Illustration by Colin Matsui
Illustration by Colin Matsui

More than a century ago, China’s foremost modern intellectual, Liang Qichao, declared that his country, struggling for modern nationhood, didn’t need a socialist revolution.

Liang was convinced that socialist ideas, emerging in industrialized nations with working-class populations, were poorly suited to a peasant country like China.

Liang recognized that laissez-faire economics produced terrible inequalities -- a visit to New York’s tenements in 1904 moved him to quote the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu: “Crimson mansions reek of wine and meat while on the road lie frozen bones. Rich and poor but a foot apart; sorrows too hard to relate.” But as he saw it, what China needed, in the age of fierce international competition, was industrial production through capitalist methods carefully regulated by a powerful state, which also worked to mitigate the resulting inequalities, and check exploitation of the laboring poor.

After a long and bloody revolutionary interlude, China has arguably come close to this model -- state-regulated capitalism with a social-welfare component. The apparent success of the “Beijing Consensus,” and relative weakness of the West’s free-market economies, is now beginning to encourage much ambitious and contradictory rhetoric (including from Newt Gingrich, who admires China’s state-funded high-speed rail network even as he rails against public spending in the U.S.). And it would seem to offer something of a lesson to China’s neighbor, and erstwhile socialist bedfellow, Russia.

The Chinese Way

Last week, a widely read columnist on a Chinese government English-language website, China.org.cn, exhorted Russian Communists, who managed to come in second with 20 percent of the national vote in Russia’s blatantly rigged parliamentary elections, to learn from China’s example. “China has proven,” Heiko Khoo wrote, “that a Communist Party in power can continuously develop the economy, modernise infrastructure and improve real living standards.”

“If,” he added, “the Communists are seen to be more democratic, closer to the masses, and capable of emulating Chinese rates of economic growth, their support will rise and a modern and successful Soviet Russia can be born.”

There are too many piquant ironies here for an educated Russian. One is surely that China, considered a backward country by even Stalin, has something to teach the West. Another is that Russia since 1991 has offered a cautionary tale to the world’s only communist superpower. There are few instances in recent history of such large-scale criminality, impoverishment and misery as occurred when Russia, stumbling out of a dysfunctional planned economy, was shock-therapied into free-market capitalism.

The admirer of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not exaggerating when he writes that Russia suffered “the world’s worst peacetime mortality crisis in the past 50 years, resulting in millions of additional male deaths in the 1990s. To this day, life expectancy in Russia is below that of 1961.”

There are many Chinese who, though severely critical of the CCP, harbor no wish to replace it with a multiparty democracy. They speak of the party’s continuing ability to stave off chaos of the kind that engulfed Russia after 1991, and that eventually turned a former KGB operative, Vladimir Putin, into Russia’s most popular leader. Inverting Friedrich Hayek’s argument in “The Road to Serfdom” -- that state intervention in market relationships leads inexorably to dictatorship -- they argue that the chaos and mass suffering unleashed by unregulated markets pave the way to the brutal authoritarianism embodied today by Putin.

The Stability Argument

Not surprisingly, Putin and his cronies also insist that a country as large as Russia can only be controlled by a heavily centralized state. This argument for “stability” sounds suspiciously like an argument against democracy and human rights. We have heard different versions of it from besieged dictators -- most recently, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, the liberal-democratic West has yet to put forth a compelling solution to the plight of ordinary Russians.

Last week, the excesses of Putin provoked the Economist into some unexpected praise for the Soviet era, when leaders “had values, not just interests” and “took themselves and their words seriously.” The Communist Party, it added, “was not called ’a party of thieves and crooks.’”

This may be news to many who lived under the Soviet system. Nevertheless, the Economist broadly agrees with China.org.cn that Putin became Russia’s most popular leader because Russians “longed for order and stability, which they associated with the army and security services rather than with politicians.” Putin also revived the hoary paranoia about “Russia as a great power surrounded by enemies.”

Still, this line of thinking only partly explains how so many Russians ended up loving Putin, and doesn’t say how they can get away from him. The Economist blames something called “Soviet mental software,” which apparently “has proved much more durable than the ideology itself,” and created the “Soviet Man, an artificial construct of doublethink, paternalism, suspicion and isolationism,” which has acquired in the Putin era “new characteristics such as cynicism and aggression.”

This theory is somewhat plausible. However, broad-brush culturalist explanations like these -- remember the one about Arab societies not being hard-wired for freedom? -- are interesting more for what they conceal than for what they reveal. What’s missing here is an adequate historical reckoning with the years after 1991 when Russia, assisted by its vanquishers in the Cold War, underwent a traumatic utopian experiment in free-market capitalism: living standards collapsed, the crime rate skyrocketed -- a series of disasters that culminated in the destruction of the ruble and bankruptcy in 1998.

The Western Role

Whether bombarding Russia’s parliament, rigging elections or imposing a quasi-imperial presidential system, the country’s buffoonish leader in the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin, didn’t lose his many friends and allies in the West. But his abject dependence on them came to be despised by the vast nationalist majority of Russians.

Many Western writers and journalists also participated in this ideological project to turn Russia into a free-market economy overnight. Less than a year before Russia’s financial implosion in August 1998, the Economist was praising Anatoly Chubais, a man Russians revile for organizing the fire sale of their country to oligarchs, for his “dynamism, guile and vision.”

Failure, especially on a catastrophic human scale as Russia’s, has few fathers. And when revolutions go badly wrong, their ideologues tend to blame the unfitness of the “people” rather than their own fanatical zeal. The conventional Western narrative about Russia today sounds no more persuasive than the unsolicited advice of those Chinese who think that, as China.org.cn puts it, Russian communists should learn from “Chinese state enterprises and local and national government bodies,” leading to a “comprehensive Sino-Russian plan of collaboration, development and progress.”

There is no doubt that rebuilding Russia’s industrial base (or, weaning its economy from an unhealthy reliance on export of raw materials), restoring social welfare provisions or diminishing the country’s dangerously big nuclear stockpile would require an interventionist Russian state along the lines of what Liang Qichao advocated for China.

But it needn’t be autocratic, as Putin’s own creation -- the Russian middle class -- seemed to say last weekend in the country’s biggest demonstrations in two decades. And this time foreigners, Chinese or Westerners, can help by maintaining a discreet distance from Russia’s internal affairs. For “the ways by which people advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.”

George Kennan, America’s wisest Russia Hand, wrote those words in 1951. They are more resonant in this tumultuous year as despots once considered immovable are overthrown right and left, elected governments emerge where they were least expected, and, finally, the Russian people, too, find their voice against their brutal and venal masters.

(Pankaj Mishra, the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond,” is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.