The Bolsheviks in Beijing

What the Chinese Communist Party Learned From Lenin

A poster with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai, China, September 2017. Aly Song / REUTERS

This week, after months of factional jockeying, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues will convene the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress. At the conclave's end, Xi will walk into a cavernous room in the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, flanked by China’s new rulers.

Xi and his colleagues head the bureaucracies that manage China's economy, military, propaganda apparatus, and security organs. But on this occasion, they will appear in their most important capacity: as the members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. This group will govern China until the next party congress, in 2022.

For party leaders, this week marks another half decade in power. But it will also bring a different anniversary, which Beijing will greet without fanfare. The 19th Party Congress falls on the eve of the centenary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, the movement that led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

China's leaders are attentive students of Soviet history, and the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state they built are both a model and a cautionary tale for the Chinese Communist Party. Memories of the Soviet collapse—the trauma of toppled statues, indigent apparatchiks, and secret archives opened to public scrutiny—steel party leaders’ determination to retain power.

In 2009, when Xi was the headmaster of the Central Party School, a position that served as a steppingstone to the top, he commissioned a sprawling study of the Soviet collapse. Its conclusion: the Soviet Communist Party’s failure to dominate the institutions underpinning its power, such as the military, spelled its doom. “Why must we unwaveringly assert our party's control over the military?” Xi asked an audience at a private party meeting three years later. “Because,” he said, “this is the lesson the Soviet collapse teaches. The Soviet Red Army was depoliticized and departyized, becoming a national institution, and so the Soviet Communist Party surrendered its weapons. When those who wished to save the Soviet Union did step forward, the instrument

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