Commentary |
2 July 2021

China’s communists guard their future from the past

As they celebrate their party’s centenary, China’s leaders remain obsessed with the fate of the Soviet Union and its political reforms. They study history to avoid a repeat.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Peter Cai
Peter Cai

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has just celebrated its 100th birthday this week, making it one of the longest surviving communist parties in the world – and certainly the most successful one.

Although the party’s confidence is at its peak, the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party still haunts the Chinese leaders.

Over the years, the party has commissioned and supported many major inquiries into the fall of the Soviet Union by leading scholars. One of the most recent efforts, in 2008, was by China’s leading Russia and the Cold War historian, Shen Zhihua. It was voted as one of the 10 most popular books by party members working for the central party office and its agencies.

The CCP is following a long Chinese imperial tradition of compiling official histories of its predecessors. Apart from the Soviet history, the Chinese government is also working on the massive project of a 95-volume history of Qing, the last imperial dynasty that ruled from 1644 to 1912.

In addition to commissioning such inquiries, every party secretary general since Mao has convened politburo ‘group study sessions’ aimed at understanding the spectacular collapse of the once mighty Soviet Communist party, which at its peak boasted 18 million party members and an armed force rivalling that of the United States. 

On January 5, 2013, shortly after his election by the party Central Committee as the Secretary General, Xi Jinping spoke to members of the top decision-making body – about the lessons that needed to be learned. “Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why did the Soviet party lose power?” he asked rhetorically.

He said one of the top lessons was “historical nihilism” and “ideological confusion” among party members. Xi said the total denunciation of the achievements of the Soviet Union, Lenin, Stalin and the party itself led to ideological confusion and resulted in the paralysis of the party structure – as well as the loss of control over the armed forces.

Since coming to power, Xi has embarked on one of the most fierce ideological campaigns to purify the party since China’s successful opening up and reform campaign of the late 1970s.  The party is re-emphasising its authority over every facet of the country – from neighbourhood committees to the boardrooms of the country’s tech giants.

“Party and government, military, civilian and learning – east, west, south, north and centre – the party is leader of all,” says Xi, the supreme leader.  Though the country’s 100 million party members no longer need to study Mao’s red books, they are learning about the party’s history and philosophy on their mobile phones.

Xi’s campaign to reassert the party’s prominence is a point that is made strongly in a six-episode official documentary released 10 years ago, which featured a large number of former senior Soviet party leaders, including politburo members. The producer of the series is deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top government think tank.

The documentary argues that one of the key factors leading to the downfall of the Soviet party was the voluntary surrendering of its political power which culminated in the amendment of Article Six of the Soviet Constitution – the article that legally entrenched the Soviet Communist Party’s monopoly over political power.

In the eyes of the Chinese Communists, an irredeemable folly.

On historical nihilism, Gorbachev’s “ideological confusion” was traced back to the 20th party congress, when Khrushchev denounced Stalinism. The Chinese Communists see this as the turning point; the point at which the seeds of future destruction were sown.

Apart from the need to have absolute control over the political power, the most important lesson for the CCP from the Soviets is the need to make the economy work.

These days, this may seem like a given. But this recommendation was made only a few years after the Tiananmen crackdown, when hardliners wanted to stop further economic reform. Scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argue the vitality of any political system is dependent on its ability to increase national power and improve citizens’ living standards. The socialist system is no exception.

Turning a once-backward agrarian economy into the world’s second-most powerful economy within striking distance of displacing the US is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Chinese Communists. They appreciate that the sclerosis of the Soviet system was largely due to an inefficient economic system, and they have sought to avoid the same fate.

They have constantly experimented between control and private sector dynamism in an effort to find the winning formula. Paradoxically, they have somehow managed to let entrepreneurship of the Chinese people to flourish within a closed political system.

A corollary point made by the scholars is the necessity of continued reform. However, they were at pains to emphasis they were not talking about Gorbachev’s “misguided’ political reform.

Reform, in the Chinese political lexicon, and as a lesson learnt from the demise of the Soviets, is about changing the country’s economic structure and relations within the country’s socialist political system. For the Chinese communists, where their Soviet brethren went wrong was putting political reform before economic change.

The remarkable longevity and success of the Chinese Communist Party can at least partly be attributed to its capacity for reinvention, and its willingness to learn from the past. As the CCP celebrates its centennial, the collapse of the Soviet empire will continue to serve as a reminder of the fragility of power – even as the party might currently appear more invincible than ever.