China reacts to Gorbachev’s death, denouncing the fall of the Soviet Union

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Deified in the West for ending the Cold War, Mikhail S. Gorbachev is viewed in China as the man who brought misfortune to his own people and blithely dismantled a great socialist nation, in a cautionary tale of failed leadership that Chinese Communist Party officials have obsessively studied for decades.

State media on Wednesday reported Gorbachev’s death only in short articles and brief biographies, which noted only his date of birth and titles and alluded to his legacy as “the first and last President of the Soviet Union.” The State Department expressed its condolences to his family, noting in its regular press briefing on Wednesday that he had made “active contributions to the normalization” of relations.

However, the reaction was more extreme on social media, with netizens dubbing the former leader the “villain of the story”.

“Gorbachev brought disaster not only to the people of the Soviet Union but to the entire world,” Xiang Ligang, a current events and politics commentator, said on Weibo, blaming Russia’s war in Ukraine for the post-war economic and security impact collapse of the Soviet Union. “This catastrophe continues to this day,” he wrote.

Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the Soviet Union, dies at the age of 91

Hu Xijin, former editor of the Global Times and an influential commentator, called Gorbachev “one of the most controversial leaders in the world” in a post on Twitter, banned in China but used by state media and diplomats to target Western audiences . “He gained great recognition in the West by selling his homeland’s interests.”

The vilification of Gorbachev underscores the efforts made by the party and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to chart a different path from the reformist Soviet leader. Xi – who is expected to begin an unprecedented third term as party leader at a congress in October – has regained state control of the economy, established personal control of the military, ordered a renewed commitment to communist ideology and sought to root out foreign influence.

“The Chinese Communist Party is very critical of her [Gorbachev]because he thinks he betrayed the Soviet Union,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.

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Within China, historians have long debated whether structural problems or the individual choices of leaders like Gorbachev caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shortly after taking power in 2012, Xi appeared to side with blaming Gorbachev in a speech circulated among officials but not in state media.

“It only took one word from Gorbachev to explain the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and a major party just disappeared,” he said, according to leaked summaries of his statements at the time. “In the end, there was none man enough to stand up and resist.”

The cadres were ordered to watch a six-part documentary on the collapse of the Soviet Union focusing on the “bitter lessons” of Gorbachev’s leadership – which was re-released in July.

Another documentary about Gorbachev was re-released on social media on Wednesday, with commentators adding to criticism of the former leader. “A historical public figure who has finally made history himself,” commented one. “Rulers of a ruined nation,” concluded another.

Ahead of the crucial party congress, there is little sign that Xi’s position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong will be challenged. Though Gorbachev’s death does little to jeopardize the party’s pre-meeting reputation, it comes at an awkward time.

The Chinese leadership faces challenges in the form of rising unemployment, a flagging real estate market, drought and a strict “zero Covid” policy that continues to subject cities and counties to sudden lockdowns and hurt the economy.

Meanwhile, Xi’s burgeoning partnership with Russia and Beijing’s refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine have drawn international criticism. Chinese forces will join Russian troops in a series of exercises this week.

“There is a possibility that people who are feeling particularly audacious may use this commemoration of his death to directly or indirectly criticize Xi Jinping,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor specializing in Russia and China at American University.

For some in China, Gorbachev was a leader whose life and achievements should be respected. Others may remember his visit in 1989, when he was idolized by student protesters who gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “Go in peace,” netizens wrote among search results for Gorbachev’s name on Baidu’s search engine on Wednesday.

Still, the vast majority of people are likely to be unaffected by his death. “From the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s until now, many people probably don’t even know who he is,” Shi said.

Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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