TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

China Isn’t Russia

One of the interesting features of the current China panic is how bits and pieces of the old anti-communist rhetoric is taken out of storage to be recycled, but this anti-communism is now used, strangely, against an increasingly capitalist China. For example, it is, on one level at least, the capitalist modernization of Tibet that has provoked some of the protesters, who maintain instead a romantic vision of a traditional society, unthreatened by railroads and commerce. On a deeper level, there are anxieties about the power of the Chinese economy, inexpensive goods, and American indebtedness. As noted here in recent discussion, the Western protests interestingly directed little attention to questions of political liberty in China proper (free press, free internet). In other words, the criticism directed against China is not about political failings; it is, on the contrary, about economic success. Current populist or left rhetoric, then, attacks the development of Chinese capitalism (which is what one would expect from the left), but to do so, it is not shy in using anti-communist imagery. Go figure.

In a recent essay in The New Republic, Robert Kagan revisits the “end of history” thesis. I will not review the intriguing and lengthy argument, but suffice it to say that he describes a return to the international political culture of the nineteenth century, with a group of liberal states—the western democracies, including Japan and India—lined up against what he calls the “autocracies” of Russia and China. The autocracies, so Kagan, do not share the same “universalist” values of the West, and they tend to support more or less repressive client states, especially on their peripheries.

This is interesting because Kagan is moving away from his own earlier thesis that emphasized the importance of the trans-Atlantic divide between Hobbesian Americans with military clout and Kantian Europeans with soft power and never-ending discussions. Here, however, I want to focus on another point in his essay and call into question the unconvincing assertion of significant similarities between the two autocracies: China isn’t Russia.

True, neither is a liberal democracy: China still operates with one-party rule, while the recent elections in Russia were not regarded as particularly democratic, despite the multi-party politics. Each is prepared to get into bed with unsavory dictatorships and not even pretend to hold their noses (Iran, Burma). And both carry with them their own devastating experience of the decades of totalitarian communism.

But there are differences that make the vision of an autocracy axis far from compelling.

In terms of political culture, it is crucial to remember the different histories of communism. The Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 and held on to it for more than seventy years. They had been preceded by the briefest of liberal regimes (Kerensky). In effect, Communist Russia continued directly from the Czarist past: there was hardly any alternative to autocracy, and the Russian Empire endured until the end of the twentieth century. In China, the Communists did not come to power until three decades later, in 1949, and the republican tradition as well as the cultural vibrancy of parts of interwar China, especially Shanghai, have represented important legacies.

Secondly, some of that cultural repository survived in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, which, together with the Chinese diaspora, participate in a dynamic interaction with politics, economy, and culture in China proper. There is simply nothing similar in Russia; the impact of the Russian overseas community on Russia is much smaller than the corollary processes for China. At this point in time, the communities outside of China, politically sophisticated and economically active, are exercising a salutary influence on China. Russia just has no comparable parallel resource of much significance.

Finally, the economies differ markedly. On this point, quantitative research would be important. For now, we can note that Russia is, well, “running on fumes”—in the sense that its current prosperity is linked significantly to its energy resources, and it has used this energy as a weapon against neighboring states. Still, excessive economic dependence on the extraction of a natural resource is also a curse; it prevents the development of a broader, innovative economic infrastructure—exactly what seems to be happening in China and makes it so much more dynamic. The big question in China is when the de facto economic liberalization will make political liberalization unavoidable. (The big question in Russia is how quickly will Putin or his proxies roll back any remaining liberalization.)

If political liberalization in China is still pending, the alternative program for Russia is indeed autocratic, to use Kagan’s term, or worse. Despite the dissolving of the hegemony of the Communist Party, democracy is hardly healthy in Russia. It is a post-Communism that retains deleterious aspects of the ancient regime. In fact, the new political form of repression, the Putinist state, seems to be growing in an ominous direction. Of course, this does not prevent opportunistic Western European liberal democracies—despite Kagan—to feel a pull toward a Russian orbit, as could be seen in the recent NATO meeting in Bucharest. Russia is moving backward; China may be moving forward. The two states may, in the end, refuse any hypothetical convergence as “autocracies” and show instead very different paths out of the Communist past. The current China panic in the West may blind us to real potentials for liberalization; at worst, the panic may enable anti-liberal elements in China to make their case against the West more persuasively.

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