The death of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on 30 August has sparked reflections in China about his failed reforms and the fall of the Soviet Union.
In terms of geopolitics, international competition and national security, the collapse of the once-fearsome empire was a boon for the West and neighbouring China.
For China, the crumbling of "the polar bear", its great neighbour to the north who often invaded its territory and was always a bugbear, removed the heavy military pressure that China faced and brought about a peaceful environment for China’s economic development.
However, as a living example of the death of a party and country, Russia’s historical setback is a lesson for China, especially the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
For such a big party and country to collapse just like that with no hope for rescue, the pain was overwhelming.
China's interpretation of the empire's fall
From China’s perspective, an assessment of this chapter in Russia’s history would centre around its ideology. China once heavily criticised the Soviet Union’s revisionism and made calls to bring down this social imperialist. However, many Chinese did not cheer when the Soviet Union fell, as they might have, seeing the US face disaster.
On the contrary, there was an empathetic sense of sadness and loss, like seeing the sudden downfall of an older brother or comrade. For such a big party and country to collapse just like that with no hope for rescue, the pain was overwhelming.
How did the huge Soviet Union suddenly meet the death of its party and country? How did the Russian people face this historical setback? There would be multiple interpretations in China.
Undeniably, Gorbachev’s political misjudgement and failed reforms while he was at the helm, were direct factors contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But for a large empire to fall like a house of cards, the causes run deep.
Some believed that there was no saving the Soviet Union from its demise because of the loss of ideals and beliefs.
... the Soviet’s downfall cannot be simply explained by “loss” [of beliefs], which in itself, is a consequence.
In fact, ideological indoctrination and propaganda were crucial in controlling Soviet society since the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union.
As 70 years of indoctrination and propaganda control ran deep and thorough, it was initially effective, and led to an unshakeable belief in its ideology, so much so that the fervent crusade swept half the globe and found countless devotees. However, this was soon followed by the loss of ideals and beliefs. Therefore, the Soviet’s downfall cannot be simply explained by “loss”, which in itself, is a consequence.
It is because it is false and deviates from the truth that the Soviet people eventually lost their ideals and beliefs.
Propping up unsustainable falsehoods
Ideals cannot feed you. The positive effects of relying on spiritual indoctrination to compensate for material deprivation, or on barriers like the Berlin Wall to close off from the world, along with false propaganda to create an illusion of happiness, will eventually run out.
In China, someone recalled that nearing the end of the Cultural Revolution, people were worried that the happy days would cease once the great leader passed away. But when the country opened its doors, this myth was debunked.
It is because it is false and deviates from the truth that the Soviet people eventually lost their ideals and beliefs. Why should we pity the loss of false ideals and beliefs and an empire sustained by it? Why should we save it?
There is no lack of truly courageous and passionate men in any country and society, but what will they choose at this point in history? Will their courage be expressed as a gallant call that would unite all people to boldly abandon the old system? Or would they go against the tide of the times, continue to hold on to the outdated and flawed, and fight a futile battle?
When all men were unwilling to rise up and defend the existing system, the unpopularity of the Soviet system and social reality was evident.
Treating spiritual indoctrination and propaganda as the foundation of a nation and a magical tool for its protection is a major misconception of Bolshevik fundamentalism.
Lesson for China
The collapse of the Soviet Union — a historical setback for the Russian nation — could at least provide the following insights to China.
Ideological education and public opinion control are not invincible. Treating spiritual indoctrination and propaganda as the foundation of a nation and a magical tool for its protection is a major misconception of Bolshevik fundamentalism.
While ideological education and public opinion control may be temporarily effective, it is putting the cart before the horse. Prioritising the secondary ahead of the primary is no way to rule a country. Besides, this governance approach also runs counter to materialism, which is one of the three cornerstones of Bolshevik doctrine promising “Peace, Land and Bread”. Hence, it is self-contradictory and idealist.
Based on the materialist reflection theory that it worships, cognition is the reflection of objective reality. However, the one-sided propaganda that only reflects the good and not the bad, and the public opinion that distorts the truth and turns facts into fiction, are completely contradictory to the principle of the reflection theory.
Deng Xiaoping saw how misguided Soviet fundamentalism was and instead declared that development is the absolute principle and carried out reform and opening up. Developing the economy and improving people’s lives is the foundation of a nation, only then can the country and its political regime be safe and secure.
However, calls to return to fundamentalism in China in recent years have risen...
Staying on the right track
As a result of reform and opening up, China transformed from a poor and backward country into the world’s second largest economy after 40 years of development. Opening the country’s doors, liberating thoughts, developing a market economy, breaking through the barriers of the old system, relaxing social control, and stimulating social vitality are the reasons for this success.
However, calls to return to fundamentalism in China in recent years have risen, largely related to two perceptions. One, some people believe that the problems of China’s 40 years of reform and opening up arose because it deviated from fundamentalism, and returning to it is the only way to resolve these problems.
Two, others hastily deduced the lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse and consider the loss of ideals as a contributing factor to the country’s dissolution, but is in fact an outcome of the collapse. They naively believe that ideals determine all things and that a nation can be built on ideals. They are convinced that as long as ideals are passed down from generation to generation, the country will be forever secured. They cannot fathom that ideals could be lost nor the fundamental reason behind that loss.
Only by accurately understanding the lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and continuing on the path of reform and opening up that Deng had started can today’s China avoid repeating the mistakes of Russia’s historical setback, maintain economic development, social progress and national stability, and be on the right track to achieving national rejuvenation.
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