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Vladimir Ryzhkov: A Modernization Lesson: Russia Is Not China

Russia’s ruling elite are dazzled by China’s success. China, which will have 8 percent growth in 2009, has quickly become the third-largest economy in the world. Moscow finds not only the economic success of its eastern neighbor increasingly attractive, but its political system as well.

In October, United Russia held a two-day seminar with their comrades from the Communist Party of China — a master class of sorts to allow Moscow to glean information and know-how from Beijing’s authoritarian political and economic model. Even while Moscow continues its rhetoric about its adherence to democracy and a European course, Russia’s leaders are actually looking more toward the East to find political legitimacy and arguments to justify their seemingly endless autocratic hold on power. They believe that China’s “authoritarian modernization” is an excellent model for Russia. Beijing has accomplished modernization from the top down, while giving its citizens very few democratic rights and freedoms. Kremlin ideologues and propagandists are increasingly heard saying, “China is developing successfully without any democracy whatsoever, so why can’t we?”

On the surface, the political systems in China and Russia have much in common. In both countries, leaders do not rely on elections to legitimize their authority. China does not have nationwide elections at all, and its parliament is formed through a multistage appointment of representatives from each locality, which is controlled by the Communist Party. In Russia, elections are held, but they are not competitive, open or fair. Election results are predetermined through a series of political and administrative maneuvers by the ruling party.

The so-called multiparty systems in Russia and China are a sham. The dominant parties are United Russia and the Communist Party of China. The “opposition parties” are permitted to hold an insignificant number of seats in parliament, but they have no real influence on the political process.

Both countries have strict limitations on freedoms of the press and speech, and television is very carefully controlled. Internet access is highly restricted in China, although less so in Russia. Both China’s Communist Party and the Kremlin have actively functioning propaganda machines with huge resources. The parliaments of both countries are largely decorative, rubber-stamp bodies that dutifully fulfill the leaders’ orders. Moreover, both have siloviki power verticals and loyal, dependent court systems.

Despite all of those similarities, Russia’s economic output has dropped dramatically in 2008-09, and its attempts to modernize over the past nine years have gone nowhere, while the Chinese economy has shown amazing efficiency and growth year after year, including during the crisis. As a result, authoritarian governments around the world, including in Russia, are in awe of China and justify limiting constitutional rights and freedoms with the argument that Chinese-style autocracy appears to be more effective than Western democracy.

But upon closer inspection, it is clear that the Chinese model is not suitable for Russia — not only economically, as President Dmitry Medvedev correctly pointed out recently, but politically as well. On a superficial level, Chinese and Russian authoritarianism may look similar, but in reality the two differ greatly:

• China is run by the Communist Party, while Russia is run by a bureaucracy. The Chinese politburo consists primarily of party secretaries and not high-ranking officials. Chinese governors are not the chief executives of their provinces but subordinates to regional party secretaries. The state machinery as a whole stands lower on the pecking order: it is subordinated to the party apparatus. Everything is just the opposite in Russia: Kremlin and White House officials stand over the State Duma, United Russia and the media. In short, Russia’s political leadership has been replaced by a bureaucratic one, and this is the reason the number of bureaucrats and the role of the state in the economy has increased exponentially since Vladimir Putin came to power.

• In China, the government is much more separate from business. Unlike in Russia, not a single Chinese leader sits on the board of directors of a state-owned company. Moreover, China treats nepotism as a grave criminal offense. A Chinese official convicted of doing business through friends or relatives would receive a severe sentence or even executed. In Russia, where most bureaucrats think nothing of combining government duties with business, this conflict of interest is par for the course. Imagine if Mayor Yury Luzhkov were the mayor of Shanghai. According to Chinese laws, he and his wife, Yelena Baturina, president of Inteko, which receives large construction contracts from City Hall, would surely have been executed long ago and their family holdings confiscated by the state.

• China wages a serious battle against corruption, whereas Russia is just going through the motions. Chinese bureaucrats are subjected to constant supervision to track what automobiles they own, where they live and how their relatives are employed. Prison cells are filled with former Politburo members, ministers, governors and the heads of state oil companies. Dozens of high-ranking officials were executed for taking kickbacks when allocating road-construction contracts. In Russia, officials steal as much as they can with complete impunity. In Transparency International’s 2009 survey for corruption, China was ranked No. 79, while Russia fared much worse — it was No. 146.

• China has been able to modernize successfully because business has been free to operate without interference from political forces or abuse by bureaucrats. For 30 years, China has conducted a policy of openness, attracting foreign investments, maintaining a high level of competition in the market, defending ownership rights and the integrity of contracts. In Russia, private business is choked by monopolization, heavy state control in key sectors, a lack of transparency, poor private property protection and rampant corruption. Russia is probably the world’s best example of how “bureaucratic capitalism” stunts private business.

If United Russia members really understood the true nature of the Chinese political model, they wouldn’t be so captivated by it. If, by chance, they — along with ministers, governors and mayors — were suddenly transplanted into analogous positions in China, they would immediately be given life sentences for corruption, and their expensive foreign villas, luxury cars and fat bank accounts would be confiscated. Under the Chinese criminal code, they would also be subject to the death penalty. That is why I would advise United Russia to forget once and for all about the Chinese model. The consequences for their livelihood are too dangerous. Perhaps they should be instead looking at a more corruption-friendly model — for example, in Nigeria.

Vladimir Ryzhkov

24 November 2009

The Moscow Times

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