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.