24 March, 2023


What Happened 30 Years Ago In The Soviet Union? Will It Happen In China?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

The first ‘communist’ system in the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago. On the Christmas day, Michael Gorbachev resigned and dissolved the Soviet Union! Cuba survived, Vietnam survived, China survived and if we consider North Korea to be communist (!), it also survived, but all with considerable stress and strain.

The Eastern European ‘communist’ systems in Poland, East-Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania also collapsed, some even before the Soviet Union. It was like a ‘domino effect.’ Two years before, on 17 December 1989, when the ‘velvet revolution’ started in Czechoslovakia, I was there observing the situation.

The absence of democracy and suppression of freedoms and human rights were the main reasons for these revolutions. People who rallied around the Wenceslas Square in Prague on the International Students’ Day chanted ‘Freedom, Freedom’ apart from other slogans that I couldn’t understand.

From Marxism or Leninism, the notion of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was the main reason that led to the corrupt, dictatorial, or authoritarian regimes in these countries. Strangely, the Soviet Union survived for 77 years but through suppressing and killing many (millions of) people who asked for freedoms and rights.

The ‘right to property’ of the people also was not allowed wrongfully equating it for capitalist exploitation, but politicians and bureaucrats could acquire wealth and power freely under the one-party systems.

The above are some reasons why some former Marxists or socialists increasingly leaned towards ‘social democracy’ before and after these events. Today, given the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental disasters under extreme capitalism, and growing economic crises due to the collapse of neo-liberalism, there are possibilities of rejuvenating social democracy in Europe, Eastern Europe, Americas, Australia, and in Asian countries. Germany today has given a probable lead.

One premise of social democracy is and should be enlightened liberalism. Even for China social democracy might be the only way out in the forthcoming future. It is said that for the last 30 years, China has been studying what happened to the Soviet Union to prevent such a thing happening in China.

Have they succeeded? Or will they succeed? These are the questions one should ask at this stage in reminiscing what happened to the Soviet Union. My present quick article was prompted by similar questions raised by Rebecca Armitage in her article in the ABC Business, Australia, titled “China studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and learned three lessons to avoid a similar fate.”[i]

What are these three lessons? (1) Embrace capitalism with Chinese characteristics. (2) Avoid Glasnost. (3) Watch the periphery.

By embracing capitalism, China has undoubtedly been able to develop the economy and uplift millions and millions of people out of poverty. Of course, Chinese people are thankful to the government for these achievements, particularly the older generation. However, it appears that the younger generations are different.

Because of these economic developments, income gaps have widened and a rich business class, with connections to the communist party, has emerged. Corruption is also a major ailment in China perhaps surpassing the Soviet Union before its collapse. China is also allowing big companies, including state companies, to exploit and cheat small and poor countries in Asia and Africa. Sri Lanka probably is one victim. These must be the Chinese characteristics of capitalism!

Many Chinese leaders consider Glasnost as the main reason for the Soviet collapse. This is a misreading for their convenience. The delay of Glasnost even in the Soviet Union was for the convenience of the leaders. People were in power particularly in the name of ‘one party, one class,’ conveniently went for secrecy and censorship.

At least ‘posteponny glasnost’ (gradual openness) should have started after Stalin or Khrushchev. China should learn that lesson, not the opposite. It is that opposite that China is now implementing in Hong Kong where there were freedoms and democracy before. This effort can easily boomerang on China.

Chinese leaders today strictly control the circulation of information in China. The state laws and technology are used for this purpose with a ‘Great Firewall.’ The Covid-19 pandemic is also used for this purpose. But there are loopholes. Many Chinese students studying in oversees universities pass some information. Even within the communist party, there are new low-ranking activists who are thirsty of information and freedom.

The leaders are obviously very jittery about the ‘West’ and more of their liberal values. Conspiracy theories are abundant. No doubt that the West, including Australia, is trying to pressure or influence China and the Chinese people both rightly and wrongly. Their undue pressure also can be a factor in the Chinese stubbornness.

The third consideration is the periphery. The Soviet Union proved Chinua Achebe’s proverb ‘things fall apart, center cannot hold.’ In the case of the Soviet Union or communism in Eastern Europe, the falling apart started three years before in 1989, from Poland, then Czechoslovakia, then Yugoslavia etc.

China is very sensitive about the situation. In the case of China, the centralized thinking is far beyond the Soviet Union given the country’s Asiatic despotic history. China can be considered more ‘homogeneous,’ compared to the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union the diversity was enormous. But Tibet and Xinjiang are different. Taiwan and Hong Kong are more different in a different manner. This is disregarding differences between Cantonese and Mandarin speakers.

Can China avoid the Soviet’s fate? Rebecca Armitage also raised this question. But my answer may be different to her. She considered China to be already older to Soviet Union, counted from 1922. But counted from 1917, the system survived for 74 years with atrocities, and China is still 72.

That is not the important point. Like the Soviet Union, China at present is spending enormous amounts of money for arms race, space race, foreign operations, and for the maintenance of the bureaucracy. Although the living standards of the people did increase impressively during the last three decades, now they have come to a slow pace or in some regions to a stagnant position.

But still the people must work extremely hard to earn their living. Look at the Chinese who work in Sri Lanka for Chinese companies. Leisure and entertainment are luxuries. Could it be another form of exploitation by the leaders and the bureaucracy? Although people still respect Xi Jinping, his lifelong Presidency is not something even some party members are appreciating.

Given the continuous and strict lockdowns under Covid-19 pandemic, people appear to be apprehensive in some regions. People in the mainland do not know much about Hong Kong. This is another reason for them to get more suspicious. China has a long history of peasant rebellions. Unless the communist party take a decision to make a course correction, the sleeping giant might rise internally.

[i] China studied the collapse of the Soviet Union and learned three lessons to avoid a similar fate (msn.com)

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Sooner the better. 1) Though China embraced Capitalism they do not have a system based on Capitalism with proper checks and balances. The transformation was purely development based in a way to get quickly rich. In the process China ended up cheating most of their trade partners.2) China is currently lost and confused between communism and Capitalism, which they partly embraced. 3) In the current age avoiding Glasnost is an impossible task. The government for time being may try censoring, suppressing, punishing media for exposing facts and other illegal measures , but will never succeed long term. More they do the repercussion too will be worse. 4) Watch the periphery is what the Chinese government is , now actively involved. 5) All the muscle flexing, anti west theatrics , boasting are to feed those disgruntled citizens with a pseudo nationalism/ false pride (exactly what our government is copying), hoping to keep the country united. 6) Bankrupt Soviet Union tried this in past with their “cold war” theatrics but couldn’t last long. 7) Otherwise it is nothing but corrupt, dictatorial, authoritarian regime. 8) If you thought N.Korea is a communist country, then China is as same as N.Korea except for their development, primarily aided by it’s western trading partners and by cheating the poor. (Africa/Asia).

    • 4

      Dr. Lak: China is a rising power, not a declining one! ALso China has its Development priorities right and raised half a billion people out of poverty in a couple of decades – a small miracle!
      The question should be: can US survive the crash of its empire Despite its 800 military bases and plans for Digital Colonialism, Financial Colonialism and looting of the Global South with a Covid-19 mask.

      People in Lanka today have NO food, vegitables, milk powder, but the country is flooded plenty of expensive Pfizer injections – 40 USD each – which the US citizen first Families Goat and Basil Rajapakse Regime have bought and are forcing on the reluctant and starving masses..?
      If you have no bread and cake, take a mRNA Covid injection?!!

  • 4

    The Soviet Union was vastly different from today’s China. The USSR tightly controlled everything from the music to which its citizens listened to the size of their houses and what they saw on TV. It spent a lot on defence, quite justifiably. In the 70’s, China was less developed than the Soviet Union, and viewed it as practising a heretical form of Communism. But eventually, both took up Capitalism. There is little difference between China and Russia today, except for economically and the absence of Party control in Russia, though one could say another Party runs Russia.
    China has never been a real democracy, rather like Saudi Arabia. In both places, some people are rich, but most are satisfied because there isn’t any real economic difficulty. If you know not to push the limits, you won’t get in trouble. So who wants Western style democracy? Singapore with Chinese characteristics?

  • 4

    Nothing is permanent.
    But analogy with the USSR should also take into account the differences in the objective realities.
    Parallels should be based on concrete facts and matching circumstances.
    The US is desperate Its every attempt to build alliances has, at best, not achieved much and some harmed the US (as in the case of AUKUS and relations with France).
    It has overplayed its hand in Latin America and its apparent success in reversing the ‘pink tide’ a decade ago has now reversed.
    Iran is no more a pushover by any stretch of imagination, after the Afghan fiasco.
    What happens to and in the US in the coming years will be decisive.

  • 2

    Marxist Leninism was no longer the ideology of China. If at all there is an ideology, it is the Socialist market Economy which is a variant of capitalism, not of communism.

    As the name suggests it an economic ideology that recognizes market to regulate economic decision making process.

    The people liberation army and the Communist Party of China are the two major actors that unify China. The Army is not under a civilian leadership.

    The relationship between the party and the army is volatile and the market cannot function under a dictatorial environment and therefore China is likely disintegrate with warring factions emerging resulting in all round instability.

  • 1

    Comparison is simply odious. Particularly with two different political systems riveted by four leaders of altogether contrasting dispositions – Lenin and Stalin; Mao and Deng . What Marx foresaw was a revolution to occur in the most advanced capitalist country, Germany and led by workers. But this was not to be. It broke out in the chain where the weakest link gave way. That was in Russia.
    China had the benefit of Mao who correctly and pragmatically assigned the revolutionary role to the peasantry, the preponderant revolutionary force in China. Stalin succeeding Lenin was a disaster as foreseen by the latter. Mao consolidated his hold for very nearly six decades – pre and post revolution in China. China also had the benefit of Deng’s pragmatic leadership for nearly a quarter century. The world has never seen such Himalayan development except in China.
    Very significantly, Russia benefited from from the greatness of Gorbachev’s policy of openness and democracy.
    Contrasting courses are not going to yield the same results in the same time frame.

    • 2

      “Russia benefited from from the greatness of Gorbachev’s policy of openness and democracy.”
      Do you mean the collapse of the USSR?
      It took some years of ruin under, what’s his name, Yeltsin before Putin put the house in order and stood up to the US.

  • 3

    To me, the collapse of USSR was the culmination of a very smart schematic process designed by hundreds of sharp minds and led by the world’s top cop in the 80s – Reagan. He used these main actors to stage his drama and to cease the cold war, break the Berlin wall and see the end of the USSR.
    1. Lech Walesa
    2. Pope John Paul ll
    3. George Shultz
    4. Last but not least – M Gorbachev
    Now who will replace these 5 people in the 20s to see the collapse of the CCP (or China) in the event (if) it is feasible at all??

  • 1

    Will not happen.

    Soviet Union collapsed along ethnic lines. So did Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

    China is mono-ethnic so it will not collapse.

    India will collapse into ethnic nations before that.

    • 1

      “China is mono-ethnic”
      One more gem!

  • 0

    Interesting topic

    another interestin topic. Given the polarization in the US would there be a military coup in the US. Some generals think so.

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