Russia's Leaders See China as
Template for Ruling
by Clifford Levy
www.nytimes.com, October 17, 2009
Nearly two decades after the collapse
of the Communist Party, Russia's rulers have hit upon a model
for future success: the Communist Party.
Or at least, the one that reigns next
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.
United Russia's leaders even convened
a special meeting this month with senior Chinese Communist Party
officials to hear firsthand how they wield power.
In truth, the Russians express no desire
to return to Communism as a far-reaching Marxist-Leninist ideology,
whether the Soviet version or the much attenuated one in Beijing.
What they admire, it seems, is the Chinese ability to use a one-party
system to keep tight control over the country while still driving
significant economic growth.
It is a historical turnabout that resonates,
given that the Chinese Communists were inspired by the Soviets,
before the two sides had a lengthy rift.
For the Russians, what matters is the
countries' divergent paths in recent decades. They are acutely
aware that even as Russia has endured many dark days in its transition
to a market economy, China appears to have carried out a fairly
similar shift more artfully.
The Russians also seem almost ashamed
that their economy is highly dependent on oil, gas and other natural
resources, as if Russia were a third world nation, while China
excels at manufacturing products sought by the world.
"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."
Mr. Zhukov invited President Hu Jintao,
general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, to United Russia's
convention, in November in St. Petersburg.
The meeting in Suifenhe capped several
months of increased contacts between the political parties. In
the spring, a high-level United Russia delegation visited Beijing
for several days of talks, and United Russia announced that it
would open an office in Beijing for its research arm.
The fascination with the Chinese Communist
Party underscores United Russia's lack of a core philosophy. The
party has functioned largely as an arm of Mr. Putin's authority,
even campaigning on the slogan "Putin's Plan." Lately,
it has championed "Russian Conservatism," without detailing
what exactly that is.
Indeed, whether United Russia's effort
to learn from the Chinese Communist Party is anything more than
an intellectual exercise is an open question.
Whatever the motivation, Russia in recent
years has started moving toward the Chinese model politically
and economically. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991,
Russia plunged into capitalism haphazardly, selling off many industries
and loosening regulation. Under Mr. Putin, the government has
reversed course, seizing more control over many sectors.
Today, both countries govern with a potent
centralized authority, overseeing economies with a mix of private
and state industries, although the Russians have long seemed less
disciplined in doing so.
Corruption is worse in Russia than China,
according to global indexes, and foreign companies generally consider
Russia's investment climate less hospitable as well, in part because
of less respect for property rights.
Russia has also been unable to match China
in modernizing roads, airports, power plants and other infrastructure.
And Russia is grappling with myriad health and social problems
that have reduced the average life expectancy for men to 60. One
consequence is a demographic crisis that is expected to drag down
The world financial crisis accentuated
comparisons between the economies, drawing attention to Moscow's
policies. In June, the World Bank projected that China's economy
would grow by 7.2 percent in 2009, while Russia's would shrink
by 7.9 percent.
Politically, Russia remains more open
than China, with independent (though often co-opted) opposition
parties and more freedom of speech. The most obvious contrast
involves the Internet, which is censored in China but not in Russia.
Even so, 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
The Kremlin's strategy was apparent in
regional elections last week, when United Russia lieutenants and
government officials used strong-arm tactics to squeeze out opposition
parties, according to nonpartisan monitoring organizations. United
Russia won the vast majority of contests across the country.
Far behind was the Russian Communist Party,
which styles itself as the successor to the Soviet one and has
some popularity among older people. The Russian Communists have
also sought to build ties to their Chinese brethren, but the Chinese
leadership prefers to deal with Mr. Putin's party.
The regional elections highlighted how
the Russian government and United Russia have become ever more
intertwined. State-run television channels offer highly favorable
coverage of the party, and the courts rarely if ever rule against
it. United Russia leaders openly acknowledged that they wanted
to study how the Chinese maintained the correct balance between
the party and government.
"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.
United Russia praises the Chinese system
without mentioning its repressive aspects. And the party's stance
also appears to clash with repeated declarations by Mr. Putin,
the former president and current prime minister, and President
Dmitri A. Medvedev that Russia needs a robust multiparty system
The two endorsed the results of Sunday's
local elections, despite widespread reports of fraud, prompting
opposition politicians to call their words hollow.
Sergei S. Mitrokhin, leader of Yabloko,
a liberal, pro-Western party that was trounced, said the elections
revealed the Kremlin's true aspirations. And the China talks made
them all the more clear, Mr. Mitrokhin said.
"To me, the China meeting demonstrated
that United Russia wants to establish a single-party dictatorship
in Russia, for all time," he said.
Throughout recent centuries, Russia has
flirted with both the West and East, its identity never quite
settled, and analysts said that under Mr. Putin, the political
leadership had grown scornful of the idea that the country had
to embrace Western notions of democracy or governing.
That in part stems from the backlash stirred
in the 1990s, after the Soviet fall, when Russia faced economic
hardship and political chaos, which many Putin supporters say
the West helped to cause.
Dmitri Kosyrev, a political commentator
for Russia's state news agency and author of detective novels
set in Asia, said it was only natural that the Kremlin would cast
its gaze to the East.
"When they discovered that there
was a way to reform a formally socialist nation into something
much better and more efficient, of course they would take note,"
Mr. Kosyrev said. "Everyone here sees China as the model,
because Russia is not the model."