Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The 1990s Chinese Debates concerning the Causes for the Collapse of the Soviet Union among PRC Soviet-Watchers: The Cases of Brezhnev and Stalin

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The 1990s Chinese Debates concerning the Causes for the Collapse of the Soviet Union among PRC Soviet-Watchers: The Cases of Brezhnev and Stalin

Article excerpt


The breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 has had a profound impact on the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Soviet dissolution has had a variety of significant repercussions on Chinese politics, foreign policy, and other aspects. However, many myths about post-1991 Chinese research on the Soviet Union have been circulated and perpetuated by a body of secondary literature written by Western scholars. Some issues have been unclear or misunderstood in previous studies, and one of these inaccuracies has to do with Chinese perceptions of the role of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

A number of secondary sources written by Western scholars (Rozman, 2010: 464-470; Marsh, 2005: 111; Shambaugh, 2008: 48-56; Wilson, 2007: 272) argued that, Chinese Soviet-watchers began making positive comments about Gorbachev immediately after he assumed power in 1985. However, these Soviet-watchers turned against the last Soviet leader soon after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989. The existing secondary literature seems to have exaggerated the impact of Gorbachev on China. Previous scholarship also suggests that after the mid-1980s Chinese Soviet-watchers identified Gorbachev's concept of glasnost (openness) and his political reform with Western democracy, and used Gorbachev and his ideas to push the Chinese regime towards political democratization on the eve of the Tiananmen Incident. Moreover, some authors (such as Gilbert Rozman and David Shambaugh) indicate that most Chinese Soviet-watchers after 1991 considered Gorbachev and his liberalization to be the fundamental catalysts in spelling the collapse of the Soviet Union. The literature seems to agree that Chinese Soviet-watchers were univocal in assessing Gorbachev's individual actions and failings, and that they overstated the implications of Gorbachev and his liberal programs for China, both in the 1980s and 1990s.

Previously, the author has published two articles in challenging the views of existing scholarship on Chinese debates concerning Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. In my first article (Li, 2016), I argued, firstly, most Chinese academic articles concerning the USSR did not present positive views on Gorbachev in and after 1985. Many of them remained suspicious and wary of the new Soviet leader, and some of them even challenged the sincerity and feasibility of his policies. Only after about a year with Gorbachev at the helm did Chinese Soviet-watchers begin to review his glasnost and political reform positively. This is when three major obstacles (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; its large troop deployment along the border of China; and Moscow's support of Vietnamese military intervention in Cambodia) plaguing Sino-Soviet relations began to resolve and bilateral relations gradually improved.

Secondly, a full-fledged Chinese attack on Gorbachev did not appear either in the wake of the Tiananmen Incident or after the Soviet disintegration. Instead, strong Chinese criticisms emerged in early 1990, when Gorbachev was elected as the President of the USSR and initiated the process of terminating the power monopoly of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1990. After that, China became aware of the negative ramifications of such a move against PRC communist one-party rule.

Thirdly, few Chinese Soviet-watchers used Gorbachev and his programs to put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to introduce some form of political Westernization. Instead, most Soviet-watchers manipulated the symbol of Gorbachev to support the reformist wing led by the former CCP Secretary General Zhao Ziyang in his factional warfare against the Party conservatives leading up to Tiananmen. In short, Chinese Sovietwatchers did not regard Gorbachev and his programs as having the potential to transform the political landscape of the PRC; rather, they perceived Gorbachev and his agenda as a tool that could be used to define, create, and legitimize a reformed communist system on their own terms. …

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