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People wearing masks attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong People wearing masks attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, Feb. 7, 2020 (AP photo by Kin Cheung).

China’s Coronavirus Outbreak Exposes the Limits of Xi’s Centralized Power

Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020

Within weeks of taking power in late 2012, Xi Jinping reportedly began giving versions of a closed-door speech in which he urged members of the Chinese Communist Party to reflect on the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse, 21 years earlier. The purpose was unmistakably cautionary, and Xi, whom many observers then still believed might lead China as a liberalizing reformer, brought his own theory to the case:

“Why did the Soviet Communist Party lose its power?” Xi asked, according to Francois Bougon in his book, “Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping.”

“One of the main reasons is that the ideological struggle was intense, that the history of the USSR and of the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] had been completely denied, that Lenin had been rejected, as was Stalin, and that historical nihilism had run its course. Ideological confusion was everywhere. Almost no Party organ on any level had been of any use. The army wasn’t under the control of the Party. Finally, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was nevertheless a great party, was dissolved like a flock of sparrows. The Soviet Union, which had been a great socialist country, collapsed. This is the lesson we must learn from the errors of the past.”

In those early days of his rule, Xi also reportedly had party members view a three-hour documentary on the Soviet collapse, lending to the impression that he was obsessed with it. The Soviets’ surprising “original sin,” according to that documentary—as recounted by Bougon—had been Nikita Khrushchev’s criticism of Josef Stalin in a famous but then-secret speech in 1956. Stalin had died in 1953, and the film frames Khrushchev’s speech as opening the floodgates to the questioning of Marxist dogma and then to great self-doubt. That, in turn, had made the Soviet Union “ideologically hesitant,” according to Bougon’s summary of the documentary, placing it on the path toward a host of “destructive policies,” which eventually included “the introduction of a multi-party system, the authorization of NGOs, the liberalization of the media, the abandonment of control over the means of production, the privatization of public industries, and severing the link between the Party and the army.” ...

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