Could Mikhail Gorbachev Have Saved the Soviet Union?

by Chris Miller, for Foreign Policy

Amid the thousands of protesters who assembled on China’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989, just weeks before the Chinese government sent troops to crush the demonstrations, one person held a placard that declared: “We Salute the Ambassador of Democracy.” The envoy that this protester saluted was neither an activist nor a dissident nor from a country renowned for human rights advocacy. It was Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who had arrived in Beijing on May 15, 1989, two weeks before the Chinese leadership’s fateful decision to send in troops. The type of democracy he offered was not Western-style liberal capitalism but market socialism. Chinese students took trains from far-flung provinces just to see him. Gorbachev inspired China’s protesters on Tiananmen Square because the Soviet leader’s struggle to refashion the Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy and authoritarian political system mirrored their efforts in China. Reformers in both countries, protesters believed, were fighting similar battles.

Gorbachev’s visit, which marked the restoration of normal relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, had been planned long in advance. But Beijing was unsure how to greet Gorbachev, the Soviet superstar. His meeting with Deng Xiaoping came as the Chinese leader was drawing his country away from central planning and toward a market economy. Moreover, it proved impossible for...

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