China And The Soviet Union: 20 Years On


After more than twenty years since the fall of the USSR, the ghost of the former communist superpower still haunts the China of today. Even though the Chinese economy and its global position is nothing like that of the Soviet Union, the demise of China’s one-time comrade-turned-rival still haunts the Chinese leadership. The way in which the Chinese perceive how and why the Soviet Union collapsed still heavily influences Chinese policies today, from its “alliance” with Russia to its internal policies.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is still heavily debated by scholars, both east and west. Within a decade, the Soviet Union shrunk from a global power that had appeared to be expanding its influence all over the world to ceasing to exist and collapsing like a house of cards. Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the Russia Federation had to endure a decade of economic depression before rising energy prices allowed the Kremlin to reassert itself.[1] But, why the Soviet Union collapsed remains controversial, as well as the lessons that the world leaders have drawn from its experience.

Understandably, the Chinese leadership is anxious to avoid such a fate and seeks to understand the Soviet collapse. One of the more fashionable theories, that enjoys some popularity in China, is the theory that the fall of the Soviet Union was orchestrated by the United States. This theory is also shared, to some degree, by the Russians.[2] This theory holds that American pressure and desire to remake the world to its interests led to the collapse of the USSR, and the misery that followed was due to the Americans’ desire to humble Russia. In realist logic, the greatest desire for a superpower is to have no rival. Why should the US extend a hand to a fallen foe, and why should it help potential competition?[3]

A second theory is that the demise of the Soviet Union is due to the mistakes of Gorbachev, whose reforms led to the demise of the Soviet Union.[4] The Chinese were skeptical of Gorbachev’s reform even before the Soviet Union collapsed,[5] and blamed him after it happened. In this view, Gorbachev’s hasty liberal reforms, both economic and political, led to the demise of the Soviet Union. When contemplating their own policies, the Chinese leadership would avoid similar missteps.

Chinese interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union is critical to understanding some of modern-day China’s policies. China maintains a tight grip on its media, fearing a similar effect to Gorbachev. Its suspicion of American intentions led to China seeking counterweights to American influence. China’s alliance with Russia is substantially due to a mutual interest in thwarting the US. The demise of the Soviet Union, which is the only other communist superpower during the 20th century and the state that the PRC initially modelled itself after, still exerts its shadow over its one-time rival, well into the 21st century. The desire to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union drives many facets of modern Chinese foreign policy, from its current “partnership” with Russia to its desire to avoid hasty reforms.


 

Bibliography

Buckley, Chris. “Chinese Embrace America’s Culture but Not Its Policies.” The New York Times, 28 Sept. 2015 2015.

Bush, George, and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Kazianis, Harry J. “China’s Greatest Fear: Dead and Buried Like the Soviet Union.” The National Interest, 11 Mar. 2016 2016.

Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

Stent, Angela. The Limits of Partnership. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

 

[1]Jeffrey Mankoff, Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009), 23-25.

[2] Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 22-23.

[3] Chris Buckley, “Chinese Embrace America’s Culture but Not Its Policies,” The New York Times, 28 Sept. 2015 2015.

[4] Harry J. Kazianis, “China’s Greatest Fear: Dead and Buried Like the Soviet Union,” The National Interest, 11 Mar. 2016 2016.

[5] George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

Hanyu Huang

Hanyu Huang

Correspondent at The Organization for World Peace
Hanyu Huang was born in 1994 in China. Migrated to Canada in 2006. Graduated from University of Toronto in 2016 from the Economics and International Relations program. Interested in East Asian economic and security issues.
Hanyu Huang

About Hanyu Huang

Hanyu Huang was born in 1994 in China. Migrated to Canada in 2006. Graduated from University of Toronto in 2016 from the Economics and International Relations program. Interested in East Asian economic and security issues.