Why the Dragon Could While the Bear Could Not?

A Note on Transitional Routes in Russia and China

The relations between Russia and China are on top now. Since their spectacular entente in 2014, Western eyes are focused on Moscow and Beijing. In many diverse commentaries and analyses about Sino-Russian relations one theme is common: the asymmetry of power in favor of China. It is widely, and correctly, assumed that Russia becomes the junior partner. To put is simply: today it is China who is the Big Brother. Less analyzed, though, are the structural factors of this asymmetry. One of the most important reasons for this state of affairs is the success of Chinese transformation from Communism; something even more remarkable when compared with Russia’s paralleled failure.

Two important preconditions are essential to understand the different outcome of Russian and Chinese transformation paths. First, to transform from communism is never an easy task. Contrary to other totalitarian systems, communism monopolizes not only political and social sphere but also the economy. In this scenario the party not only controls the socio-political life and imposes ideology, but also organizes economy by taking control of land, work and market redistribution. This makes the party’s control tighter, if not full, and distinguishes communism from other totalitarian systems. It makes transformation from communism into capitalism much more drastic. It is, to quote Adam Przeworski, “a transition from system to system, not just structural adjustment.”

Second, Communism in Russia was different from Communism in China. They belonged to two different traditions. Polish sinologist Krzysztof Gawlikowski once distinguished four models of communistic/socialistic states: “semi-colonial” (Eastern Europe), “para-colonial” (Central Asia, Baltic States, Caucasus), “revolutionary” (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine) and “revolutionary-national” (China, Vietnam). In the “revolutionary” model, communism was the outcome of civil war: it was initially a fight for a just social system (“bright future”), but soon became also a successful way to build, or rebuild, great power status. Soviet leaders changed the rhetoric and discourse (the decorum) of their tsar predecessors, but continued their expansionist foreign policy. Moreover, after first few years in power Soviet Communism soon yielded to deeply rooted forms of Russian messianism, coming from firmly held conviction of Russia’s uniqueness (“Holy Rus” or “Third Rome”). This resulted in Russian Communism becoming de facto a quasi-religion with strong quasi-sacral elements (“Lenin will live forever!”) unconsciously replicating Orthodox Christianity patterns (e.g. Sergey Bulgakov’s thought that the Russian revolutionaries unconsciously follow Christian saints’ devotion to the cause, only without producing any good outcome).

China, on the other hand, belongs to the “revolutionary-national” model. Communist Party of China triumphed after a revolutionary war that was social and national at the same time. The national component, liberation from semi-colonial submission (no matter if real or perceived) was very important. The Chinese Communists were always more nationalists than communists (Chinese civil war may be considered a family quarrel between rightist nationalist Chiang Kai-shek and leftist nationalist Mao Zedong). They started their fight to “restore national face” and considered Marxism a good tool to get back the nation’s lost glory. This was not unique to China: the same can be said about Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung or Burma’s Ne Win. The consequences for China were that Communism brought not only coercive system, notorious in violating human rights and rejecting basic liberties, but also social progress (the dismantling of feudal remnants) and—above all—anti-colonial liberation and restoration of national dignity. The Chinese believed (or were made to believe) that it was the CPC that ended bai nian guo chi (hundred years of national humiliation, 1843–1949). Thanks to this conviction, no matter how many mistakes Mao Zedong and his successor did, the legitimacy of their rule was not seriously questioned. Moreover, socialist rules of social organization matched well with East Asian cultural background (century-old authoritarian patterns of power) and moral ethic norms (primacy of group over individual). Finally, Chinese Communism lacked religious component, so characteristic for Russia.

Not only preconditions were different in Russia and China, but also their transformation routes. Minxin Pei in his book From Reform to Revolution. The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union characterized three routes of transition from communism: (1) the evolutionary authoritarian route; (2) the revolutionary double breakthrough route; and (3) the simultaneous single-breakthrough route. In this framework China belongs to route (1) evolutionary authoritarian route. It involves the transformation of a politically and economically closed communist regime into an authoritarian regime based on a market economy. In this case, the reforms are limited to economic reforms implemented to transform a planned economy into a market economy, with the regime making no significant move toward democratization and even perceive it as an obstacle to marketization and economic development. This model assigns an important role to the state, ruled by a technocratic authoritarian regime, in achieving rapid economic development.

Russia, on the other hand, belongs to route (2), revolutionary double breakthrough route. There are two reasons for this name. First, the democratization phase was accomplished in a dazzling breakthrough, with the driving forces originating in the society and the actual breakdown of the former regime. Economic collapse in the Soviet Union turned into a revolution that eventually toppled the Communist regime and dismantled the multinational Soviet empire. Second, an equally revolutionary program of instantly transforming the planned economy into a market economy (the “shock therapy” approach) was immediately launched following the democratic breakthrough. It created what Pei calls “nonmarket economy polyarchy,” where democratic political processes and institutions operate in a nonmarket economy which is neither capable of sustaining, nor compatible with, new democratic politics. The most important contrast with the evolutionary process of marketization under post-communist neoauthoritarian rule is that the government faces the daunting task of consolidating democracy and transforming a planned economy into a market economy amid the deepening economic crisis which the new democratic governments inherited from the old regimes.

Based on these two models, one may say that China has concentrated on economy and national development. Here the expansion of political rights, liberty, and political capacities of societal groups was insignificant, but the expansion of economic and civic freedom and private economic resources—substantial. Most of communist principles and ideology was rejected, the slogans and symbols reduced or even cast aside (particularly after Tiananmen), but the respect (or fear) of the party was kept alongside with the privileges of the nomenclature. This created a very specific, unique mix of authoritarianism and pragmatism.

Development was the key. When party leaders (most notably Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang with his famous mo zhe shitou guo he, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”) realized that socialism was no longer a good tool for modernization, they simply rejected it in the economic sphere. It was the party that dismantled Communism and started a very successful modernization that led to the biggest prosperity in China’s contemporary history. The result in China is that, as Gawlikowski amply summarized, “…one may not be interested in politics and may instead concentrate on what almost every Chinese loves best: making money, caring for the family, and enjoying life’s pleasures.”

There is, however, something more than the national character. The Deng’s reforms succeeded, among many other reasons, because of two factors, mentioned by Bogdan Góralczyk, Poland’s top specialist on China’s modernization. First: the support of hua qiao (overseas Chinese), who risked and invested in China in the first crucial decade of the 1980s (the West followed up only later, after 1992). That gave China capital (Russia after 1991 didn’t have this luxury). And second: reforms were welcomed in Chinese rural areas. This enabled the circulation of food products and determined the early success of reforms, so important in its first, fragile years. In China, contrary to Soviet Union, the spirit of entrepreneurship was not killed in the peasant masses. Consequently, there was better socio-cultural background for introducing free market economy. Thanks to it the Chinese were able to change the fatalistic social attitudes, so typical for Mao’s era (so called “3xM”: mei you, mei guanxi, mei banfa, roughly: “not have, no way to do it, not possible”), whereas Russians remained with their ne sud’ba (roughly: “we are not fated to”) attitude towards life.

Russia after 1991 chose different path than China. It was the political reckoning with former system. Emphasis was put on ideology: annihilating the former deal, introducing new institutions and terminology. Communism was rejected and condemned. According to Polish philosopher Jadwiga Staniszkis, this was possible thanks to the central role played by the “great idea” in Russian decommunization. This Russian “great idea” (better known as “Russian idea”, russkaya idea) depicts and creates surrounding reality and is understood in religious terms (battle between good and evil). When communism ceased being this “great idea” it was unscrupulously brushed aside. Political actions were primarily focused on—or sometimes even limited to—symbolical sphere (“operation on symbols”) and consequently neglected the on-the-ground realities of life. This contributed to what Stanisław Bieleń calls “a feature of utopian social engineering in Russian reforms”. Yegor Gaidar, Andrey Kozyrev, Anatoly Chubais and other “atlantist” reformers believed in the universal benevolence of free market mechanisms without taking into account local cultural background (lack of entrepreneurship tradition and capitalistic ethics; predominance of collectivistic mentality). They just introduced “the shock therapy,” trusting that it will benefit in the long run. “The existing system was instantly destroyed with typical Russian extremity and bolshevist ruthlessness related to it,” summarizes Bieleń, “so that in its place ‘a brave new world’ could be created.”

Russian attitude was exactly the opposite what the Chinese did. The results were catastrophic: the dissolution of the state distributive economy led to a financial collapse. The introduction of shock therapy in January 1992 led to near hyperinflation and the impoverishment of the Russian people through the loss of their life-savings (caused by high inflation, a huge fall in gross output, and bankruptcy of most state-owned enterprises). Worse still, this situation was used by groups linked with former establishment—later known as oligarchs—that took over state property and created their own fortunes. Under these conditions, the free market mechanisms were not able to generate progress. On the contrary, they made the situation even worse and were socially blamed, alongside with democracy, for all misfortunes that fell upon Russia.

The low level of participatory political culture didn’t help here either. Russian political parties and political leaders from the 1990s were not showcase examples of democratic ideas, to say the least. They struggled for power in the best authoritarian way, relying on social populism and—occasionally—resorting to force (year 1993). All this created chaos, instability, and social resentments. Democracy is then viewed as not only alien concept unfit to local conditions, but also as a big part of the problem. In these circumstances the authoritarian counterattack is widely acclaimed as something much more than a lesser evil: a reasonable response to national and economic challenges. In this view, only the preconditions of strong central power (in Russian tradition it always means authoritarianism or totalitarianism) make progressive improvement of people’s existence possible (in other words: without Putin, Russia would have been impoverished and perhaps dissolved). This is how Russia, after her failed democratic experience, became authoritarian again.

Eventually, both China and Russia transformed from totalitarian communism to authoritarianism. But the paths chosen determined that China is now much better governed and efficient than Russia. To quote Bobo Lo’s words said in his conversation with Lilia Shevtsova: “For all its weaknesses, the Communist Party is a much more dynamic and modernizing enterprise than ‘Kremlin Inc.’ It has largely absorbed the historical lesson that true legitimacy comes from responding to the imperatives of change.” The way in which China transformed from Communism shows that in the last three decades Beijing truly understood the imperatives of change. Russia did not, and this is the major reason why Moscow has lost one decade. The consequences are still visible: it is very difficult to make up for lost time.

Michał Lubina

holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and is the author of “The Bear Overshadowed by Dragon. Russia-China 1991-2014”, the first book on contemporary Sino-Russian relations in Polish (soon to be published in English) as well as three books on Burma/Myanmar, including the only biography of Aung San Suu Kyi in Polish. He is also the author of Russia and China: A Political Marriage of Convenience – Stable and Successful (Budrich 2017).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

Download PDF