Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Russia Looks to China for Power Lessons

"Like an envious underachiever, Vladimir V. Putin’s party, United Russia, is increasingly examining how it can emulate the Chinese Communist Party, especially its skill in shepherding China through the financial crisis relatively unbowed," Clifford J. Levy wrote in New York Times about a meeting between Russian top leaders and leaders of China's Communist Party. (Russia’s Leaders See China as Template for Ruling, October 19, 2009.)

Twenty years ago, during Mikhail Gorbachev's state visit in May 1989, it looked like China's leadership was in need of political help as it struggled to contain growing waves of protest from students and workers dreaming of democratic political reforms. Thousands of students occupied Tiananmen Square on May 13, just before the arrival of the Soviet Communist Party leader, creating a major loss of face for Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese party leadership. We know how this drama ended, but the paradox is that while China entered a long period of relative political stability and unprecedented economic growth, the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to radical economic and political reforms followed by a chaos and lawlessness that ultimately brought Vladimir Putin, a former KBG-chief, to power. He managed to centralize the power, using Russian nationalism, the country's vast oil- and natural gas resources in an era of rising prices, this in combination with his personal charisma and Russia's military strength.

Today, however, Russia is hurt by the global financial crisis, and its fundamental economic weakness became obvious once the oil prices came down. China, in contrast, used its centralized political power and financial strength to push through a huge stimulus package, which turned the economy around, helping the world economy pull out of the Great Recession.

“The accomplishments of China’s Communist Party in developing its government deserve the highest marks,” Aleksandr D. Zhukov, a deputy prime minister and senior Putin aide, declared at the meeting with Chinese officials on Oct. 9 in the border city of Suifenhe, China, northwest of Vladivostok. “The practical experience they have should be intensely studied.” (Quoted in New York Times.)

The recent meeting between top leaders from Russia and China was only one in a series of such meetings, and China's President Hu Jintao has been invited to attend United Russia's convention in November and more meetings are planned. Russia's ruling party is even planning to open an office in Beijing according to the Times.

"Whatever the motivation, Russia in recent years has started moving toward the Chinese model politically and economically," Levy writes.

China is not the only country the Russians are studying: "...Mr. Putin’s political aides have long studied how to move the political system to the kind that took root for many decades in countries like Japan and Mexico, with a de facto one-party government under a democratic guise, political analysts said. The Russians tend to gloss over the fact that in many of those countries, long-serving ruling parties have fallen."

This is an interesting fact since one political system that China's leadership studied in the 1980's was Singapore, a country that had a "de facto one-party government under a democratic guise." China's authoritarian political system, which essentially is a dictatorship where the party elite controls all key levers in the society, is very attractive to the Russian leadership: “We are interested in the experience of the party and government structures in China, where cooperation exists between the ruling party and the judicial, legislative and executive authorities,” Vladimir E. Matkhanov, a deputy in Russia’s Parliament, said at the Suifenhe meeting, according to a transcript quoted by the Times.

It will be interesting to see if the current political exchanges between Russia and China will lead to a closer political, and maybe even military cooperation, something that could change the balance of power between China, Russia and the United States.

Yet another challenge for Team Obama.

Hans Sandberg

If you understand Swedish you may want to read this blog posts on my Swedish blog, Sandbergs hörna.
Ryssland, USA och Kina - Intervju med W. Joseph Stroupe, del I. (2007)
Ryssland, USA och Kina - Intervju med W. Joseph Stroupe, del II. (2007)
Putin släpper inte greppet, men vad är det han vill (December 2007)

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