China and the World

The perestroika parable

How the Chinese reacted to the death of Mikhail Gorbachev


Gorbachev: died aged 91

A great ruler in China was often likened to the monarchs Yao and Shun. The Chinese saw these two emperors as paragons of moral perfection. Legend had it they passed their thrones not to their sons but to successors with the most qualifying virtues.

Thousands of years later in 1912, Longyu, the last empress dowager of the Qing Dynasty, signed the letter of abdication that brought an end to her ailing empire. That decision would bring comparisons to Yao and Shun too. And it also helps to explain why some Chinese have been talking about Mikhail Gorbachev, who died last week, as the “Longyu of the Soviet Union”.

When Gorbachev resigned in 1991 he brought an end to a communist regime, opening the path to a different style of government. That was not a decision that has endeared him to China’s political leaders, of course, and much of the media response to his death took a similar line in focusing on the problems that followed.

“Blindly worshipping the Western system made the USSR lose independence, and the Russian people suffer from political instability and severe economic hardship,” the Global Times noted, adding that this was a “lesson for China’s own governance”, in which the country would follow its own path of “political maturity and sobriety”.

Hu Xijin, a former editor of the Global Times and now an outspoken voice on social media, went further, saying that Gorbachev won acclaim in the West “by selling out the interests of his homeland.”

That said, other Chinese commentators have been more generous in evaluating his legacy.

On Zhihu, the most popular question-and-answer platform in China, many agreed that the final president of the Soviet Union, like Longyu, could have done little to avert imperial disintegration.

“You are overrating Gorbachev if you think he’s the one who ended the USSR,” one of the top contributions warned, adding that an ailing economy and endemic corruption were two of the biggest forces in bringing down the Soviet bloc.

The Chinese government’s official reaction to Gorbachev’s death was brief and measured. “Mr Mikhail Gorbachev made a positive contribution to the normalisation of relations between China and the Soviet Union. We mourn his passing and extend our condolences to his family,” a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said during a routine press conference.

But privately, the chances are that senior government officials are warning themselves against becoming “China’s Gorbachev” as the country heads towards its next Party Congress in October.

Comparisons with Soviet rule are inevitable, however. Political analysts often draw attention to the fact that the People’s Republic of China has now surpassed Lenin’s Soviet Union in longevity and the Chinese Communist Party has authored thousands of studies on the reasons for the disintegration of its fellow ‘red’ ideologue in the hope of learning some crucial lessons.

Undoubtedly Deng Xiaoping relied on warnings about the Soviet Union’s economic failures to speed his own reforms during the era of ‘opening up’, for example. The launch of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ was a major rebuttal of the socialist command economy, with Chinese leaders also deciding to integrate with the global economy through foreign trade and investment, rather than take the path of international isolation. There are lessons too in political discipline, the Chinese believe, with President Xi Jinping said to have described the demise of the Soviet Union as “a cautionary tale” for how the Chinese Communist Party must maintain its primacy. “Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” Xi is said to have told a gathering of Party cadres in 2013. “In the end, nobody was a real man. Nobody came out to resist.”

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