Understanding the shifting balance of social forces, interest groups and political factions is essential to see how China escaped the shock therapy that brought down the Soviet Union.
For three days in the middle of May 1989, the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing. It was the first visit by a Soviet leader to China since the Sino-Soviet split. It would be the last.
After Gorbachev went home, the two countries’ paths divided. Over the next two and a half years, the Soviet Union and its alliance system were dismembered. A world power was relegated to the status of a Eurasian spoiler with an outsized nuclear arsenal. As the apparatus of Soviet command was dismantled, the economies of the former Union and its allies imploded. People suffered a disastrous collapse in their standard of living. The life expectancy of Russian working-class men plunged.
China, by contrast, was on the path to Communist Party-led rocket-ship growth. National economic heft, a rising standard of living and political legitimacy all compounded each other to launch what Xi Jinping’s propagandists would dub the “China dream.”
Today, the race between China and the United States hogs the limelight. But China is unlikely ever to overtake the United States in per capita terms, and it is still trying to catch the U.S. in the absolute size of its economy. Russia, though, is the superpower that China already eclipsed.
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