This commentary is published as part of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor’s Young Scholars on U.S.-China Relations Working Paper Series.
Christopher Vassallo is an Analyst at Blackstone. He’s a former Schwarzman Scholar and researcher at the Asia Society Policy Institute and Harvard’s Belfer Center. As a Schwarzman Scholar, this master’s thesis was awarded Tsinghua University’s Outstanding Capstone Award. His research centers on the uses of historical analogy and precedent in the formulation of grand strategies in the United States and China. In the future, he is interested in exploring historical models from Chinese history that might help elucidate how the country understands periods of great power politics. You can follow him on Twitter @VassalloCMV.
To understand the impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on China’s political decision-making you need to know the story of two Southern Tours.
In 1992, Deng Xiaoping journeyed south to tout China’s economic reform and opening; twenty years later, Xi Jinping launched a very similar tour to a very similar place. Although he called it the “New Southern Tour,” his message rebuked Deng’s.
Each tour was a vehicle for conveying the priorities of China’s uppermost leadership at the time. Each time, the leader in question refracted these priorities through the prism of the Soviet Union.
In 1992, just three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the bloody protests in Tiananmen Square, and one year after the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Deng reckoned that economic opening was China’s ticket to avoid the Soviet Union’s fate.
In 2012, Xi no longer believed, as Deng had, that the Party’s survival depended on miracle rates of economic growth. Instead, he was convinced that, like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was facing a crisis of belief. Corruption had hollowed out the party, and the Party’s ideological fervor and revolutionary spirit were at risk. During his Tour, his references to the defunct communist giant touched on how Soviet ideology had slipped, the famed Red Army had stepped aside, and the leadership had betrayed the values of Marxist-Leninism. In other words, Xi urged Party leaders to chain the forces of political liberalism that so often accompanied massive economic growth of the sort Deng had encouraged twenty years prior.
The contrast between these two “Southern Tours,” and the Soviet analogies each leader recalled, could hardly be starker.
Over the course of a year of study from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, I examined the Soviet analogy and tracked its variations over a thirty-year period. I became attuned to an often-underappreciated variable: historical memory. Since the USSR’s collapse, comparative historical analysis was a central component of Chinese strategizing. Even before that, Chinese leaders frequently called upon history to inform strategy; indeed, scholars have convincingly argued that, in China, “the prime raw material for constructing ethnicity is history.”[i]
History is the language of China’s contemporary leaders. Deng often looked at the recent history of unrest in communist states and predicted that China would likewise face similar threats.[ii] More recently, Xi called on cadres to apply history in a speech launching a landmark Party History Study Campaign: “We must gain enlightenment from history and extract the magic weapon to defeat the enemy from historical experience.”[iii]
Informed by the close study of Party documents, including every Leader’s Report from each Party Congress since 1992, speeches by General Secretaries, Plenum reports, leaked Party circulars, and official published works like Xi Jinping’s three-volume Governance of China, my thesis examines the lessons Chinese leaders derived from the collapse of its communist neighbor to the north.
A key ingredient of this high-level strategizing was, and continues to be, historical memory. Why is the Soviet Union a particularly salient frame of reference? In short, the two countries shared a governance model. David Shambaugh, one of the foremost outside analysts of the Party, explains that the CCP has always been a near carbon copy of its Soviet neighbor: “When the leadership gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night, it is the Soviet collapse that haunts them…Observers don’t realize just how similar the Chinese system is to the Soviet system. The former is cloned from the latter.”[iv] In 1953, Mao Zedong looked explicitly to the country for guidance: “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union…is the most advanced, the most experienced, and the most theoretically cultivated party in the world. We need to learn seriously from the Soviet Union…[It] has been our model in the past, it is our model at present, and it will be our model in the future.” [v],[vi],[vii]
Chinese leadership has reckoned with the Soviet collapse in two main waves. The first wave occurred from 1989 to 2004. At the time of its collapse, Deng Xiaoping looked at the unrest in Russia and Eastern Europe and was convinced that China would not be spared. He surveyed the landscape of communist states and realized that these disorderly forces also existed in China: the weak industrial base, the overproduction of heavy industry, the total lack of privatization. These factors allowed Deng to make a historical prediction and a prescription: “The problem now is not whether the banner of the Soviet Union will fall – there is bound to be unrest there – but whether the banner of China will fall.” Since history promised that China would experience unrest, he concluded that “[reform and opening up] is the irreversible general trend of historical development.”[viii] To raise the stakes of failure, he even pointed to the execution of Romanian Communist leader Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989 and noted, “We’ll be like this if we don’t carry out reforms and bring about benefits to the people.”[ix]
In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Deng worked to translate this observation – that the Soviet economic system had failed to provide viable, rising standards of living for its people – into impetus for reform.
In 1992, three years after the initial unrest in China and Eastern Europe, Deng launched his Southern Tour on exactly this premise. “Had it not been for the achievements of the reform and the open policy, we could not have weathered June 4th. And if we had failed that test, there would have been chaos and civil war…Why was it that our country could remain stable after the June 4th Incident? It was precisely because we had carried out the reform and the open policy, which have promoted economic growth and raised living standards,” he said, on the tour which marked a turning point in China’s economic development.[x] The trip was designed to tout a nascent economic miracle while also serving to reiterate the pitfalls of economic stagnation that had plagued the Soviet Union. Despite the tumult, Deng remained optimistic that a Soviet-style crisis could be averted.
Finally, in September 2004, seven years after Deng’s death, CCP study of the lessons of Soviet collapse delivered an official verdict: the Party needed to internalize the urgency of economic reform. At the Fourth Plenary of the Sixteenth Party Congress, Party leaders adopted an edict, “Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Enhancing the Party’s Ruling Capacity,” that reflected the lessons, conclusions, and proposed reforms that stemmed from the Party’s understanding of the Soviet collapse. The document places a priority on economic reform seeing it as the means to avoid systemic, long-term decline.[xi] With this announcement, the first wave of study came to an end.
The second wave of interest in the Soviet collapse began in 2012 when Xi Jinping ascended to General Secretary of the Communist Party.
Xi is keenly aware of how history might inform policymaking. In September 2015, in “A New Partnership of Mutual Benefit and a Community of Shared Future,” Xi explained, “History is a mirror. Only by drawing lessons from history can the world avoid repeating past calamity.”[xii] His focus on the lessons of history is not new. Xi oversaw Party History work, most notably at the 17th Party Congress.[xiii] Even before his Party History work, he was the head of the Central Party School, where he commissioned a sweeping study of the Soviet Union’s collapse.[xiv]
This appeal to the lessons of history is deeply embedded in Xi’s policymaking process. In 2012, Xi traveled south to conduct a New Southern Tour, the first big policy rollout of his presidency, where he introduced concepts like the “China Dream” and “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. On this Southern Tour, which was meant to invoke the one Deng conducted 20 years prior, Xi, like Deng, raised the collapse of the Soviet Union. He articulated the dangers facing the Party by talking about the Soviet Union’s pitfalls. The Party needed to “profoundly remember the lesson of the Soviet collapse.” “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party lose power?” he asked. The answer: “One important reason was that ideals and beliefs were shaken.”[xv] Gorbachev had ignored ideology to a deadly degree, “and the great party was gone just like that. In the end, there was not a man brave enough to resist, no one came out to contest [this decision].”
A few weeks later, in January 2013, Xi again blamed ideological decay for the Soviet collapse, but this time he added other factors as well: “There was a complete denial of Soviet history, denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, pursuit of historical nihilism, confusion of thought…The Soviet Communist Party had 200,000 members when it seized power; it had 2 million members when it defeated Hitler, and it had 20 million members when it relinquished power…For what reason? Because the ideals and beliefs were no longer there.”[xvi]
Xi added “historical nihilism” and a denial of history to his list of reasons to blame. Analysts have linked this study session to the drafting of a leaked internal Party circular, “Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” which foreshadowed Xi’s more hardline and ideological tenure.[xvii] That edict warned CCP officials to beware of Western values and “incorrect thinking,” spoke of the dangers of “historical nihilism” – using the same language as Xi’s January 2013 speech – revived old notions of Western “smokeless warfare,” and referenced the “Soviet experience” with socialism.[xviii] This document was unique in that it placed so much emphasis on controlling historical narratives.[xix]
In 2014, Xi Jinping turned his attention to another problem vexing the CCP leadership: unrest in Xinjiang. The historical parallel of Soviet collapse informs Xi’s policies there. Xi and his advisors have long claimed that separatist forces at the fringes of Soviet dominion tore at the cohesion of Soviet dominion. To Xi, China’s majority-minority regions risked the same separatist fate as the Soviet Union.
In a series of speeches delivered in 2014 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, Xi explicitly referenced the Soviet Union’s splintering to explain his brutal crackdown in Xinjiang. In one speech, he claimed that economic investment in Xinjiang would not be enough to prevent the forces of ethnic separatism as the Soviet Union had learned – at great cost. The Baltic republics were some of the richest in the Soviet Union, but they still clamored to leave the Soviet Union first, Xi explained.[xx]
Xi’s lessons are noticeably different from the ones that dominated the years immediately after the Soviet Union’s fall. While contemporaneous understandings in the years 1989 to 1992 seemed to emphasize economic or leadership failures as the cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse, contemporary understandings in Xi’s China today emphasize more nebulous concepts of cultural, societal, or “moral” decay.
By emphasizing the dangers of corruption, ethnic unrest, and military independence, the telling of the Soviet collapse has been “societalized” to meet some of the most pressing challenges facing the Party today. The problems are no longer economic in nature, so neither are the solutions. Instead, they are policies like anti-corruption, ethnic assimilation, and military modernization.
Of course, the real reasons the Soviet Union collapsed are almost entirely unrelated to the ways the collapse is remembered. Even as the political expediency of certain rationales for the empire’s collapse waxed and waned, the most convincing historical reason remained the same: the collapse was an accident.[xxi] The fall of the Soviet Union was neither the result of negotiations between Gorbachev and Yeltsin nor the subversive work of Bush and Baker. Contingencies – like the accidental opening of the Berlin Wall and the failure of a hardline coup to replace Gorbachev – pervade the moments that precipitate the empire’s fall.
Historical forces are never linear and rarely decipherable. Events that seem predetermined now were often hardly predicted.[xxii] It became the task of the statesmen who endured the tumult of historical change to imbue accident with meaning. So it goes that the stories Chinese leaders told themselves and their people after the chaos of collapse were the ones remembered. Deng and Xi’s explanations for the collapse of the Soviet Union were specifically tailored to meet the political needs of each particular moment.
Cataloguing these lessons throughout the thirty-year window had a prurient element as well. While sensitive debates about topics like regime survival and Party reform were never conducted in public, the Party’s discussions about the Soviet Union’s collapse provided backdoor access to the way the CCP broaches its most sensitive topics of governance.
For analysts of contemporary U.S.-China relations, the thesis has three key applications. The first is that the Cold War framing of the bilateral relationship is not just an American perspective. Certainly, within the U.S., China’s rise, the most monumental geopolitical challenge since the time of the Soviet Union, inspires parallels to that forty-year struggle. However, the Cold War lens exists in China too. Evoked in warnings of “smokeless warfare,” the Cold War analogy is a way of projecting Chinese insecurities about Soviet similarities.
The second application is forward-looking. This thesis demonstrates the persistent salience that historical models of great power competition have on China’s leaders today. It is possible that American strategists looking for a model of sustained “competition without catastrophe” are missing an opportunity to engage Chinese leaders with analogies that they know. Models from Chinese history that could help elucidate parallel understandings of great power politics is a pressing area for further research.
The final application is a universal one. History can be a means of accessing CCP decision-making. By tracing the uses of and changes to the Soviet analogy, this thesis has uncovered some ways historical narratives of peer state tragedy came to replace traditional Marxist-Leninism as an organizing principle of Chinese ideology. Studying history can be a shortcut to studying ideology in today’s China.
[i] Zheng Wang, Memory Politics, Identity and Conflict (Oxford: Routledge Press, 2017), 21.
[ii] This process in fact abides by the basic premises of an academic theory called Applied History, pioneered by Yuen Foong Khong who laid out the groundwork of analogical reasoning in a text called Analogies at War. He wrote that if an event shares similarity A with a past event that also had similarity A, then that past event’s characteristic similarity B is likely to also occur in the present event. Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 101.
[iii] “Xi Jinping: Speech at the Party History Study and Education Mobilization Conference,” Xuexi, 31 March 2021. According to Xuexi, Xi delivered the speech on 20 February 2021.
[iv] Quoted in Jeremy Page, “China Spins New Lesson from Soviet Union’s Fall,” Wall Street Journal, 10 December 2013.
[v] Mao Zedong, “The Greatest Friendship,” (People’s Daily, 9 March 1953), Quoted in Chinese Communist World Outlook (U.S. Department of State, 1955), 19.
[vi] Christopher Marsh, Unparalleled Reforms (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), 101-103.
[vii] By 1991, with the Soviet Union in ruin, Gorbachev mused, “That model has failed which was brought about in our country. And I hope that this is a lesson not only for our people but for all peoples.” Who is the intended audience for this lesson? The nation whose historic, paramount leader Mao Zedong had announced, years earlier, that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has been and will forever be China’s model. Both quotations appear in Marsh, Unparalleled Reforms (New York: Lexington Books, 2005), 101.
[viii] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3, vi.
[ix] Exchange can be found in Marsh, Unparalleled Reforms, 106.
[x] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001), Excerpts from talks in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai, i.
[xi] Readout in “Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Enhancing the Party’s Ruling Capacity,” China Daily, 27 September 2004.
[xii] Xi Jinping, “Working Together to Forge a New Partnership of Win-win Cooperation and Create a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Speech to U.N. General Assembly, 28 September 2015.
[xiii] Bill Bishop, “Xi on studying Party history; Reaction to WHO report; Two journalists leave for Taiwan; Arm and Huawei,” Sinocism, 31 March 2021.
[xiv] Nicholas Frisch, “The Bolsheviks in Beijing: What the Chinese Communist Party Learned From Lenin,” Foreign Affairs, 18 October 2017.
[xv] 储百亮, “习近平警告中共记取前苏联教训,” 纽约时报, 15 February 2013, Quoted in Sergey Radchenko, “Putin and Xi Eye the Soviet Collapse,” the ASAN Forum, 19 March 2020.
[xvi] “习近平：历史不可虚无,” 中国日报, 20 November 2016, Quoted in Sergey Radchenko, “Putin and Xi Eye the Soviet Collapse,” the ASAN Forum, 19 March 2020.
[xvii] See John Garnaut, “Engineers of the Soul: Ideology in Xi Jinping’s China” Sinocism, 16 January 2019, pt. 5.
[xviii] “Document Number 9: A ChinaFile Translation,” ChinaFile, 8 November 2013.
[xix] The Soviet collapse is not the only historical event that draws the eye of China’s leadership and informs behavior today. Historian Rana Mitter says this surge of nationalism actually results from a pivot from a victim narrative to a victor narrative. He points to Xi’s framing of World War II, once a little discussed topic in China. “There is a strong relationship between China’s memory of its experience of World War II and its present-day nationalist identity at home.” This narrative exists at the highest levels of Chinese power. Xi Jinping bragged that his greatest achievement in 2015 was his “creation of a holiday dedicated to the Second World War: “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”[xix] The telling of the Soviet collapse appears all the more tragic against the backdrop of this triumphant telling of inflated World War II glory. Found in Rana Mitter, China’s Good War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), 3. For more, on history favoring China, see Bill Bishop, “‘The most beautiful sight’; Hebei Outbreak” (Sinocism, 7 January 2021): “There is a reason Xi, officials, official documents and authoritative propaganda pieces keep repeating the phrase, ‘当今世界正处于百年未有之大变局 / The world today is undergoing major changes unseen in a century.’”
[xx]Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, “‘Absolutely No Mercy,’” New York Times (16 November 2019). The reporting summarizes 24 documents of leaked material, including 96 pages of internal speeches by President Xi and 102 pages of speeches by other officials. See especially paras. 52-63.
[xxi] For more, see Mary Sarotte, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (New York: Basic Books, 2014), Introduction, which details the “the significance of accident and contingency—rather than of planning by political leaders.”
[xxii] For more, see: Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Touchstone Book. 1994), 27: “When an international order first comes into being, many choices may be open to it. But each choice constricts the universe of remaining options. Because complexity inhibits flexibility, early choices are especially crucial.”