China’s Gorbachev Phobia
In the eyes of most leaders of the Communist Party of China, Mikhail Gorbachev committed the unforgivable crime of causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite more than three decades of success at avoiding a similar fate, China’s rulers are still spooked by his legacy.
CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – There was a time when well-meaning, if not wishful-thinking, Westerners thought that “China’s Gorbachev” was the highest compliment they could pay a Chinese leader who looked like a reformer. But when Zhu Rongji, the straight-talking mayor of Shanghai, visited the US in July 1990, and some Americans called him that, the future premier was not amused. “I am not China’s Gorbachev,” Zhu reportedly snapped. “I am China’s Zhu Rongji.”
We will never know what Zhu, widely admired for implementing key reforms in the 1990s and spearheading China’s successful efforts to join the World Trade Organization, really thought about Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who died on August 30. What we do know for certain is that, in the eyes of most leaders of the Communist Party of China, Gorbachev committed the unforgivable crime of causing the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the most practical level, the CPC’s vilification of Gorbachev makes little sense. Sino-Soviet relations improved dramatically during his six-year reign. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also a geopolitical boon to China. The lethal threat from the north nearly disappeared overnight, while Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet space, suddenly opened up, enabling China to project its power there. Most importantly, the end of the Cold War, for which Gorbachev deserves much credit, ushered in three decades of globalization that made China’s economic rise possible.
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