For Chinese leaders, Russia’s Gorbachev provided ‘textbook’ of what not to do

BEIJING – In much of the West, Mikhail Gorbachev is hailed as the far-sighted visionary who brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. But for leaders in other parts of the world, his legacy stands as a cautionary tale of power discarded quickly and, by some estimates, cavalierly.

This lesson has been taken most to heart in China, where Mr 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 USSR did as a textbook of how not to go about business,” said Professor Kerry Brown, a political historian at King’s College London and author of books about Xi’s China.

For a government terrified of the centrifugal forces that might spin away historically ethnically distinct regions like Tibet or Xinjiang, the plethora of independent 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 of Uighurs in Xinjiang. He has also heightened the glorification of the Communist Party, after a period of market reforms.

“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,” Prof Brown said.

At a seminar in 2013 dedicated to encouraging the communist spirit among party stalwarts, Mr Xi, the son of a party elder, called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a cautionary tale”.

“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.”

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.

The end of proxy battles between Moscow and Washington also allowed pro-democracy forces to eventually take hold in the place of long-ruling Western-backed authoritarians, such as Daniel arap Moi of Kenya and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as Congo.

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 favour a multipolar world, offer a less than enthusiastic appraisal of his legacy,” 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.” NYTIMES