mainstream opinion in the West, the collapse was not a good thing and the results were to cost Russia and the states created out of the ruins of the USSR dearly,” Brown said.

He said that one of the great paradoxes of our time was that the world’s second-biggest, and most dynamic, economy happens in name at least to be governed by a system that was written off two decades ago. 

“This is no cause for celebration in China however,” Brown said. 

Xiaoyu Pu,  a professor of political science at the University of Nevada,  said that while the Communist Party had maintained its legitimacy through economic performance and nationalist mobilisation, it faces many challenges.

Thus, the primary security concern of the party leaders is not national security, but regime security.  

“For the CCP, the collapse of the Soviet Union has always been regarded as a ‘negative example’,” Pu said. “The party has put a lot of energy and resources into examining what lessons the CCP could learn from the collapse of the Soviet Union.” 

However, Pu said the implications of the documentary programmes should not be over-estimated as they “might reflect the voice of the leftist and conservative faction within the party”

“It is hard to say the programmes reflect the consensus of the CCP leadership,” he said. 

Tsang noted that the USSR lasted 69 years and the People’s Republic of China had now been in existence for 64 years. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party could surpass the Soviet Communist Party during Xi’s tenure.   

Xi has every intention to ensure the People’s Republic will outlast the USSR and thus has every reason to get the Communist Party to re-learn the lessons of why their comrades failed.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi raises spectre of fall of Soviet Union