During the 1950s, the prevailing mood in China could be summed up in a slogan known to virtually all at the time: “The Soviet Union of today is the China of tomorrow!”
In 1949, after over two decades of civil war and Japanese invasion, communist armies led by Mao Zedong had conquered mainland China from the ruling Nationalist government. On Oct. 1, addressing the nation from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Mao declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, a country that, for all intents and purposes, sought to emulate the Soviet Union at the height of its power.
Chinese intellectuals clamored to learn Russian so they could understand and translate the canon of socialist orthodoxy and economic planning. Chinese girls did their hair in Slavic plaits and wore the plat’ye of their more fashionable Russian sisters. Construction workers threw up edifices in the imposing, part neoclassical, part Gothic style-promoted as Stalinist architecture. Generals of the People’s Liberation Army wondered when China might too master atomic weaponry, which the Soviets, working at a remote test site in the Kazakh desert, had successfully detonated mere months before Mao’s speech.
The Chinese obsession with all things Soviet faded as the “eternal friendship” between Moscow and Beijing broke down. In the 1960s, Beijing was deriding its ally as a “revisionist tsardom” that had betrayed the ideals of Marx and Lenin; by the end of the decade, the two countries were on the verge of war.
The rest of the Cold War saw the divergent communist camps compete for both ideological legitimacy and geopolitical influence. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union strained under the costs of its bloated military, inefficient command economy, and years of subsidizing the worldwide communist movement. Six years of tandem political and economic reforms by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, ended with the collapse of the Soviet communist project. The red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin on Christmas 1991, a week short of the Union’s 70th birthday from its founding date on New Year 1922.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic and social transformations that China underwent made it seem as if Beijing was on track to enter the globalized world order.
But 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, this conventional wisdom has fallen flat. Instead, to the dismay of hopeful observers, and also significant for the future of China itself, the leadership of the CCP has shown itself to be unwilling, and perhaps incapable of escaping the basic system of lawless, totalitarian rule devised by Lenin.
No country for political change
The Chinese leadership took serious note of what was happening to its northern neighbor at the end of the Cold War. In 1989, the year that East and West Germans united to tear down the Berlin Wall, Chinese communist leaders were in the midst of purging liberal elements of the Party whose leniency was blamed for having emboldened the democratic movement that ended only when its supporters were crushed under the treads of PLA tanks that June.
Conventional academic wisdom credits the Chinese leadership with succeeding where the Soviets had failed. Since the 1970s, rather than cling stubbornly to the Marxist orthodoxy that preached the inherent evil of private property, as the planners in Moscow had done, CCP bureaucrats permitted the market to function, effectively tolerating capitalism, and allowing for the rapid growth of the Chinese economy.
After the Tiananmen Massacre, talk of political reform, which had made it to the top levels of the Party elite in the 1980s, was dead. For the next three decades, China has embarked on a path of capitalism without democracy, piling on the imagery of a modern consumer society while continuing to engage in suppression of basic human rights, such as religion, freedom of speech, or childbearing.
Haunted by the Soviet legacy
In the last 10 years, the structural corruption of the Communist Party, an ailment that had also afflicted the Soviet communists, came to ahead. In 2012, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping embarked on a massive anti-corruption campaign to remedy the problem, leading to the disciplining of over 1 million cadres.
At the same time, Xi found himself compelled to boost his authority within the Party by appealing to communist orthodoxy, with his early initiatives to reform the economic system “to the very end,” “rule the country by law,” and implement a “constitutional dream” ignored and obstructed by the broader Communist Party elite.
These initiatives have been quietly mothballed, overpowered by a variant of politics which, while so far capable of guaranteeing Xi’s dominance within the communist authoritarian system, does not bode well for the future of China.
Just as the Soviet Union was at the end of its lifetime, the Chinese regime is fraught with factional struggle. Thirty years ago, Gorbachev faced opposition from Soviet Communist Party hardliners that led to his house arrest and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, even as Xi avoids Gorbachev’s route, pressures are building up from other avenues. Beijing is beset with both internal socioeconomic crises — such as unemployment and a looming housing bubble —as well as external pushback from the United States for decades of unfair trade practices. Like the Soviet Union’s military strength of the Cold War, the CCP finds itself hard-pressed to maintain the economic prowess needed to sustain its competition with the rest of the world.
This June, massive unrest began in Hong Kong over an extradition bill that, if passed, would threaten the freedoms of anyone present in the semi-autonomous former British port city. Having stood out in resistance for over three months, the protesters now demand full representative democracy and government accountability.
For Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, the millions-strong demonstrations eerily resemble the mass calls for the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which led to the collapse of the East German socialist regime and precipitated the end of its Soviet patron. Should the people of Hong Kong and the international community press Beijing on its ideological weak points, the optimistic slogan from the 1950s may come true, and the future of the Chinese Communist Party will indeed be the present non-existence of the Soviet Union.