China and the Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Europe


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Claiming that China’s leftists had got it exactly backward, Deng Xiaoping maintained that it was not too much economic reform, but rather too little, that had led to the collapse of communism in Europe and the Soviet Union. He said that reform and opening up “must not be like a woman with bound feet”, but must “stride boldly forward”.

Soviet Union flag painted on a broken wall. Concept of the collapse of communism.
According to Deng Xiaoping, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Europe was due to inadequate economic reform. (Image: helloRuby/Shutterstock)

The Velvet Revolution

In the late summer and fall of 1989, the entire Soviet bloc erupted in turmoil, as a massive popular revolt against communism spread like a tsunami throughout eastern and central Europe. Chinese leaders watched in morbid fascination as the aptly named “Velvet Revolution” swept through the region, toppling Communist governments one after the other, from Berlin and Budapest to Prague and Warsaw. 

For the most part, these embattled regimes recognized the handwriting on the wall and left the stage peacefully. But there was one major exception. When the unyielding, hard-line Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu refused to relinquish power gracefully in mid-December, his government headquarters was besieged by angry mobs of Romanian citizens, forcing Ceausescu to flee for his life. 

Within days he was hunted down, captured, and executed by his own army. Half a world away, within the cloistered walls of Zhongnanhai, Ceausescu’s execution set off alarm bells.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Beijing’s Hard-Liners and the Story of East Europe’s Collapse

Seeking to assuage their own obvious discomfort and anxiety, Beijing’s hard-liners began to spin the story of east Europe’s collapse. According to their narrative storyline, it wasn’t the failure of communism that caused the collapse, but rather the reformist liberal programs of Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Gorbachev’s policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika”, they argued, had fueled massive popular demands for political and economic liberalization throughout the Soviet bloc. After coming to power in 1984, Gorbachev had indeed steered Soviet Russia toward becoming a more open and pluralistic society. Internationally, he ended the Cold War with the United States and pursued peaceful accommodation with China.

When Gorbachev let it be known in the spring of ’89 that he would not send Soviet troops and tanks to defend embattled communist regimes in east and central Europe, those regimes suddenly found themselves powerless to resist a rising tide of popular rebellion. 

Faced with a classic choice of fight or flight, most chose to flee. Romania’s Ceausescu was the sole exception, and he paid for his obstinacy with his life. Following Ceausescu’s execution, China’s traditionalists (conservatives) were increasingly blunt in their criticism of Gorbachev’s policies. 

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

Image of Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev was accused of abandoning socialism. (Image: White House photo office/Public domain)

Anti-Gorbachev Chorus

Chen Yun charged that “the weakness of Gorbachev’s ideological line is that it is pointing in the direction of surrender and retreat. Our party cannot afford to stand by and watch this happen.” General Wang Zhen also accused the Soviet leader of “abandoning socialism”.

Even the normally very cautious Jiang Zemin was moved to join the growing anti-Gorbachev chorus. Early in 1990, he claimed that the Soviet leader should be held personally responsible for the debacle in eastern Europe.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

As the anti-reform backlash gathered momentum in China, it was given an enormous boost by the stunning collapse of the Communist Mother Ship—the Soviet Union—in the fall of 1991.

Gorbachev had badly underestimated the growing mood of popular disaffection in Russia, and when he tried to reassert the Communist Party’s authority, he was ousted and replaced not by a communist but by a liberal democrat, Boris Yeltsin, as president. Thereafter, the Soviet Communist Party lost whatever remaining legitimacy it might have had, and the USSR simply collapsed. 

China’s diehard conservatives now drew a new lesson from the shocking collapse of the Soviet bloc. Even before the implosion of the Soviet Union, the hard-liners had begun to draw parallels between Gorbachev’s liberalization policies and those of Deng Xiaoping. Seeking to revive Mao Zedong mystique and the Maoist emphasis on class struggle, they openly attacked Deng’s reforms.

Learn more about Mao’s alignment with the Soviets.

Deng Liqun and Mao’s Ideologies

Early in 1991, one of Chen Yun’s conservative protégés, a sharp-tongued propagandist by the name of Deng Liqun, launched a nationwide campaign to publish a new edition of Mao Zedong’s works, with free copies to be distributed to every classroom in China. 

Calling for a sharp increase in political and ideological education and indoctrination, Deng Liqun promised to educate all Chinese students against the lure of Gorbachev-type pied pipers of pluralism.

He joined forces with General Wang Zhen to defend Mao’s decision to launch the Cultural Revolution, and they applauded Mao’s efforts to wage a life-and-death class struggle against the enemies of socialism.

Deng Xiaoping’s Disease and the Conservatives Attack

Deng hadn’t been seen in public since mid-February. One persistent rumor held that Deng had prostate cancer, another (which later proved to be correct) suggested that he had advanced Parkinson’s disease. 

With Deng’s health fading, conservatives saw an opportunity to ratchet up their attacks on his economic reforms. In journals controlled by the party’s leftwing propagandists, they began to openly refer to Deng’s promarket policies as “capitalistic reform and opening up”.

From the sidelines, an infirmed Deng Xiaoping watched uncomfortably as the hard-line offensive gathered momentum. Convinced that he had to act decisively to stem the growing leftist assault, Deng summoned his remaining energy to undertake what was to be the final, and perhaps the most important, political campaign of his entire career.

Common Questions about China and the Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Europe

Q: According to Deng Xiaoping, what caused the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Europe?

Deng Xiaoping believed that what led to the collapse of communism in Europe and the Soviet Union was inadequate economic reform. He noted that reforms shouldn’t be limited, but should have room for progress.

Q: How did China’s hard-liners tell the story of the collapse of communism in east Europe?

According to China’s hard-liners’ narrative storyline, it wasn’t the failure of communism that caused the collapse of east Europe, but rather the reformist liberal programs of Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Q: Who was Mikhail Gorbachev?

Mikhail Gorbachev was the final leader of the Soviet Union. He announced in the spring of 1989 that he wouldn’t send troops to help the communist regimes in eastern Europe. China’s conservatives blamed Gorbachev for being responsible for the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

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