‘Post-Communist’ Russia and China remain remarkably the same
For a Russian to live in Beijing is to experience time travel. Things long gone in Russia, or stuffed into kitschy theme bars to draw tourists, still appear in China with no sense of irony. There are endless displays of hammer-and-sickles, Red stars, and exhortations to Obey the Communist Party. There’s the rhetorical deification of the worker and the peasant. “Public-security volunteers,” elderly men and women with red arm-bands and a lot of time on their hands, lounge on little folding stools, sizing up passers-by. There are five-year plans, and front-page headlines screaming “Socialist path reaffirmed”. I thought I left all of this in the 1980s’ Leningrad. But no, it’s all still here in Beijing, instantly recognizable even behind Chinese characters that give it a new spin. All of which makes it tempting to think how Russia and China have changed over the last 20 years.
But in fact the opposite is true: their political systems remain remarkably similar. Both ditched Communism a while back. The only difference is Russia ditched the trappings while China held onto them. The system that emerged in both places operates with fewer overt ideological constraints but with a singular mission: the self-perpetuation of the ruling elite.
Oddly enough, the Chinese version might be slightly more pluralistic than the Russian one because Beijing focuses on the preservation of power in the hands of one party, while Moscow is obsessed with the preservation of power in the hands of one man. The Chinese have a history of tightly choreographed handovers of power from one crop of party leaders to the next. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been able to give the appearance of letting go of power only when he knows it’s coming straight back to him.
Behind their authoritarian facades, both Moscow and Beijing took pains to construct elaborate simulacrums of democracy, with parliaments and political parties furiously blowing smoke to keep the ruse alive. And so, in mid-March in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, nearly 3,000 parliamentarians elected Xi Jinping China’s new president. Only one person voted “no,” prompting speculation that the lone naysayer may have been the humble Xi himself. A year earlier, Russians had gone to the polls in a similarly superfluous electoral exercise that restored Putin to the Kremlin throne. That outcome had been pre-determined much earlier when Putin, inconvenienced by term limits, loaned the presidency to a figurehead – mentee Dmitry Medvedev — with the understanding it would be returned to him at the earliest legal opportunity.
Russia and China routinely slam Western-style democracy as an inefficient and needlessly rancorous form of government. So why do they go to such great lengths to emulate, if only superficially, a system they believe to be so bad? Autocrats rarely think of themselves as unwanted by those they rule. They must be seen to be carrying out the will of the people. And that kind of legitimacy can only come from elections, carefully controlled to eliminate surprises. Parliaments and most political parties in both China and Russia are undeclared extensions of the executive branch, as are the courts, and key media outlets. Retrofitted that way, these institutions of democracy become very useful tools in the hands of an autocratic government. The democratic camouflage also allows Russia and China to blend in on the international stage.
The neo-authoritarian systems honed in Beijing and Moscow are different from their old Communist iterations. Wholesale repression is no longer feasible, desirable or even necessary. Neither system faces a broad-based challenge, the recent street protests in Moscow and occasional pockets of unrest in China notwithstanding. Russia and China deal with those challenges by meting out targeted punishment, often grossly overreacting, to make an example of the rabble-rousers.
The middle class in both places has grown over the last two decades, giving its members a stake in preserving the status quo. Yet, along with increased disposable income comes the temerity to demand more government accountability. Both Russia and China have learned to handle those demands by perfecting the old Communist art of the political purge. In their anti-corruption campaigns, Beijing and Moscow regularly go after mid-level cadres and cast them overboard like ballast to keep the balloon of the system aloft. The beauty of the purge is that it allows the government to deal with corruption and official ineptitude without acknowledging that the problem might be systemic. And that is why media censors in Moscow and Beijing allow, even encourage, muckraking aimed at mid-level officials, but put their foot down when the criticism ventures beyond the acceptable boundaries and approaches the core of the political system itself.
On the economic front, both Russia and China have embraced national champions, state- controlled business giants in industries ranging from oil and gas to telecommunications. Besides giving Moscow and Beijing direct say over strategic and lucrative markets, these “state corporations” (to borrow the Russian term ) allow political leaders to spread patronage and assure loyalty of the business elites—a key way of maintaining power.
Another common feature of the Chinese and Russian political world views is their deepening suspicion of the U.S., and more broadly of the West. Moscow and Beijing detest the democracy-promotion and regime-change agenda pushed by Washington, and dislike America’s perceived meddling in what they consider their spheres of influence, in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and also in the Asia Pacific region — the focus of Washington’s recent foreign-policy pivot. The suspicion is mutual, for Washington increasingly views Beijing and Moscow as being if not outwardly hostile to American interests, then not particularly friendly either. All of this has pushed China and Russia closer, forming a neo-authoritarian axis that spans much of Eurasia. There are pragmatic reasons for this, too. Russia’s economy is fueled by exports of oil and gas; and China’s needs both to maintain growth. So it is no wonder that Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip since becoming president of China will be to Russia.
PHOTO: A trainee walks pass a communist party logo as he attends a training course at the communist party school called China Executive Leadership Academy of Pudong in Shanghai, September 24, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria