The big shifts in China and Russia – they’re very different

On March 17 2018, Xi Jinping was unanimously re-elected president for five years by the 2,970 deputies of the National People’s Congress of China. An improvement over 2013, when one MP voted against him and three others abstained.

On 18 March 2018, Vladimir Putin was re-elected President of Russia for six years by universal suffrage, with 76 per cent of the vote; a net gain compared to 2012 (63% of the vote).

Neither in China nor in Russia was the 1989 death of communist ideology replaced by a Montesquieu-style state based on the rule of law. The Tiananmen massacre on June 5, killed 10,000 people. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 did not claim a single victim.

The difference between the two great Eastern autocracies is that dissent is tolerated in Moscow but banned in Beijing. Russians can criticise their president in some newspapers or on social networks. In China this is impossible.

Does this indicate some iron law that dictates that there will be economic success in totalitarian countries but not in semi-despotic ones? Would this explain the fact that GNP per capita has increased 17-fold in the last 35 years in China while, apart from its oil income, the economy has stagnated in Russia during the same period?

No. The great gap between the two great Eastern nuclear powers is not due to the greater or lesser dilution of their authoritarianism. It is explained by the fact that, since 1989, China has not made a single strategic mistake, while the Russian strategy has been, at best, messy.

Politically, both Russia and China had been structured by their respective communist parties. In Moscow, Gorbachev and then Yeltsin destroyed this huge organisation that framed both the state and Russian society. But they failed to replace it with anything.

In Beijing, leaders have continued to strengthen the effectiveness of the Communist Party whose goal is now to better manage the new Chinese capitalist society. It was through the party structures that Xi Jinping’s grand purge against corruption (a million and a half arrests) took place.

Chinese leaders make fun of the original meaning of the words “communist” or “capitalist”. They are nationalists, for whom the only goal is the restoration of China as the leading Asian power – a rank it held at the beginning of the nineteenth century, before the Europeans, the Americans and the Japanese subjugated it to their own interests.

In creating a successor to communism, the party leaders chose a truly Chinese path. They relied on the trading and entrepreneurial skills of their population. Skills that had been repressed by Maoism, but which remained alive in the Chinese diaspora (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.). They maintained the state conglomerates while encouraging private enterprise to grow – not in competition with state enterprises but alongside them.

When facing foreigners they showed three different faces. First, that of a very underdeveloped country that the charitable West was to help. Second that of a friendly commercial power, respectful of the rules of the WTO and open to controlled technological transfers. Westerners took them at their word and the Chinese proceeded to engage in a gigantic technological plunder to become the great workshop of the world.

The third phase came with Xi Jinping – the consolidation of Chinese commercial hegemony with the “Silk Road” strategy towards a Europe that they will colonise step by step.

To replace communism, Russian leaders did exactly the opposite. They naively chose a path they saw as ‘Western’. They brought in ‘Harvard experts’ – economists who submitted Russia to catastrophic experiments. The whole industrial apparatus was privatised so hastily that it simply fell into the hands of mafia oligarchs who then tried to impose their views on the Kremlin.

Putin has restored order in the streets, the pre-eminence of central power over these new boyars, and Russia’s international prestige. But he has failed to build and strengthen the rule of law – something that would have allowed him to keep intellectuals and potential investors in Russia.

In foreign policy, he occupied Crimea but lost Ukraine and the Western banks. He has won in Syria, but what will that victory bring, in concrete terms, to the Russian population? He showcases new nuclear missiles, but to what real benefit? Putin deals in short-term tactics while Xi moves forward with a long-term strategy.

Faced with an America that despises them and a China that wants to devour them, Europeans have only one option: to understand Russian paranoia and then to heal it, before bringing Russia back into the European family. Pushing the Russians into the arms of the Chinese would be an extreme folly.

This article was first published in Le Figaro.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. paul barker says

    Interesting points but a ridiculous exageration of Chines success, the big reason China has grown so fast is that it was so poor before. China is having its Industrial Revolution & growth rates will gradually decline as they catch up with Europe/Japan/USA etc.
    My feeling is that a lot of the Chinese leaderships recent actions are pre-emptive, they are expecting a wave of popular dissent & are preparing for it with increased repression. The whole “Presidency for Life” meme is a message to the people : ” there will be no change – dont even ask.”

  2. Peter Arnold says

    A quibble – dissent is not tolerated in Russia. The whole point of a mafia-style state is that it controls the information the public gets, and it ruthlessly stifles all attempts at free speech. The death/murder/assassination of so many dissidents in recent years simply proves that Putin’s Russia is exactly the same as Tsarist Russia – no dissent, no free press, no effective opponents of the regime allowed a public platform, and no hope of change. Putin’s Russia, in these respects, is exactly the same as Xi’s China. The future is bleak for all of us, but if I have to choose, I would also try to deal with Russia. The people and the culture are wonderful; it’s the government that’s the basket-case.

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