Over the last two decades, when China was busy with capacity building, Russia seems to have been pre-occupied with incapacity hiding, writes Ivan Krastev. “When Western commentators try to make sense of the different performance of the new authoritarians, they would well advised to look beyond formal institutional design.”
Russia clearly has elections, but no rotation of power. In the two post-communist decades, the president has not lost a single election: the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it. In the case of China, clearly, the opposition doesn’t have a chance of winning either. Yet on the other hand, Chinese leaders do not stay in power for any more than ten years, after which a new party leader and president are automatically elected. In other words, in the Russian system elections are used as the way to legitimise the lack of rotation, while the Chinese Communist institutional structure has developed to allow an element of power rotation.
Of course, we are still talking about two non-competitive regimes. But the Chinese understand that you need to change leadership, or you have a problem. The Chinese system, based on the principle of collective leadership, prevents the emergence of personalised authoritarianism and provides much more checks and balances.
Listening to the People
By definition, non-democratic regimes have in-built hearing problems. Surveillance and polling can never replace the information that comes from people regularly taking place in free and competitive elections. Democratic elections are not only an option to elect leaders, but also a direct way to gauge where people stand.
When it comes to ‘hearing the people’, however, there is an important difference between China and Russia. This comes down to the fact that the Chinese government has not criminalised labour protest. Labour conflicts, ordinarily directed against regional leaders or company directors, are not considered dangerous for the party. So every year there are hundreds of thousands of strikes, and these have become an important source of reliable information. When people go on a direct protest, it is much better than pure polls – valuable not only because they are visible, but because they also offer an opportunity to contest the ability of the local leaders to settle conflicts. In Russia, the supposedly more democratic system, you don’t see strikes, because the price for protesting on labour issues is very high. Russia’s rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.
Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent
Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement, and here is where we uncover another point of divergence. If you compare Russia and China, you will see that in Russia there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask Putin to resign. The Chinese regime is certainly much harsher and intolerant in this respect. But while the Kremlin broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it. It does not allow for dissent on policy matters and Government officials are careful not to advocate policies favored by the opposition.
Though the Chinese system is much more classically authoritarian and communist, its decision-making process is of a much better quality, more inclusive than the Russian one.
Recruitment of elites
Where do people come from to occupy the most important positions in the state and leading industry? A study conducted by Russkiy Reporter in the end of 2011 revealed a number of interesting facts on this front. First, the great majority of the Russian elites went to one of just two Universities. Second, none of those occupying the top 300 positions came from the Russian Far East. And, third, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known Mr Putin before he became president. In short, Russia is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense…..
This is not the way in which the Chinese Communist party works. It is doing its best to create different layers of society, and does try to make the system reasonably meritocratic…… The Communist party serves as a vehicle to recruit and socialise the elites, and the Chinese leadership invests a lot in ensuring regional representation and providing its cadres with opportunity to get diverse experience.
Bottom of Form
The Chinese and Russians totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in Russia: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there.
What does it all mean?
In summary, while there was once a time that you measured democracy looking at institutions, now you need to also ask questions about how the institutions function. Do they look like democracies? Is it possible that the democracy is faked? Russia is a brilliant example that should force us to think. It has fashioned a democratic surface, but under this surface all types of non-democratic practices are flourishing. China is another country – authoritarian and severe undoubtedly. But because of the pressure of the system, the different ideas underlying its transformation, and the country’s involvement on the world stage, its political practices are much more open than its formal institutions may lead us to believe.
Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy, an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy.