In China, Soviet Union's Failure Drives Decisions on Reform

By Wan, William | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

In China, Soviet Union's Failure Drives Decisions on Reform


Wan, William, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


BEIJING -- For his first state visit, China's new president, Xi Jinping, traveled to Moscow this weekend to highlight the importance of his country's relationship with Russia.

But according to officials and intellectuals in the Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Xi's fixation on that country's former regime - - the Soviet Union -- may prove even more crucial to China's future direction.

The shadow of the U.S.S.R. still hangs over many parts of Chinese society. What is considered bygone Cold War history by much of the rest of the world, even by many in Russia, lives on in China. You see it in the hulking Soviet-style buildings that dominate Beijing and in songs like "Troika" and "Moscow Nights," which remain favorites among party leaders and choir clubs in Chinese parks.

But its presence is most vivid in China's political system, where the collapse of the Soviet Union continues to be analyzed with a paranoia and urgency that some compare to the United States and its fight against terrorism.

Every year, the party's top think tanks churn out piles of new studies. Books are published by the dozen. And China's top leadership invokes the Soviet fall constantly in speeches.

"It's hard to overstate how obsessed they are with the Soviet Union," said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University expert who spent years meeting Chinese officials and reading internal party documents for a book on the subject. "They wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. It hangs over every major decision."

The obsession is fueled by the fear that, with a few wrong steps, China's Communist Party would face a similar fate. Because of that, many in the party say, some of the biggest clues about how the new generation of Chinese leaders will pursue reform in the next few years lies in their interpretation of the Soviet collapse.

Soviet case study

On Friday, as Mr. Xi's plane was taking off for Moscow, more than 200 students at China's top university crammed into a stadium-size auditorium for a class on the fall of the Soviet Union.

The lecture is mandatory for graduate students at Peking University, and it is considered a priority by the government and school administration even for students whose fields are far removed from politics, such as medicine and electrical engineering.

"This class tends to focus more on the problems of Stalin and what Soviet leaders did wrong," explained the professor, Wang Chunying, a slim, severe woman with tortoise shell glasses. "We don't talk so much about their achievements, because for China the failures are what's most instructive."

Such classes exist at most major Chinese universities alongside Marxism departments, a branch of study that is flourishing in part, some students explained, because it can lead to lucrative jobs at state-owned enterprises.

The Soviet indoctrination occurs at the government level as well. For a few recent years, all party cadres were required to view a classified eight-volume DVD set on the Soviet fall titled "Consider Danger in Times of Peace."

The collapse has been studied from many angles -- economic, sociological, ideological, psychological, even linguistic. …

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