How China responded to the USSR’s collapse

Zhang Weiwei translating at a meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Ghana’s then president Jerry Rawlings


In December 1991 the USSR collapsed. This was the conclusion of a huge victory for capitalism and changed the entire world situation. A decisive question was therefore how the most powerful remaining socialist country, China, would respond. There was no significant delay in finding out. In January and February 1992 Deng Xiaoping made a famous “Southern Tour” within China which defined China’s response to USSR’s collapse.

The following interview on this crucial moment is fascinating as it gives a first-hand account of this response by China’s top leadership by Zhang Weiwei – who was at that time Deng Xiaoping’s interpreter and is now one of the most influential political analysts in China. The interview on this crucial historical moment was carried by – the most influential non-state political  website in China.

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Thirty years ago, in 1992, China came to a crucial historical juncture about where it was heading.  From January 18 to February 21, Deng Xiaoping, the second-generation leader of China, and the chief architect of China’s reform and opening up, visited Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai [a trip known in China as his “Southern Tour”]. 

Deng Xiaoping [on the Southern Tour] made several important speeches and conversations. He put forward-looking assertions that are familiar now in China. They included, “reform and opening-up should be bolder”, “that the signature must be ‘community’ not ‘capital'”, and that “science and technology are the primary productive forces”.

These assertions highlighted and defined the direction for China’s Reform and Opening Up for the following 30 years and are familiar in China.

By 2022, [thirty years later] China has grown spectacularly to become the world’s second-largest economy. After experiencing the Covid epidemic’s impact, the global pattern of development will also undergo major changes.

With the development of the most major changes in a century which are taking place now [China’s official characterisation of the present global situation], China has once again reached a major historical juncture. Consequently, it is very important to revisit Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour of 30 years ago.

Interview to Zhan Weiwei: Deng Xiaoping made his Southern Tour from January 18 to February 21, 1992. It was a very turbulent point in time, with disputes over reform inside and outside China following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Could you please tell us in detail about the domestic and foreign environment that was faced before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, and what potential crises were there? Why did Comrade Deng Xiaoping choose to talk in the south at this time?

Zhang Weiwei: The external environment at that time was indeed extremely severe. A series of drastic changes occurred in Eastern Europe in 1990. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the red flag of the Soviet Union fell, the Western world cheered. The Japanese American political scientist Fukuyama became famous because his theory of “the end of history” [which claimed all countries would now adopt capitalism] was claimed to be confirmed.

Inside China, pessimism was spreading, and many people doubted how long the red flag [of socialism] would last. The corruption of many senior cadres also started at this time. As a result, many people panicked, believing that further reform and opening up could lead to capitalism. As a result, many reforms and opening-up measures stalled, and China’s economic development rate declined.

But at this time, Deng Xiaoping showed his extraordinary ability and admirable foresight. Four months before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that is, on August 20, 1991 [with the success of Yeltsin’s overthrow of socialism in Russia], he pointed out: “the world is turning, and this is our opportunity”. Deng Xiaoping saw an opportunity to push forward with socialism with Chinese characteristics.

However, he felt that many people around him still couldn’t see the situation for various reasons. I think Deng Xiaoping was anxious. He was a man who had commanded thousands of troops. He knew very well what a fighter was and when an opportunity must not be lost and might never come back. Therefore, only 20 days after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he began to inspect the South of China.

Deng Xiaoping had something to say. He called for upholding socialism, promoting Reform and Opening up on a larger scale, embracing the socialist market economy more bravely, and substantially improving people’s living standards. These ideas would ensure that socialism with Chinese characteristics would succeed.

Deng Xiaoping is probably the senior Chinese leader who knew the Soviet Union, and the Soviet model, most closely. He studied in the Soviet Union for nearly a year in 1926 and visited the Soviet Union seven times after 1949, where he met almost all the top leaders of the USSR and Eastern Europe. His basic judgment was that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe failed economically, and with it the people’s living standards stagnated. These developments also shook the Soviet leaders’ belief in socialism.

As a result, Deng Xiaoping repeatedly emphasized in the Southern Tour that: “failure to adhere to socialism, to reform and opening up, to develop the economy, and to improve people’s lives will only lead to a dead end.” China’s subsequent rapid rise is a testament to Deng Xiaoping’s vision, responsibility and courage.

Through China’s unremitting efforts it has become the world’s largest economy (in terms of purchasing power parity – PPPs) and the largest country in trade; China has eliminated extreme poverty and formed the world’s largest middle class. Although its level is still uneven, China has  achieved universal pension and universal medical insurance – even the United States has not overcome unevenness in these areas.

China has also reached the first rank of the fourth industrial revolution. Thirty years ago, the world generally looked down on the socialist system, but today it is different. The world is generally optimistic about the advantages of China’s system. But, of course, notwithstanding the West’s helplessness, the more successful China is, the more the West will attack it. question. In your contact with Comrade Deng Xiaoping, what are his thoughts on China’s Reform and Opening Up that impressed you?

Zhang Weiwei: I was particularly impressed by his discussion of the Opening-Up policy. In the mid-1980s, when many leaders from developing countries saw Deng Xiaoping, they asked him how to deal with the West and with globalization.

If we look around the world, many countries are also open to the outside world, but very few are successful. They “opened up”, but often they did not really “use” foreign capital: the economic lifeline of these entire countries was controlled by Western capital, and Wall Street financial predators looted the wealth of these countries and their people.

But the situation in China is different. China has a political system, a national defence system, and a scientific research system completely independent of the West. Moreover, China has its own unique history and cultural heritage; including great social revolutions such as women’s liberation, land reform, and popularization of education.

Deng Xiaoping firmly believed that China was capable of seeking advantages and avoiding disadvantages in opening up, drawing on the strengths of the outside world, while maintaining China’s own autonomy.

Deng Xiaoping believed that China should vigorously “use” foreign capital, but that “foreign capital” could only be a supplement to China’s socialist economy and a complement to China’s overall strength. To strengthen China and finally advance beyond the West Deng Xiaoping has pointed out many times: “The international market is already full, and it is not easy to enter. Only socialism can save China, only socialism can develop China… Without socialism, China will have no future.”

Deng Xiaoping was so confident in Chinese socialism that in November 1989 he told visiting foreign guests, “One Cold War has ended, and two other Cold Wars have begun. One is against the entire South and the Third World, and the other is against the whole of the South and Third World socialism. Western countries are fighting a third world war without gunpowder smoke. … China insists on socialism and will not change. As long as Chinese socialism does not fall, socialism will always stand in the world.”

The rise of China has fully confirmed Deng Xiaoping’s judgment, and now American capitalism is beginning to fear. In fact, until today, some people still think that “market economy is capitalism”, including some overseas remarks against China, and they will also question that China’s market economy is not socialist, and label it “state capitalism”.

In opposition to this view, some say that China’s market economy is not ”pure”, and China’s suppression of the private economy is questioned from time to time. Standing at the forefront of today’s reform, how should we straighten out the problem of understanding “capitalism” and “socialism”

Zhang Weiwei: I have always believed that many people in the West like to apply labels indiscriminately, and many opinions are not worth refuting. Calling socialism with Chinese characteristics state capitalism is as comical as calling today’s American capitalism “American-style socialism.” The U.S. government’s current intervention in the economy may surprise the world’s most liberal economists.

Chinese socialism has at least three characteristics: first, that state ownership dominates; second, the vast majority of people benefit from the country’s development; third, there is a political force that represents the overall interests of the people. Each of these three points stands in stark contrast to the American capitalist model.

China’s socialist market economy is unique. Although it is still being perfected, it has already created China’s overall rise and greatly improved the Chinese people’s living standards. Under the premise of public ownership, giving full play to the enthusiasm of the state-owned economy and the private economy at the same time, is one of the most outstanding aspects of this model.

Today, China enjoys the most developed Internet applications in the world, far ahead of the United States. These achievements are based on the advantages of the Chinese model. By contrast, private companies in the United States are reluctant to invest in the construction of telecommunication base station networks in predominantly rural areas. This is because such investment may not pay off for a long time. At the same time, Chinese state-owned enterprises have undertaken the mission of building communication base station networks to all villages, which is also part of China’s efforts to achieve common prosperity.

The government has also invested in the construction of the world’s largest and best high-speed rail system, expressway network, and road projects connecting villages to villages. Consequently, China has become the only country in the world where “one mobile phone can do everything”. Are the achievements of today’s reform and opening up consistent with Deng Xiaoping’s expectations? 

Zhang Weiwei: It should be said that China’s achievements are even higher than Deng Xiaoping’s expectations. I remember on September 18, 1985 Deng Xiaoping met with Ghana’s then head of state, Jerry Rawlings. Rawlings said he visited China for a few days and saw huge positive changes taking place in China. Deng Xiaoping said that what you see now are only small changes, and he went on to use the words “small changes, medium changes, and big changes” to summarize China’s present and future in his eyes.

Here’s what Deng said: “Now people say that China has undergone significant changes. But I told some foreign guests, this is just a small change. Quadrupling [the size of China’s economy] to reach the level of a moderately prosperous society can be said to be a medium change. However, by the middle of the next [21st] century, if China can approach the level of developed countries globally then it will be a big change. At that time, the weight and role of socialist China will be different, and we will be able to make a greater contribution to humanity.”

Today, more than 40 years after “reform and opening up” began, these goals proposed by Deng Xiaoping have been achieved ahead of schedule: China’s economically developed sector today, which includes a population of more than 400 million, surpasses the population of the United States, and has achieved “great changes”. Today it can be said that the entire country has achieved “medium change”.

According to the goal set by the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the country will basically achieve modernization by 2035, which should be roughly what Deng Xiaoping expected for China in 2050, that is, the “big change” of the entire country. This kind of process from “small changes” to “medium changes” to “big changes”, has shocked the whole world, and in a sense, it is the most significant driving force for “big changes unseen in a century”. What are the characteristics of Deng Xiaoping as an individual?

Zhang Weiwei: Deng Xiaoping’s perseverance and open-mindedness impressed me the most. He liked to ask sharp questions, and he liked to face them head-on. He was very open-minded and thorough when discussing issues, and his speaking style was concise and powerful. Before meeting with foreign guests, the leaders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would give him a brief report. After that, he usually asked a few questions, interacted with others, then lit a cigarette and silently looked ahead, waiting for the foreign guests to arrive. The image of this thinker has been fixed in my mind, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I have the same view of his evaluation of people. If he said, “this person has a brain,” it was one of his highest evaluations of people. What inspiration does the life experience of the older generation of revolutionaries like Deng Xiaoping have for today’s younger generation?

Zhang Weiwei: The older generation of revolutionaries, including Deng Xiaoping, were all post-1890s and post-1900s in their era. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were post-1890s in that era. Mao Zedong was born in 1893, and Zhou Enlai was born in 1898; Deng Xiaoping was born in 1904. They were very young at that time [when they entered politics], but they were all doing great things to change China’s destiny. They were a group of young people with steel-like will and unwavering determination.

Almost all of them climbed out of a mountain of death and were the only remaining fruits of the Chinese revolution. They were leaders who have completely reversed China’s declining national fortune with their sacrifice, responsibility and foresight. What made their cause great was that no matter what setbacks they encountered, they were always strong-willed and believing that the interests of the people overwhelmed everything else. Our younger generation can gain tremendous spiritual strength and life inspiration from their enduring life experiences.

This article was originally published in Chinese by