Why Russia can’t replace West with China

authoritarians xi-jinping-vladimir-putinRussia and China share similar interests and positions when it comes to energy, military, diplomacy and ideology but that doesn’t provide a foundation for a strong Moscow-Beijing alliance? says Yale University’s Christopher Miller.

“Both countries share ideological goals that are crucial to the maintenance of their domestic political systems,” he writes for the Moscow Times:

Both believe that autocracy is a legitimate form of governance and that talk of human rights threatens stability. Both insist that democracy — or “Western-style democracy,” as they often put it — is only fit for some societies and is not a universal aspiration. And both governments are deeply committed to countering attempts by the U.S., European countries and NGOs to promote political liberalization in other countries.

But the most important cause for skepticism about a stronger Chinese-Russian entente is that neither country is in a position to play a primary role in helping the other accomplish its core goals, he writes:

China’s main aims are to safeguard economic growth at home and expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. In both areas, Russia can play a role, but only a minor one. The U.S., Europe and Asian countries will be far more important to China’s economic development than Russia will. Moscow, meanwhile, is currently focused on its western frontier. Yet China has little interest in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, and is unlikely to get seriously involved.


Political intolerance threatening Hong Kong society

hong kong global voices onllineThe South China Morning Post’s Peter Kammerer says the increasing intolerance in Hong Kong politics is dividing society and could cause long-term damage.

“Hong Kong has never been so intolerant. …But the push against the supporters of democracy in general and the Occupy Central movement in particular is taking our city along a potentially destructive course,” he writes:

The pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy’s anti-Occupy Central campaign is neither peaceful nor democratic. It’s wilfully pitting Hong Kong people against one another purely because of their beliefs. A witch-hunt is under way to divide and silence pan-democrats, reminiscent of the vilification of communists in the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Hong Kong’s then British colonial government deported hundreds of people from leftist trade unions and schools to the mainland for acts as simple as displaying the Chinese flag….

Hong Kong obviously doesn’t face a war, but society is certainly being split and risks being torn apart. It’s the classic “us” and “them” scenario, with Beijing and its backers on one side and those whose ideology looks to Western-style democracy on the other. If the course goes unchanged, those not in the Beijing camp will be sidelined, ignored and isolated. If matters get out of hand, as they well could, there will also be vilification and silencing.


Vietnam Communists demand end to Vietnamese Communism

vietnam dissentSeveral dozen senior members of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party have written a letter openly denouncing the country’s leadership, accusing them of taking the “wrong path”, and calling fora “decisive shift” from dictatorship to democracy, the UK’s Channel 4 reports:

The authors of the open letter want the Vietnamese government to “come clean” about a secret summit in which Vietnam is alleged to have secretly handed over territory to China. It is difficult to know where the open letter will lead but Hoi Trinh of advocacy group Voice, says it will encourage a small, growing and increasingly emboldened band of pro-democracy activists in Vietnam. “What is surprising about the letter is that it was made public,” says Trinh. “It’s not the way things are done in Vietnam. You can criticise the government within your family. You can even criticise them in the coffee shop. You don’t do it publicly – but these people did exactly that.”

“The path that the leadership has been imposing on the country is wrong and is taking us down a blind alley,” Nguyen Khac  Main, a veteran party member and one of the letter’s signatories, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service:

The recent deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters off Vietnam’s coast, together with the sinking by China of a Vietnamese fishing boat, have lowered relations between Vietnam and China to their worst level since the two communist nations fought a brief border war in 1979.

Violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam followed the deployment of the rig, which was later withdrawn, and left at least four people dead and the destruction of factories believed to be operated by Chinese companies, though many were Taiwanese-owned.

Also speaking to RFA, former director of the Vietnam Institute of Sociology Tuong Lai said,  “In the name of socialism and in the name of  having a similar communist leadership, China manipulates the Vietnamese Communist Party and the leaders of Vietnam, making them dependent on China.”

“And it is this dependence that has increasingly damaged the party’s reputation and caused such severe distrust among party members and the people.”

Vietnam_cu-huyA string of Vietnamese activists have had their Facebook accounts suspended, and claim to have been targeted by an ‘online army’ sponsored by the government, the BBC reports:

When David Nguyen – a human rights lawyer – tried to log in to the site, he found his account had been blocked. He was faced with a message from Facebook which said he was suspected of posting fraudulent personal information. He wasn’t the only one. At least 100 users – mostly pro-democracy and human rights campaigners – have faced similar treatment, according to Viet Tan, a political group who oppose the communist government.

Although the blocks have been implemented by Facebook, it isn’t the site itself that’s to blame. Nguyen says he, and many like him, have been targeted by a rival team of site members – or “opinion shapers” – organised and paid by the government.

When human rights in Vietnam are discussed in the international community it is invariably the nation’s track record on freedom of speech, or lack thereof, which takes precedence, notes an observer:

The communist nation is regularly excoriated for its human rights track record, by which critics usually mean the locking up of bloggers, but the issues that so concern many of those same bloggers – corruption, police brutality, and workers’ rights, among others – are often all but absent from the majority of discussions about human rights, at least publicly.

Anti-graft crackdown reduces allure of China’s Communist party


The number of people joining the Chinese Communist party has fallen for the first time in a decade as President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign reduces the allure of working for the authoritarian state, the FT’s Jamil Anderlini reports from Beijing:

Last year, just 2.4m people joined the world’s biggest political party – a quarter fewer than in 2012 – marking the smallest number of new members since 2003 and bringing total membership to 86.7m by the end of 2013. The number of people registered to sit civil service exams has also dropped sharply, with state media blaming anti-corruption and government austerity campaigns for the fall in interest.

“The declines definitely have something to do with the anti-corruption campaign,” said Zhang Ming, a professor at the politics department of Renmin University in Beijing. “Let’s be frank, many young people want to do these [government] jobs because it will give them an opportunity to take bribes.”

A steady drumbeat of arrests and investigations into officials at all levels of the party reached a peak this week when a formal probe was launched into Zhou Yongkang, the most senior cadre to face corruption charges in the history of the People’s Republic.

Even for senior party members, official salaries are a pittance, while many of them have the power to approve or block deals and investments worth millions or billions of dollars.

“Low to mid-level officials are having a very tough time and there is a mood of discontent among them,” said Guo Weiqing, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University’s school of government. “From their public image to their welfare to their daily existence they have also lost a lot of perks and it is very easy for them to violate one rule or another and be accused of corruption.”


Authoritarians shaping post-Ukraine world order – Ignatieff

authoritarians xi-jinping-vladimir-putinRussia’s annexation of Crimea has shaken our assumptions about the global order that took shape after 1989, says a leading authority. The re-ordering underway is truly global, writes Harvard UniversityProfessor Michael Ignatieff:

In the East Asia, rival naval fleets are circling each other, Chinese oil platforms are drilling in disputed waters and belligerent accusations fly between Asian capitals. China no longer speaks the language of ‘quiet rise’. Ji Xinping’s muscular foreign policy is alarming Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the United States. 

We sense that these changes – in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia – are connected to each other. We sense that the tectonic plates are shifting. We question whether anyone in Washington, London, Moscow or Beijing truly grasps what is going on. So this is a good moment to consider what narratives are available to us to make sense of what is happening.

Francis Fukuyama was right to tell us that the history-defining contest between capitalism and communism was over in 1989, Ignatieff said, delivering this summer’s Ditchley Foundation annual lecture:

wenty five years on, however, from the Polish border to the Pacific, from the Arctic Circle to the Afghan border, a new political competitor to liberal democracy has taken shape that Fukuyama did not anticipate: authoritarian in political form, capitalist in economics and nationalist in ideology.

Lawrence Summers has called this new form ‘mercantilist authoritarianism’ which certainly captures the central role that the state and state enterprises play in the Russian and Chinese economies. [1] Mercantilism, however, misses the crude element of cronyism that is central to Putin’s economic model and to the Communist Party of China as well. 

There are of course significant differences between the Chinese and Russian variants of authoritarian capitalism. In the Chinese model, the party retains its monopoly role, and while there are managed elections at the village level, no pretense is offered that the system is democratic. Russia pretends to be democratic: there are formal constitutional guarantees and elections, but no one doubts that ultimate control rests with the Soviet nomenklatura and the secret police.

In the medium term, what unites them, of course, is a shared hostility to what John Ikenberry has called ‘the liberal leviathan’, the United States and its global web of encircling alliances. So far, the two authoritarians have few friends, but their model is attractive. For corrupt elites in Africa and Latin America, China and Russia offer a model that allows them to continue extractive development.

Unique combination

“This unique combination of private liberty and public despotism separates the new authoritarianism from its Soviet and Maoist past and probably guarantees the long-term stability of both regimes,” Ignatieff contends:

To be sure, this new form of rule has little outward ideological appeal. Europe and the United States continue to attract immigrants from all corners of the globe, drawn by a freedom that is both private and public. No one is migrating to Russia – or China for that matter. They are out-migration countries. But the fact that their authoritarian capitalism does not appeal to outsiders does not mean it lacks internal legitimacy or support.….

The authoritarian apologetics of both Russia and China may not be appealing, but they are not ideologically aggressive. They make a national claim to legitimacy, not a universal one. Chinese rulers may believe in China’s civilizational superiority, but they have not embarked upon a civilizing mission for the whole world. Mao may have encouraged Maoists from Peru to Paris, but the current regime has no such ambitions. It may want global power but it does not seek global hegemony. The same is true of Russia. Unlike Stalin, Putin will never claim that his country is the universal home of all those seeking emancipation from the capitalist yoke.

“In the absence of a universalizing ideology, therefore, the new authoritarian states may be aggressive and nationalist in rhetoric, but they are unlikely to be expansionist,” he suggests.

Two over-riding questions

There are two over-riding questions that arise with the emergence of authoritarian capitalism as the chief strategic and ideological competitor to liberal democracy. The first is: are they stable? The second is: are they aggressive? Igantieff adds:

Authoritarian societies have powerful advantages over democratic ones. They can make decisions more rapidly, marshal resources of labor and capital by executive decision while democratic societies must first overcome the veto points in their own systems. Since authoritarian societies suppress dissent and plural opinion, they can also channel nationalist emotions into powerful justification for overseas adventurism, especially intervening to protect co-nationals in neighboring countries. China’s Asian neighbors must be wondering when the regime starts using ‘the protection’ of the Chinese as a justification for meddling in their internal affairs.

Authoritarian oligarchies, however, are also brittle. Their rulers believe they must control everything or soon they will control nothing.  Their chief dilemma is how to manage the political aspirations unleashed by their own rapid growth. Under Stalin and Mao, rising aspirations for voice could be crushed by force. Under the new authoritarianism, some private freedom has to be allowed since it is the condition of capitalist progress itself.

“China’s new assertiveness in Asia is driven by many factors – including the need to find energy supplies in the seas off its shores – but also by a desire to rally its rising middle classes around an assertive vision of what Xi Jinping calls the ‘China Dream”, in which China becomes a global power, not just a regional hegemon,” Ignatieff argues:

In the Russian case, the strategic dilemmas are similar: legitimizing extractive rule to a brittle and discontented middle class at home while meeting the challenge of American alliance encirclement on its frontiers. Putin’s response to these challenges has been similar to China’s but has to take into account a weaker economic position.

We should, however, beware of exaggerating these weaknesses. The conventional view about Putin’s regime is that he is perched atop a society in demographic and economic decline, with decaying infrastructure and weak health care and social protection. This is wishful thinking, a false narrative that continues, in essence, the Cold War view that the Soviet Union was “Upper Volta with rockets.”  On the contrary, Russia’s natural resource wealth gives it a certain source of state revenue throughout the 21st century, while its limited regime of private freedom creates a safety valve that allows the regime to contain democratic discontent. For millions of Russians, the freedom to travel, to emigrate, to save and invest more than compensate for the occasional brutality the regime displays towards the brave minority who continue to demand an end to authoritarian rule.  


Michael Ignatieff is a Canadian writer, teacher and former politician. He holds a doctorate in history from Harvard University and has held academic posts at King’s College, Cambridge and at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  He served in the Parliament of Canada and was Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. His books include The Needs of Strangers (1984), Scar Tissue (1992), Blood and Belonging (1993), The Warrior’s Honour (1997) Isaiah Berlin (1998), The Rights Revolution (2000), Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001), The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004) and Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (2013). 

He is the Centennial Chair at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of Politics and the Press at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.


[1] Lawrence Summers   Financial Times, July 8, 2014