Gorbachev’s Glasnost and the Debate on Chinese Socialism among Chinese Sovietologists, 1985-1999

Gorbachev’s Glasnost and the Debate on Chinese Socialism among Chinese Sovietologists, 1985-1999Jie Li

Abstract: Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) was a popular topic in 1980s China. Existing scholarship remarks that Chinese Soviet-watchers admired Gorbachev’s programme as a model for China’s democratisation in the 1980s. However, after 1991, because of their impact on China’s pro-democracy movement, as perceived by the Chinese government, the same Chinese scholars consistently criticised Gorbachev and his liberalisation policies for being the fundamental catalysts in bringing down the USSR.

This paper suggests that the attractiveness of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy to 1980s Chinese Sovietologists was not because it symbolised Western-style democracy; instead, they embraced glasnost as a type of government-led democracy. The impact of Gorbachev’s policies after the mid-1980s can also be seen in Chinese scholars’ use of them to support the reformist General Secretary Zhao Ziyang in his power struggle against the Party conservatives leading up to the Tiananmen Incident. This paper further posits that Chinese scholars’ scorn for Gorbachev after Tiananmen was not primarily owing to his role in promoting democratisation; rather, it was because of Gorbachev’s soft line approach towards dissent when communism in Europe was on the verge of collapse. By drawing attention to Gorbachev’s soft line approach, Chinese critics justified China’s use of the Tiananmen crackdown and the brutal measures adopted by Deng Xiaoping to preserve socialist rule and social stability.

Keywords: Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, Chinese Sovietology, Tiananmen, contemporary China, post-communism