The History Lesson That is Being Ignored

For the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut writes about a meeting former President Jiang Zemin held with China’s Soviet historians to try to understand why the Soviet Union failed. In recent years, Garnaut argues, the lessons learned on that day have been ignored:

Jiang’s tutors, who included four historians and a recent ambassador to Moscow, spent half a day detailing how the Soviet Union had missed every opportunity to reform, so that by the time Mikhail Gorbachev arrived it was already far too late.

Jiang took copious notes and later cross-checked with historians at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, then the party’s International Department, and then ordered a senior official to impart the lessons to cadres of ministerial rank.

The intriguing thing about Jiang’s history lessons is that China’s leaders appear to have gone so far out of their way to ignore them since.

They have reverted to conspiratorial foreign policy; declared war on civil society and, perhaps most unsustainably, pushed back against the market economy. In short, the Chinese Communist Party has been busily rediscovering its Soviet DNA.

After three decades of reform China seems far too open, too dynamic, to follow the death spiral of the Soviet Union. But if the party continues its backwards march, analysts will be following Jiang back to the Finland Station, where Lenin got off the train to take charge of the Soviet revolution.

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