Once upon a time, specialists in Chinese studies, like me, felt a kinship with scholars who focused on Russia. We each shared an interest in large countries that had command economies, Leninist systems of rule, and propaganda systems that often focused on exposing nefarious Western conspiracies to undermine Communism. Scholars of China and Russia each struggled to make sense of opaque and often misleading official pronouncements. We focused on places whose current leaders took a dim view of the imperial past of the country they governed, dismissing as backward local religious traditions and figures who had been revered before the Revolution. But by the early 1990s, with the Soviet Union imploding but the People’s Republic of China intact (and on track to grow a bit in 1997 when Britain ceded Hong Kong to it), the many contrasts between the Russian and Chinese situations appeared to far outweigh any remaining similarities. The Soviet Union’s demise seemed the best evidence around that Francis Fukuyama had been right to proclaim that the era of a grand competition between capitalism and state socialism was over, while China stood out as the most important example of a country that had not gotten the “end of history” memo.
Some two decades after this alleged parting of the ways, though, something strange began to happen. Reading stories about post-Communist Russia, in part in order to divert myself from my preoccupation with still-Communist China, I would get the feeling that the words coming off the page might just as well have been written about the country I teach and write about for a living. My most recent experience of this came when the Panama Papers listed a close friend of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a relative of Chinese leader Xi Jinping among those who had sequestered large amounts of money in secret offshore accounts. Spokesmen in Beijing and Moscow responded in strikingly similar ways, with state media alternately ignoring the leaks and dismissing them as part of an American conspiracy.
It was not during Xi’s rein but late in that of his predecessor Hu Jintao, who ruled from 2002–2012, that I first began to notice cases of Russia and China acting strangely in sync. One instance came late in 2011 while I was reading a “Letter from Moscow” in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, a leading chronicler of the end of the Soviet Union. The article focused largely on responses to Russia’s most recent elections, which, to no one’s surprise, kept Putin in power. Remnick offered a sweeping look at everything from the challenges human rights groups faced under this strongman leader to the underdeveloped nature of civil society in this post-totalitarian but clearly authoritarian state to the limits placed on the press in a country whose leaders were determined to contain the flow of information that undermined their authority. And I kept thinking, as I read, that he might be talking about China, not Russia.
It was not just the big themes Remnick addressed but also some of the small details he provided that seemed eerily familiar. For example, in trying to capture the frustration and outrage that many urban residents felt at the special perks enjoyed by members of the government, their kin, and their cronies, Remnick turned to driving habits. Solving traffic congestion in Moscow was a simple matter for “officials and the well-connected,” who employed specially issued “flashing blue lights” that, when placed atop their luxury cars, allowed them to zoom through traffic-snarled streets as ordinary drivers had to pull aside to let them pass. To be sure, China did not have the same blue light system, but the Chinese Internet was filled with angry posts describing incidents when officials and their family members acted—and got away with acting—as though the rules did not apply to them.
I felt a particularly strong sense of “he could have just come back from China” as Remnick described a spate of urban protests in Russia. These showed, he said, that the country’s young professionals were becoming less “bovine, apathetic,” and “anesthetized by stability” than they once were. This assessment of Russia’s middle class struck me as something I could have just as easily read at the time on the “Letter from China” blog that New Yorker staffer Evan Osnos, who would go on to publish a major book on Chinese culture and politics in the eras of Hu and his successor Xi Jinping, Age of Ambition, was keeping. He often posted commentaries on rumblings of discontent and the many steps the Chinese authorities took to try to convince upwardly mobile young professionals to continue to accept a flawed status quo, as long as it brought them creature comforts, a compact forged in the wake of the 1989 protests that, by 2011, had grown increasingly strained.
The similarities between Russia and China should not be overstated. National elections, no matter how flawed, are held in the former but not the latter. Putin circa 2011, already known for dramatic posturing, was very different from his pallid Chinese counterpart Hu. There are also things that make Putin dissimilar from Hu’s more charismatic successor. Putin, in contrast to Xi, was not born into an elite family. In today’s Moscow, unlike Beijing, bookstore displays tables don’t groan beneath stacks of the current leader’s tome of political philosophy. Invading a heavily populated border region like Crimea is quite different than a symbolic power grab of tiny islands with few or no residents. Xi’s use of Confucian quotes and Putin’s courting of Russian Orthodox leaders may be parallel but they serve different ends. And so on.
Still, even though contemporary-minded China-Russia analogies are bound to be imperfect, imperfect analogies can be useful, if they lead us to break out of entrenched, misleading modes of thinking and help us become attentive to connections and parallels we might otherwise miss. Putting Russia and China in a shared category, rather than separate post-Communist and still-Communist boxes, can aid us in seeing things about each country more clearly. It also makes it less surprising to hear that leaders in Moscow and Beijing may once more be looking to each other for inspiration about how to handle specific problems.
Remnick’s one comment about China in his 2011 article called attention to this phenomenon: it referred to members of Putin’s circle studying the sophisticated techniques the Chinese authorities have developed in their struggle to control the flow of dissenting opinions online. More recently, members of Xi’s government may well have been thinking about the trouble Pussy Riot had caused for Putin when they decided, in March 2015, to summarily detain five feminists known for their performance art–style approach to raising awareness about gender inequality. In previous years, after all, activists had been able to do similar things with minimal interference. This attack on feminism is another thing that Putin and Xi have in common, setting them apart from their predecessors in Cold War times. Both claim that many “traditional” values are worth revering and promoting as elements of a mystical national essence, as opposed to remnants of a “feudal” past that need to be overcome if society is to become more modern and just.
Ruminating on the imperfect China-Russia analogy, I was reminded of the ways that the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was marked last year in different parts of Eurasia, leaving me with a final fanciful thought. What if a Rip van Winkle figure had gone to sleep in 1965 and awoken in 2015, in time to follow reports of how the two continents’ Victory Days were celebrated in Moscow last May and Beijing last September? He would remember that, when he had fallen asleep, Communist leaders had been in charge in both Moscow and Beijing, but they were at odds with one another. How curious, then, for him to discover upon waking that the most powerful foreign guest to attend Moscow’s commemoration of Germany’s defeat was the head of the Chinese Communist Party—and that the most powerful foreign guest on the rostrum near Xi as missiles on trucks rolled by Tiananmen Square marking the anniversary of Japan’s surrender was the leader of a no-longer-Communist Russia.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History and Professor of Law, by courtesy, at UC Irvine. This commentary is adapted from a chapter in the author’s Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo, which is currently available globally, from Penguin, as an e-book; it can also be purchased in some markets as a paperback now and will be issued in that format in the United States on October 1.