Opinion

The Great Debate

‘Post-Communist’ Russia and China remain remarkably the same

By Philip Shishkin
March 21, 2013

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

Comments
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“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.”

Observation: How is this different from our system of government? Both of the major US political parties are in the pockets of corporate special interests. They are ruling elite in what passes for democracy here.

Posted by gertz001 | Report as abusive
 

Excellent writing, recall the old days my father (a Moscow University product!) always believed, communist system was the best system in the world to service ordinary people, sadly enough, this even after he spend 3 years in communist jail during culture revolution, knowing his own children almost starving to death by the government he served… I wish, more Chinese and Russian can open their mind to find know, there is nothing good come out from communism or socialism “Yes, sometime the grass is [always] greener on the other side of the fence”

Posted by Jzhou | Report as abusive
 

IMHO they look remarkably the same because they are Caricatures reenforced by our “Official Narrative” of them. Take recent examples of news about China:

ghost cities – Does one urbanization project in Inner Mongolia, where sheep outnumber human, representative of China? Another supposed ghost city covered few years ago, Zhengzhou East New District, is now full of people.

Land riots – Are protests like Wukan and Shangpu common in China, or are they extremely anecdotal? China’s yearly land transaction is roughly 300 billion US. Value of these parcels in dispute is tiny when compared to vast majority of land deals that go thru smoothly.

Undemocratic/rubber stamp political body – What our media do not mention is China’s NPC is indirectly elected, thru a “sausage making” process by lower level People’s Congress that are directly elected at village, township, district level.

Posted by ChasLSeattle | Report as abusive
 

Remarkably the same?

How many political parties do China and Russia have respectively?
Do both countries hold popular vote for their states top positions on competitive basis?
How about the rights to hold mass street protests?
Do both countries censor internet?
What are the requirements for registering a new political party and putting it on the ballot in China and Russia?

If you answer these questions for yourself it will be easy see that “their political systems remain remarkably similar” statement cannot be more detached from reality.

Posted by mr.wit | Report as abusive
 

When the conditions are similar, the outcome is similar; when the conditions are the same, the outcome is the same. Many things are in the hands of God, nature or fate. And the fate of a country or a state has no possibility to be changed by a human. In history, there were great humans, who changed the history. But in reality, there is no such ones. If any exists, she only exists in western world, absolutely not in the eastern world. This is decided by the difference of cultures. The current eastern culture has no power to prepare a great human. This culture is extremely weak, considerably weaker than 2,500 years ago. Generally, a weak culture is not ready for a great civilization. A weak civilization is not ready for a great nation, not ready for a great historical creation.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Russian multiparty system vs. Chinese Communist party rule; Russian free internet vs.Chinese censored internet; Russian popular vote in multi-candidate presidential electinos vs. Chinese National People’s Congress representatives vote for a single candidate, Russian recently enacted legislation to ease registration requirements for new political parties and requirements to put presidential candidates on voting ballots, the Russian right to hold mass opposition rallies or marches – all constitute significant and critically important differences between political systems of the two states.

Posted by mr.wit | Report as abusive
 

You don’t say bad things about communism and socialism.

I realize too late that communism and socialism is simply an “argument” (not an economic system or whatever), a very bad one used to justify the existence of the unfortunates, the unnecessary, the irrelevant.

Can you really blame them?
These people are too desperate, they will do anything. Just look at North Korea. You will get ‘noticed’ and there will be things, bad things happening to you, directly and indirectly if you continue to argue against them.

It gets to the point now that I want to become a socialist just so that I will not get any problem anymore. My mental health has degenerated so badly, I become near crazy now seeing things and patterns when there is nothing there at all.

Well, I guess entropy is kicking in and destroying my brain now just like…

I do agree with them though that without a massive scheme of redistribution, there will be a massive number of people starving because their existences just don’t make anybody’s life better in any economic sense.

So well.. let us move into socialism already and let whatever is it happens… just don’t care… just “Don’t think ahead”.. just don’t care…

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive
 

I wonder if one should dispel the myth of Western Democracy as well. Power (lordship) is inherited for life and does not change hands in Great Britain. The “Elite” class does not trust people and uses Electoral College in US. The working man is the same in US, Russia, China, or wherever it is… Democratic countries like Canada, Germany, Denmark are prime examples of Socialism in action. Democracy with figureheads are used just as effectively in the Western world. History shows that changing power is a costly and ineffective in practice, and against national interest of the state. It only benefits other colonial powers and used to tip the balance on international arena.

Posted by Linda_Fergman | Report as abusive
 

gee.la,

Normally it is hard to underestand foreign culture. It is even worst that people try always to gauge other culture with their own as impeccable standards.

China had evolved from a relatively small nation around nowadays Yellow River in Henan about 3000 years ago to a large nation of diversities now. That was not achieved through military might and conquest, but through cultural influence and assimilation.

If you look at our history, China had always been bullied and invaded by foreigners. We seldom won militarily. Take Manchurians as an example, they conquered us militarily and toppled the Ming dynasty. But they were absolutely conquered by us culturally in return 200 years later. Nowadays all Manchurians use Han (Chinese) names and language since Qing dynasty when they were the conqueror. They forsook their own names, language and culture and adopted ours.

To understand our culture, I suggest you to learn our language first of all. China is different from the US in many aspects.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Jzhou,

Cultural revolution was a dark era in our history, and that’s gone. I had love ones got tortured and murdered by folks of the same village as well.

To me communism, socialism and capitalism, authoritarian and democracy are all political slogans without any meaningful substance affecting the governance of a nation. Our nation is now on the right track toward recovery of hundred years of mess and misery.

Elected by poll or not, the current government heeds to the people’s need. Whether this is enough or not is another matter. The point is how to keep it going and keep the system improving. To the contrary, the US government pays little attention and efforts to its people and domestic affairs.

We should agree and accept some western views and culture for self-advancement, but cannot adapt everything. To a certain degree, we enjoy lots of freedom here in China, although we do not have the western form of democracy. But I am quite confident we are going to have a suitable form of democratic government in our life time if the present trend of political development and change keeps on going.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive
 

Far from creating a new world order, Russia and China have in fact perpetuated the old disorder. The best example of this is Syria. When other nations came together and tried to bring a peaceful resolution to Syria it was Russia and China — and on three separate occasions — that blocked them. Not because Russia and China had better ideas but because it looked like regime change for Syria — something they feared happening in their own countries. Why would they help topple Assad if their own regimes are no better, and Assad’s downfall might encourage their own?
Conveniently Russia and China lifted not a finger to sort things out in Syria. Moreover, they have rendered the rest of the nations impotent of doing anything as well.
Meanwhile the Syrian people suffered greatly and thousands died as their country descended into the depths of civil war. All along we continue to watch helplessly from the sidelines.
If this is Mr. Putin’s idea of new world order, we want no part of it. As for China, it is now intertwined with the economic interests of the nations of the world, and can no longer afford to keep in lockstep with the stagnating Russia.

Posted by kafantaris | Report as abusive
 

In east, many Chinese have no idea about what is history. What they know history comes from the their imaginations and myths. This is the No.1 character of a weak culture- not to respect the truth. After 2,200 year deception and delusion, many times with an atmosphere disrespecting the truth, the couture has been artificially and naturally weaked. In particular, the Marxism loves lies and liars utterly. Many similarities of China and Russia that you have seen lies in the same favour and accommodation. Mutually cheating character make the couture even weaker, both in China and

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Russia. The accumulation of lies and ignorance has changed people’s mentality totally in the past 2200 years. As the trend keeps going, the culture keeps weakening until it cannot support itself. I said it is in the hands of God. People’s mentality can be understood, but there is no possibility to alter in any short time. In brief, there is no hope for any country who disrespects the truth. There is no hope for any people who disrespect the truth, either. Any strong culture must be built on the reverence for the truth.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Not sure I agree with the author’s conclusion. Though I agree that there are interesting parallels between Russia and China, one thing they also have in common is very strong nationalism. During the cold war, when their systems were common in name and sometimes in function (the great leap forward and Cultural Revolution were serious departures from the Soviet model) they actually got themselves into a couple shooting wars. Right now they are driven together by fears of the spread of Arab spring style pushes for dignity and some complimentary economic interests. Mutual suspicion and distrust can push them apart just as quickly.

Posted by agsocrates | Report as abusive
 

Chinese rendering of history is upon their preference. Their understanding is very limited, because of three reasons. The first, the understanding is accorded to the current political necessities. The history teaching is full of falsified and deliberately deceived contents. The second, Chinese are focused on the the domestic and particular historical events. Seldom. they view this world as a whole. The third, many tales blur and interrupt people’s understanding of the real happenning in history. The whole education is not only limited but also harmful to both the truth and the minds. To understand Chinese or Russian people, you have to understand how they teach history and other disciplines. When the majority of people have no idea about what is history, it is not too hard to understand what is going on there. Actually, rarely have people curiosity on history and other truths. What they are focused on in general is how to get the unfair competition power. The outset is already far from the truth. When you understand this people, it is not too hard to understand this country and this culture and where the trend will lead.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

So as a result, Chinese always take themselves as continuing victims and how great their culture is, no matter what the truth is and no matter what happened in history for real.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

falsified and deliberately deceived contents

falsified and deliberately deceiving contents

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

When the conditions are similar, the outcome is similar; when the conditions are the same, the outcome is the same. Many things are in the hands of God, nature or fate. And the fate of a country or a state has no possibility to be changed by a human. In history, there were great humans, who changed the historical course. But in reality, there is no such ones. If any exists, she only exists in western world, absolutely not in the eastern world. This is decided by the difference of cultures. The current eastern culture has no power to prepare a great human. This culture is extremely weak, considerably weaker than 2,500 years ago. Generally, a weak culture is not ready for a great civilization. A weak civilization is not ready for a great nation, not ready for a great historical creation.

In east, many Chinese have no idea about what is history. What they know history comes from the their imaginations, preference and myths or tales. Not to respect the truth is the No.1 character of a weak culture. After 2,200 years’ deception and delusion, many times in an atmosphere disrespecting the truth, the culture has been artificially and naturally wreaked. In particular, Marxism loves lies and liars utterly. Many similarities of China and Russia that you have seen lie in the same favour and accommodation. The characters of mutually cheating, popular in both countries, make the culture even weaker. With the accumulation of lies and ignorance changing people’s mentality as a whole in the past 2,200 years, as the trend keeps going, the culture keeps weakening until it isn’t sustainable, as I said it is in the hands of God. People’s mentality can be understood, but there is no possible way to alter in a short time. In brief, there is no hope for any country who disrespects the truth. There is no hope for any people who disrespect the truth, either. Any strong culture must be built on the reverence for the truth.

Chinese rendering of history is upon their preference. Their understanding is very limited for three reasons. The first, the understanding is accorded to the current political necessities. The history teaching is full of falsified and deliberately deceiving contents. The second, Chinese are focused on domestic and specific historical events. Seldom, they view this world as a whole. As a matter of fact, the compatibility, interconnections and generality of different events, occurred in different times and different places, are more important than an individual event. The third, many tales blur and interrupt people’s understanding of the real happenning in history, encouraging people to prefer the myths to the truths. The whole education is not only limited but also harmful to both the truth and the minds. To understand Chinese and Russian people, you have to understand how they teach history and other disciplines. When the majority of people have no idea about what is history, it is not too hard to understand what is going on there. Actually, rarely have people curiosity on history and other truths. What they are focused on now in general is how to get the unfair competing power. The outset is already far from the truth. When you understand the people, it is not too hard to understand their country or their culture or where the trend leads.

So as a result, Chinese always take themselves as continuing victims and, at the same time, how great their culture is, no matter what the truth is and no matter what happened in history for real.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive
 

Really this opinion piece just sounds like populist dribble… But I suppose Shishkin got paid so what does he care…

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive
 

Very good insights!
Russia and China are both artificial systems. ©

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive
 

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