One reason is simply economic. The meltdown has been described by many — including then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, years later — as a turning point, the event that ultimately triggered the fall of the Iron Curtain. Reality is more complex. Soviet Russia was stagnating and in near-irreversible decline by 1986, when a sharp drop in oil prices left it desperately short of hard-currency earnings. Figures vary, but academic estimates put gross domestic product growth at less than 1% around that time; productivity was dismal. China’s economic expansion may be slowing, it’s still nowhere near this parlous state. A comparison with 2003 also suggests that consumption should bounce back, even if other, trade war-related drags on the economy remain.
Consider, too, the political differences. By 1986, Moscow was ready for a shake-up. Gorbachev had ascended to power a year earlier, and by the time of the accident had already spoken of the need for perestroika, or economic restructuring, and glasnost, roughly translated as openness. He nevertheless managed to use the Chernobyl incident to edge out old-school, Brezhnev-era politburo members like Vladimir Shcherbitsky, head of the Ukrainian Communist party. It was the excuse he needed to accelerate his plans.
There’s no evidence of such winds of change in Beijing, even if it’s noteworthy that officials are being placed in positions that make them potential lightning rods for public anger. Premier Li Keqiang is the head of the team in charge of containing the outbreak, not President Xi Jinping.