Where Is China's Gorbachev?

Why the country hasn't had -- and isn't likely to have -- a political reformer in the mold of the former Soviet leader.


Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meets then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in May 1989. (Reuters)

Last Saturday, veteran British journalist John Simpson wrote in The Guardian that he believed China to be "on the verge of radical change" under the leadership of new president Xi Jinping. Referring to his trip to the country in late 2012, Simpson noted how visitors to Beijing's hip "798" art area ignored a political speech on TV and how Zhu Rongji, once China's premier, felt comfortable enough to appear in public with his hair a natural gray -- in contrast to the dyed-black favored by most Chinese politicians. These impressions gave Simpson a sense of deja vu: "I had the feeling I had been here before," he wrote, "in the Soviet bloc in 1988"

The Guardian piece triggered a derisive reaction, with Shanghaiist dubbing it "the year's most naive op-ed on China."  But in Simpson's defense, he is simply the latest Westerner to fall for what might be called "the China Gorbachev syndrome." This affliction, to which politicians and policy professionals as well as journalists are susceptible, has accompanied every Chinese leadership transition dating back to the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union made it seem that China was next. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, after some initial fanfare, came and went without political reform. Now it's Xi Jinping's turn -- and speculation that he could be the one to change his country's political trajectory is there with him.

But the problem of the "Xi Jinping as Gorbachev" scenario is this: There's little evidence Xi has any interest in political reform. His much-publicized campaign against corruption seems to be more a superficial attempt to soothe public anger than an actual, systemic effort to root out government malfeasance. And, in his public appearances, the new president has carefully toed the Party line; in a recent speech, he even suggested that China's youth receive "Maoist indoctrination."

So, why does this "China Gorbachev" fantasy exist? One clue is in the vastly different way China and the West -- particularly the United States -- interpret the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the U.S. and Europe, Gorbachev is usually regarded as a heroic figure, a man whose reforms dismantled the "Evil Empire" and ushered in a brief period of democracy in Russia. But in China, Gorbachev is viewed as a disaster -- and a cautionary tale. "The Chinese Communist Party has, after many years of scrutinizing the causes of the Soviet collapse, concluded that it was precisely Gorbachev who precipitated it," says David Shambaugh, a George Washington University professor whose book, China's Communist Party: Atrophy & Adaptation, examines this question. "This is not to say that the Party didn't conclude other systemic factors played significant roles, but Gorbachev was considered the catalyst that triggered the implosion of the Soviet state."

Does Xi Jinping share this point of view? It's safe to say that the answer is yes, at least if this leaked speech from earlier this year is any indication:

Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, "the ruler's flag over the city tower" changed overnight. It's a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party's organizations on all levels. 

Why must we stand firm on the Party's leadership over the military? Because that's the lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union where the military was depoliticized, separated from the Party and nationalized, the party was disarmed. A few people tried to save the Soviet Union; they seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn't have the instruments to exert power. Yeltsin gave a speech standing on a tank, but the military made no response, keeping so-called "neutrality." Finally, Gorbachev announced the disbandment of the Soviet Communist Party in a blithe statement. A big Party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist. 

It's also easy to forget that China's reforms over the past three decades have been far more radical than anything Gorbachev proposed -- but that these reforms are more economic than political. A Chinese person in 1978 could not choose his profession, (in many cases) his spouse, or his city of residence. He could not own property or travel outside the country without government permission. Now, he can do all these things. Chinese people still cannot vote, of course, but the West's fixation on elections obscures just how much China has actually reformed. And given how poorly Moscow fared in the years after the Soviet collapse, Beijing can't be blamed for thinking their strategy -- economic reform before political reform -- was wise.

But in the long-term, if recent world history is any indication, most countries eventually democratize. A Chinese Gorbachev may not be in the cards just yet, but major political transformations can happen when people least expect it -- just as Gorbachev himself found out.