For China’s Xi and Other Strongmen, Gorbachev Showed Exactly What Not to Do

In much of the West, Mikhail S. Gorbachev is hailed as the farsighted visionary who brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. But for autocratic leaders in other parts of the world, his legacy stands as a cautionary tale of power discarded quickly and, by some estimates, cavalierly, with little or nothing in return.

This lesson has been taken most to heart in China, where Xi Jinping is expected to be anointed to a third term as the country’s top leader during a Communist Party congress announced for October. The dissolution of the Soviet Union — and with it the birth of independent nations and the demise of an all-powerful political party — are precisely the kinds of political shock waves that Mr. Xi has committed his career to avoiding.

China’s leaders “would regard everything the final leader of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. did as a textbook of how not to go about business,” said Kerry Brown, a political historian at King’s College London and author of books about Mr. Xi’s China.

For a government terrified of the centrifugal forces that might spin away historically and ethnically distinct regions like Tibet or Xinjiang, the plethora of new nations carved out of what was once a single Soviet entity is particularly alarming. Mr. Xi’s government has cracked down on dissent across China, crushing pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and overseeing the mass incarceration and forced sterilization of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

His government has also heightened the glorification of the Communist Party and of Mr. Xi himself, and formed an anti-Western partnership with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who is determined to reverse what he has called the historical “catastrophe” wrought by Mr. Gorbachev.

A photo released by Russian state media showing China’s president, Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Beijing, in February.Credit…Aleksey Druzhinin/Sputnik, via Reuters

“The West might celebrate Gorbachev as a hero, but for the Communist Party in China his career was one crowned by failure, and the loud applause of the West only confirmed that,” Mr. Brown said.

At a seminar in 2013 dedicated to encouraging the communist spirit among party stalwarts, Mr. Xi, himself the son of a party elder, called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a cautionary tale.” Study sessions for Communist cadres, which have increased in recent years, underline that message.

“Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” Mr. Xi said, according to a summary of the speech quoted in Chinese state-run news media. “In the end nobody was a real man. Nobody came out to resist.”

Mr. Xi has styled himself as a strongman, eschewing the consensus-style leadership of his recent predecessors as head of the Chinese Communist Party, and establishing direct control of the People’s Liberation Army. A propaganda drive has elevated an airbrushed vision of him while diminishing the accomplishments of Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader whose market reforms catalyzed China’s integration into the global economy.

Even the slightest tendrils of dissent have been suppressed. And the coronavirus pandemic has given the Communist Party a rationale for closing China off from the world, shutting out foreign influences along with an airborne virus. Mr. Xi’s government has also amplified Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine.

A poster showing Mr. Xi in Shanghai, on Wednesday.Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights office released a report saying that the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” Last year, the State Department called the repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in northwestern China a “genocide.”

“All of Xi’s efforts — ramping up ideological controls, reasserting Party dominance throughout state and society alike and pivoting Beijing back toward single-man rule — are aimed at steering China away from a similar fate” as the Soviet Union, said Carl Minzner, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise.”

Autocrats throughout the world drew similar conclusions, particularly in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where one-time apparatchiks refashioned themselves as absolute rulers in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was not the only result of Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. As the Soviet Union weakened, socialist regimes around the world were starved of funding from their ideological patron. From Somalia to Nicaragua, Soviet-aligned leaders were tossed from office. (Some socialist governments later returned.) Other governments, like Cuba under Fidel Castro, survived but fell into penury.

Mr. Gorbachev and Fidel Castro in Havana, in April 1989.Credit…Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

“The end of the Soviet Union also signified at the time Africa’s diminished geopolitical significance,” said Maxim Matusevich, ahistorian at Seton Hall University. “We now see the ambivalence of Gorbachev’s legacy in Africa reflected in the reluctance of some African leaders, a number of them educated in the U.S.S.R., to condemn unequivocally Putin’s war against Ukraine.”

The gradual end of proxy battles between Moscow and Washington allowed pro-democracy forces to eventually take hold, from the late 1980s into the early 2000s, in the place of long-ruling Western-backed authoritarians. In Africa,Daniel arap Moi stepped down in Kenya and Mobutu Sese Seko yielded power in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Asia, entrenched dictators like Suharto of Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, both of whom at one point drew American support for their anti-communist stances, were overthrown by popular movements.

But even among opponents to that generation of authoritarians, the last Soviet leader’s historical bequest is not uniformly celebrated, said Murithi Mutiga, program director for Africa for the International Crisis Group.

“Intellectuals on the continent, who favor a multipolar world, offer a less than enthusiastic appraisal of his legacy,” Mr. Mutiga said, referring to Africa, “because they believe the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of unipolarity that was treated in what are viewed as arrogant ways by the West.”

In a different era in China, among another group of intellectuals, Mr. Gorbachev was received with greater enthusiasm. In the spring of 1989 in Beijing, university students and other pro-democracy forces poured onto Tiananmen Square. They danced to rock ‘n’ roll and made impassioned speeches calling for the Communist Party to reform.

Students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 4, 1989.Credit…Chip Hires/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

In May of that year, Mr. Gorbachev visited the Chinese capital, bringing with him a spotlight on the protesters gathered in Tiananmen. The students deemed him a symbol of reform, an example of a communist leader perhaps committed to compromise. On June 4, tanks rolled through Tiananmen. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed.

Chinese historians note that unlike the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China still exists, with a strong leader at its helm.

Assessing Mr. Gorbachev’s legacy, China’s leaders see, “not a free Russia but one subject to poverty, chaos, corruption and, in the end, the aggressive nationalism of Putin today,” Mr. Brown said.

But some China-watchers wonder whether Mr. Xi’s grip on power, with its attendant cult of personality harking back to the era of Mao Zedong, could lead to a similarly tumultuous future.

“The sad irony is that the course Xi has selected now risks leading China directly back into the instability of its own Maoist past or that of Russia’s present,” Mr. Minzner said, “with national policies and politics veering wildly on the whim of a single leader.”

Zixu Wang contributed research.

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