One of the questions often raised by analysts of the modern world is whether or not the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which grew out of the Soviet experience, any longer bears any resemblance to the former Soviet Union? The answer more often than not provided is a very simple ‘no’. As one writer recently put it there is not one way in which the contemporary PRC differs from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), but five! Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, and Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), may have struck up a strategic relationship over the years. But this, it has been argued, was and remains a partnership of convenience entered into by two unique ‘civilisations’ with opposed histories, distinct cultures and a very different relationship with the West.
Yet those who argue that there are few direct parallels between the two countries miss a great deal. This does not mean the PRC is an identikit model of the Soviet Union. But it is very difficult to understand China today without reference to the system out of which it grew. Indeed, under Xi that historical link has become ever more significant, and is likely to have – indeed in many ways is already having – a most disturbing impact on international politics.
Viva la difference!
The argument that the PRC has very little in common with the former Soviet Union certainly has a great deal going for it, especially when one compares the two economies. Consider these differences:
- The Soviets had little private sector; the PRC’s is huge;
- The Soviet Union was autarchic; the PRC clearly is not;
- The direct impact of the Soviets on the world market was near to zero; the PRC’s is immense;
- Nearly all economic decisions in the Soviet Union came about as a result of central planning; in the PRC the state plays a key role but does not plan in the same way;
- There were no Soviet billionaires; China has over two thousand;
- The Soviet rouble was worthless as an international currency; the yuan is an up-and-coming hard currency with what many believe is a bright future; and,
- Finally, whereas the modern Chinese economy has proven capable of competing with free and open countries, the Soviets never got close.
The Soviet Union and the contemporary PRC have also pursued rather different strategies abroad. Thus whereas Moscow until the 1990s supported other communist parties and backed national liberation movements in what was then termed the ‘Third World’, the PRC’s guiding ambition post-Mao has not been to pursue the goal of revolution but rather to extend its reach through economic engagement with other countries. Moreover, whereas the Soviet Union was heir to an imperial system and was itself expansionary, the PRC has been altogether more cautious. Of course, this has not prevented it from using or threatening force as the Vietnamese discovered back in 1979 and Taiwan is finding out now. But thus far its actions hardly compare to those taken by the Soviets which for over forty years maintained very direct control of a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe until they were forced to abandon them in 1989.
Ever since the PRC adopted the market at home and made a decisive move to integrate with the world economy, a number of writers have rather too easily fallen for the line that the PRC has either become a ‘post-communist’ or even a ‘post-ideological’ society. Yet, behind the impressive economic façade, there remains a political order underpinned by a definite set of ideas. While this may well have its own Chinese characteristics, it bears more than a passing resemblance to what used to exist in the former Soviet Union. Mao Zedong, the first Chairman of the CCP, may have passed from the scene, but the system he forged remains in being with the party continuing to play a leading role with the longer-term objective in Xi’s words of ‘building China into a great modern socialist country’.
Moreover, though the Chinese economy no longer operates in the same way as did the old USSR, it is still worth noting that not only does over a quarter of all production remain in the hands of the state, but that Xi has called upon the state sector to become even ‘stronger and bigger.’ As he made clear in 2020, ‘they form the economic and political foundation of China’s socialist system and are a key pillar for the [Communist] Party’s rule’.
Of course, Deng Xiaoping, former Paramount Leader of the PRC, did much to transform China. However, he always believed in the CCP and never once thought of abandoning Marxism-Leninism. Nor in true Soviet fashion did he ever drop his ideological guard when it came to Western democracies. Indeed, following the crisis occasioned by Tiananmen Square in 1989 his writings are peppered with all sorts of warnings about the dangers of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’ and what he termed the ‘wholesale westernisation of China’. It later became fashionable in the West to think that his successor, Hu Jintao, had abandoned ideology. But this hardly squares with Hu’s later call to place greater effort on translating and studying the ‘classic works of Marxism and publishing textbooks that could completely reflect the philosophy of Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory’.
Nor is this without its consequences. It is easy enough to argue that ideology in the PRC is a mere smokescreen and that economics trumps politics in a world where the PRC has to engage with and compete on the world market. However, this still does not explain the ideational prism through which the CCP looks at the outside world, particularly liberal-democratic nations that have close ties to the US, the PRC’s principal rival. Indeed, when official China discusses the US the gloves, quite literally, come off. Europe and the European Union (EU) appear to get something close to a free ride; even the US’s closest ally, the United Kingdom (UK), is more patronised than vilified. But not the US, which aside from being described as the ‘most belligerent country in the history of the world’ is frequently characterised as being one of the least democratic too, accompanied by bleak portrayals of American society wracked by poverty, racism, and social injustice, all of which have a distinctly Soviet feel.
It is also worthwhile dipping into the regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conferences held in Beijing. The bureaucratic formalism, the lack of spontaneity and the prepared questions asked by well-placed members of the press certainly make the whole thing feel very Soviet. So too does most of the content with praise heaped on the great leader – the cult of personality is still alive and well – combined with scathing attacks on the US for all manner of sin from trying to ‘smear’ the PRC to putting ill-considered ‘guardrails on the relationship’.
Decline of the West
This is hardly the first time in history that Beijing has played the anti-American card. Even so, there was a time when the official CCP line towards the US still assumed that while the PRC was developing there was much that it might be able to learn from the US. Indeed, Chinese citizens used to admire many aspects of the American way of life. But not any longer it would seem.
If anything the new CCP narrative is that there is nothing worth learning, and even less to admire, about the US and the international order it has created. Indeed, as the PRC has become more self-confident about its position in the world, the more it talks down the US and the West and the more it talks up the ‘East’. There is certainly a debate to be had about the liberal international order and its problems. But what is most striking about the new Chinese narrative is how much it resembles what was once being said in the old Soviet Union. Indeed, until the early 1970s the official view from Moscow was that it was only a matter of time before its vision of the world triumphed. The PRC today, like its Soviet predecessor, is convinced that the decadent West is on the way down and a new world order is in the making.
In the end all roads lead back to Xi, who has now been leader for over ten years with little to indicate he will be giving up power any time soon. Given the impact he has had it is hardly surprising that Xi has generated an enormous amount of interest, in large part because he has taken the PRC in a very different direction to that which many might have hoped. His ideas about the world and the PRC’s place in it clearly derives from his own experiences in the PRC, as well as his reading of China’s history.
But Xi’s worldview was not constructed in a historical vacuum. In fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a set of well-established ideas born in a different country and at a different point in time. Raised into what amounted to a Chinese communist aristocracy whose worldview was very much shaped by the Soviet Union, Xi grew up in and around the CCP and never showed anything but loyalty to it as he rose up through the ranks. As concerned to eradicate corruption from the CCP as he was to impose ideological discipline upon it, it was not insignificant that one of his main priorities was to reassess how the party had hitherto analysed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Xi in effect turned one narrative about the end of the Soviet Union on its head, positing that the cause of the collapse was not any major weaknesses within the Soviet system, as was previously believed, but rather the misplaced attempt to reform it. It was not Soviet socialism that was flawed, but rather the leaders who had abandoned the correct course laid down by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. The same, however, would not be happening to China, and to make sure that it did not, Xi saw it as vital to reinvigorate the CCP and counter any attempts to challenge its official history.
Xi’s rewriting of history was also accompanied by an increasingly close relationship with post-communist Russia. Earlier Chinese leaders had already mended Beijing’s broken fences with Moscow. But Xi took the relationship to a whole new level. It was not a coincidence as they say that his first official state visit was to Russia, a country led by a former member of the KGB who was as suspicious of the US as Xi himself. The two men also happened to share a similar if not identical view of what had happened in 1991. Both took the view that what had occurred was a disaster: Putin because it had undermined Russian power and Xi because it had weakened the then-socialist camp and may have gone on to threaten communist rule in China as well. Both also agreed that the disintegration of the USSR opened the door to a unipolar order dominated by the US against which they were resolutely opposed.
None of what has been said here is meant to imply that the history of another country has somehow trapped modern China or that the PRC does not have its own history. That said, the past and the various ways in which one socialist superpower that disappeared in the 20th century continues to shape the outlook of another one rising in the 21st can be hardly ignored. The dangers of using historical analogy or drawing lessons from the past to explain the present are often cited. But perhaps we need to be a little more open-minded and imaginative. Indeed, in thinking about the PRC’s present, and no doubt its future too, we should draw on William Faulkner, the great American novelist, who once said about history: ‘The past is never dead. It is not even past’. Faulkner made the remark as a way of making sense of the American South in the long shadow cast by the Civil War. We might recall his wise words when trying to make sense of modern China situated as it is in the equally long shadow cast by the former USSR.
Prof. Michael Cox is a Founding Director of LSE IDEAS and was Director of LSE IDEAS between 2008 and 2019.
Join our mailing list!
Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World