Lessons learned in China from the collapse of the Soviet Union

According to one account, published in the international press, in the late 2000s, long after leaving formal office, former President and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin summoned scholars to Zhongnanhai, the central leadership compound, in order to discuss why precisely the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had collapsed almost two decades before.

His attempt to fully understand why this event had happened was only the latest in a series held in China, the first of which happened only a matter of weeks after Boris Yeltsin had stood on tanks before the State Duma in Moscow and managed to avert civil war by announcing elections and a new government. August think tanks like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing and Tsinghua Universities had all expended effort and time on trying to understand why precisely Communism in the former Soviet Union had failed. There remains a lack of consensus to this day over whether the most critical issue was lack of economic reform, over-hasty political reform, issues intrinsic to the structures and cultures of power within the USSR, or failures of 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.

This paper, the fourth in the University of Sydney China Studies Centre Policy Paper series, looks at the story of the fall of the USSR through Chinese eyes by the use of Chinese government documents and analysis, and in particular the issue of what the lessons learned in China were from the events in Moscow and elsewhere in the USSR up to 1991. A Greer Meisels, in her conclusion, shows that the CCP had drawn active and important lessons from the collapse of the Communist Party in the USSR, the most salient of which were probably in the areas of governance. The one lesson that the Chinese have not sought to draw however is that Communism has a form of governance or an ideology is necessarily doomed. For them, they can and must avoid the mistakes made in the USSR. Thus the effort made into understanding what precisely happened, and how events unfolded.

This paper shows, with great clarity and learning, that while those living in liberal democracies might think the fall of the USSR is history, for China it has active importance and meaning. One of the great paradoxes of our time is that the world’s second biggest, and most dynamic economy, happens in name at least to be governed by a system which had been written off two decades ago. This is no cause for celebration in China however. The USSR Communist Party was in power for 73 years. For the Communist Party of China, as they come closer and closer to this landmark anniversary in 2022, they will continue to be weighed down by the question of whether, finally, they can succeed where the USSR failed. This paper helps hugely in understanding what their chances of success are.

Professor Kerry Brown
Executive Director, China Studies Centre, and Professor of Chinese Politics
University of Sydney