There's more than one road to the promised land

Russia might be more democratic but China is better governed

Comparing China and Russia in terms of their conformity to western liberal-democratic standards shows the inadequacy of such a general yardstick, writes Rein Müllerson in his response to Ivan Krastev. What really matters is rule of law and good governance.

The title of Ivan Krastev’s article is intriguing and even provocative: “Is China more democratic than Russia?” His general conclusion is that, notwithstanding the presence of most formal attributes of democracy in Russia and their virtual absence in China’s political system, in substance, China is nevertheless more democratic than Russia. In coming to such a conclusion Krastev relies on five criteria: power rotation; listening to the people; tolerance of opposition and dissent; recruitment of elites; and experimentation. Ivan Krastev’s writings are often witty and imaginative and this article is no exception. It contains some original and true ideas as well as insightful observations. However, there is, in my opinion, also a deep underlying paradigmatic, what I would call a Hegelian-Marxist-Fukuyamean (in the sense of the latter’s end of history and last man concept) fallacy in his reasoning. His comparison of China and Russia is based on the premise that the whole world and each country is moving in the same direction, passing through more or less the same stages towards the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy.

The basic assumption is that the more democratic a society, the better off it is; the more it corresponds to the western liberal-democratic ideal, the more advanced it is. If in many cases such an assumption is true, in other situations it may reflect the kind of wishful thinking that has serious negative consequences if attempts are made to act upon it. A comparison of China and Russia in terms of their conformity to western liberal-democratic standards shows the inadequacy of such a general yardstick. In the case of China, there is a much more fitting choice of yardstick, and any attempt to quickly squeeze Russia’s society, or any other society not (yet) ready for the realization of such standards, into shape will result in an inevitable backlash.

Is China more democratic than Russia?

Photo: Daboost. Source: Shutterstock

In comparing China and Russia, Krastev finds that, notwithstanding the presence of many formal signs of democracy in Russia (regular multiparty elections, the existence of opposition media and so on), in substance, China “is arguably more democratic than Russia”, since the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) better understands, cares more about and more effectively responds to what people want (Krastev does not add here, as is almost invariably done in the West, that this responsiveness is only due to the desire of the CCP to remain indefinitely in power). However, Krastev continues, “neither country can satisfy the minimalist definition of democracy, i.e. competitive elections with uncertain outcomes”. We already see a contradiction that cannot be resolved within the chosen paradigm. If neither China nor Russia satisfy even a minimalist definition of democracy, is it at all possible to assert that one of them is more democratic than the other?

China and Russia, notwithstanding their vast geographical size and comparable communist pasts, are very different societies and, therefore, it would be wrong to gauge them on the basis of the same general measurements (although it remains possible, of course, to measure their economic growth in terms of their respective GDP and other specific quantifiable details). To put it briefly and, therefore, also a bit simplistically, Russia is a European country, even if we add the qualification “sort of” on the grounds that, due to the country’s history, recent superpower status and even geography, Russia may not fit easily into a concept of Europe based largely on the relatively recent evolution of the western part of the continent. China is not simply an Asian country (it is obvious that there are significant differences among Asian countries); China is, to use Weiwei Zhang’s characterization, a civilizational state, in which governance “can only be based mainly on its own methods shaped by its own traditions and culture”.1 And as Zhang emphasizes, “It is unimaginable that most Chinese would ever accept the so-called multi-party democratic system with a change of central government every four years.”2 Therefore, one may conclude, “the minimalist definition of democracy” has nothing to do with China. While European standards of liberal democracy could be, and in principle should be, mutatis mutandis, applicable in Russia, they may be completely inadequate in measuring China’s progress or lack of it. China is not necessarily more democratic than Russia, especially if one uses western standards of liberal democracy as a measure, but China is certainly better governed and has made incomparable progress in bettering of the lives of the Chinese people: notwithstanding all of the country’s problems, the Chinese people look to the future more optimistically than those in many other nations.

Ivan Krastev correctly, in my opinion, puts China above Russia when looking at factors such as how elites are recruited or at patterns of power rotation, but these factors have very little, if anything, to do with democracy. They are elements of meritocratic governance based on the Chinese Confucian legacy. “In China”, write Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels, “the idea of ‘elevating the worthy’ to positions of power despite pedigree can be traced back to the Warring States period of 453-221 BC”.3 Yan Xuetong, analysing classic texts of pre-Chin dynasty (that is, the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period), concludes that “competition for talent is not a phenomenon peculiar for the knowledge economy but rather is the essence of competition among great powers”.4 In respect of which, China is different not only from Russia but also from the United States and European liberal democracies. This is not to say that China is better than the US or the US is better than China in terms of their respective systems of governance. They simply represent different models of societal development, and though their respective effectiveness can be compared (in a dynamic perspective this comparison favours China), it would be wrong for the US to try to imitate China or for China to try to resemble the US. That said, “borrowing” from one another may well be advisable; but the process certainly shouldn’t be a one-way, West-East street. To prosper, China may well have to become, in some important respects more like the US (more market and personal freedoms, less governmental control) while the US may well have to draw upon the Chinese experience in order to deal with acute problems such as short-termism, populism and the money-based influence of special interest groups. Moreover, the legalized role of money in the politics of some highly developed liberal democracies (huge election contributions, lobbying and revolving door practices) makes their political systems only marginally less corrupt than those of some non-democracies. As Berggruen and Gardels observe, “western democracy is no more self-correcting than China’s system. In a mirror image of China’s challenge, one-person-one-vote electoral democracy embedded in a consumer culture of immediate gratification is also headed for terminal decay unless it reforms.”5

Therefore, it doesn’t make much sense to compare Russia’s social and political systems to those of China. It would be more useful to compare Russia – a European country – to other European states. In respect of which, we could indeed speak of a democratic deficit in Russia, as well as the presence of formal democratic institutions without much substance. These are also the conclusions that Ivan Krastev draws, since he uses western, not Chinese, criteria when comparing Russia and China. In my opinion, one would be justified in defining Russia either as a fledgling and corrupt democracy with some strong authoritarian tendencies or as an authoritarian state with some elements of democracy.

On a more general note, one should be cautious of the view that liberalism and democracy carry the same universal value always and everywhere, or that they could be used as common yardsticks to measure progress or the lack of it in very different societies. Equally, it is important not to confuse such values with phenomena that are in fact quite the opposite of both liberalism and democracy, such as chaos and anarchy; even if the latter do share some superficial qualities with the former.

Rule of law

In both abstract terms and in many concrete situations, democracy is indeed an important feature of a political system and society as a whole, and it has both instrumental as well as intrinsic value. But is it the most important characteristic in all circumstances? Hardly. There are quite a few corrupt democracies where the rule of law is virtually absent. Pakistan or Nigeria may be prime examples but there are many smaller ones. For years many western experts have considered Kyrgyzstan as the most democratic country in central Asia. Despite the June 2010 bloody inter-ethnic clashes in the South of the country and the fact that the situation in the country still remains explosive, they still seem to believe such a characterization to be true. Unfortunately, none of the underlying causes of the 2010 conflict have been addressed. What has prevailed is not democracy but a kind of anarchy, i.e. the inability of the successive governments to govern. Whether due to hypocrisy or naivety, such a situation has been taken for democracy. Yes, there may have been more freedoms in Kyrgyzstan than, say, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, however these freedoms also included the freedom to extort, practice racketeering, discriminate against minorities and, ultimately, even to kill them and destroy their property.

The Independent International Kyrgyz Inquiry Commission (KIC),6 of which the author of this article was a member, found that attacks against Uzbek mahallas in Osh (and not the other attacks or violence in other parts of southern Kyrgyzstan) constituted crimes against humanity under customary international law. They targeted the civilian population, were widespread, systematic and relatively well organized (for example, when Uzbek defenders in some cases repelled attacks, the attackers withdrew, regrouped and, often using armoured personnel carriers to destroy defensive barricades, attacked anew). The KIC considered “the consequences of the attack upon the targeted population, the number of victims, the nature of the acts, the possible participation of officials or authorities or any identifiable patterns of crimes […] to determine whether the attack satisfies either or both requirements of a ‘widespread’ or ‘systematic’ attack”.7 In the absence of minimal security, it is pointless to discuss the presence, absence or prospects of democracy in Kyrgyzstan or in quite a few other countries where anarchy and chaos prevail.

Richard Sakwa has made a pertinent comment on attempts to assess levels of democracy in Russia by comparing the incomparable: “This regime inspection reached the height of absurdity with the annual Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ survey, which in the 2007 version judged Russia to be as unfree as the Congo, ignoring entirely the social and political context in which the various freedoms operate and vastly differing levels of effective governance.”8 Trying to find out whether the Democratic Republic of Congo is more democratic, less democratic or as democratic as Russia simply doesn’t make sense.

Good governance

If we want to have a more general, more universal criterion for ranking states, for measuring their progress or lack of it, it shouldn’t be democracy but rather governance or governability. In short, the yardstick should be good governance. In that respect China is indeed way ahead of Russia and many other countries, quite a few of which could be considered democratic or even liberal-democratic. Yu Keping argues that “good governance will be the most important source of political legitimacy for human society in the twenty-first century”.9 Such a prediction seems quite reasonable. Of course, good governance is not opposed to democracy. On the contrary, in many societies it is an important element or feature of a well-governed society, and an important element of governmental legitimacy. But efficiency, stability and the rule of law are even more important characteristics, since they are more substantial criteria than any provided by “the minimalist definition of democracy”. It is also important to note that in the West it was the rule of law that preceded democracy and served to make the latter sustainable. Today, in many non-western societies we see how imported superficial features of democracy acquire distorted, even ugly forms that do not, and in my opinion cannot, lead to the emergence of the rule of law. So, without being underpinned by the rule of law, efficient governance and social stability, formal democratic institutions, which may be relatively easily imported, not only remain formal but they are not sustainable either.

Allen Lynch has published a comparative study of reforms made in China under Deng Xiaoping and the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and the factors that contributed to their respective success and failure.10 When at the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union embarked on the perestroika and glasnost reforms, Soviet intellectuals, as the main opinion-formers, being essentially European in their outlook, would not have backed a politically authoritarian model of economic modernization. In China, on the contrary, intellectuals were, on the whole, supportive of Deng’s model of economic modernization under the leadership of the CCP. At the end of his insightful comparison of Deng’s and Gorbachev’s reforms, Lynch proposes an interesting and, in my opinion, useful counterfactual thought-experiment that may be of more general interest. What would have happened had Yuri Andropov, a former, long-serving KGB chief who became the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party after Brezhnev’s death in 1982, been in better health and not died after less than two years in office (Lynch is probably right that had Deng Xiaoping died soon after he started his reforms, China wouldn’t have been what it is today). Lynch assumes that Andropov, in contrast to Gorbachev, would not have relinquished the leading role of the Communist Party, and would not have initiated the political liberalization of Soviet society. Lynch is also right that Andropov garnered more authority not only among the political and military elite, but also among Soviet society at large (the clear exception being the Soviet intelligentsia) than Gorbachev. And Andropov certainly was enough of a realist; his years of experience as a KGB chief meant that he certainly knew the real situation in the country better than most in the Soviet leadership, and even better than most world leaders. Therefore, it is quite possible that Andropov’s economic reforms would have borne some fruit, and the Soviet Union could have existed far longer than it did under Gorbachev. However, I am sure that the Soviet Union under Andropov would not have been the same success story as China has been under Deng and his successors. The main reasons for such a conclusion, once again, lie in the differences between Chinese and Soviet societies (the USSR, with Russia as its largest constituent part – a European country, China – an Asian nation with millennia of continuous statehood; China – a more or less homogeneous society, the USSR – a multiethnic, multi-religious country; the USSR – an urbanized, industrially developed society, China at the end of the 1970s – basically a rural, agricultural society, and so on). And they are also to be found in the differences between the personalities of the two men. If Deng was a visionary pragmatist who well understood his people and society, Andropov was an ideologue, though cleverer, more knowledgeable and personally less corrupt than most of his colleagues. He was an ideologue who believed in the ultimate superiority of the communist system, whose worldview was not shaken but strengthened as a result of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt against communist rule and Soviet domination in 1956, when Andropov was the Soviet Ambassador to Budapest.

Boris Yeltsin, in August of 1991, standing firm against the putschists, later used the entire proper lexicon necessary to be liked by many in the West. However, it was not so much democracy that emerged under President Yeltsin (though elements of it were of course present) as the oligarchicization of society, and a process of plundering Russia’s wealth.11 That is why what is often described in the West as a backlash against democracy under President Putin has to be seen in the context of what happened in Russia under Yeltsin, and to a great extent as a reaction to these processes. Nor have western policies towards Russia helped the country become more liberal and democratic. Relations between the West and Russia need not be as edgy and confrontational as they are today. Although there is no Cold War, there is a kind of “cold peace” that does not allow for the realization of the potential for cooperation (in many areas, including international security, such cooperation is a must and not at all impossible). On the contrary, such a situation contains seeds for a further deterioration in relations between them. The current state of affairs between the West and Russia is mainly due to perceptions stemming from the past. If one perceives the other side as a strategic rival, or even a foe or a potential enemy and acts upon such perceptions, then we are likely to see a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, Mitt Romney, the then Republican American Presidential candidate, commenting on the outcome of the meeting of the American and Russian presidents in Seoul in March 2012, said: “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”12 Although this was said in the heat of a presidential electoral campaign, such irresponsible statements and inadequate visions harking back to the past have a negative impact on the current and future relations between these two countries. Another, more general, reason for the tension between Washington and Moscow is the West’s desire to make non-western societies more like themselves. Reading and watching western media, one may conclude that not being a western-style liberal democrat is a kind of moral disability, which, like homosexuality in quite a few Muslim countries, has to be, if not punished, then at least cured. For example, in July 2007 The Economist wrote: “Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine, is no western-style democrat. Nor does this (now wealthy) founder of Gazprom and ex-prime minister pretend to be.”13 In this assertion, there seems to be the assumption that not being a western-style democrat, or not even pretending to be or trying to become one is something abnormal and reproachable. Under the pressure of Washington’s carrot-and-stick policies, many in the non-western world (and especially in today’s Arab world) do indeed pretend to be liberal democrats. Such hypocrisy is not innocuous. And though Russia’s destiny seems to be evolving closer to that of liberal-democratic Europe, external efforts to speed up this process are usually counterproductive.

What really matters

I would still argue, pace Krastev, that Russia is more democratic and more liberal than China; but Russia is also less well governed than China, and that is what really matters.

There are signs that, as China develops it is also becoming more democratic. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that the country will evolve towards a western-style liberal democracy, nor does it mean that it will become more accommodating to western interests; China’s democracy would certainly be democracy with Chinese characteristics. Russia, on the contrary, should give much more substance to existing formal democratic institutions. Then the country’s progress could indeed be measured using the benchmarks of western-style liberal democracy, although here a caveat is necessary. In carrying out its reforms, Russia should try to avoid the shortcomings of western-style democracy that have become especially obvious in the light of the ongoing financial and economic crisis. It is in this respect in particular that a comparison with the efficiency of Chinese responses to contemporary challenges comes into its own. As Frances Fukuyama has observed, “many people currently admire the Chinese system not just for its economic record but also because it can make large, complex decisions quickly, compared with the agonizing policy paralysis that has struck both the United States and Europe in the past few years”.14 Hence, Russia should learn from China too, though not necessarily from its democracy with Chinese characteristics.

In conclusion, I believe that Russia’s progress is to a great extent dependent on how successful the country will be in creatively using elements of western-style liberal democracy, while China may pursue alternative roads to success. And though there may be far fewer roads to success than to failure, it would be wrong to assume that there is only one direction for all societies to move in, towards their promised lands.

Zhang Weiwei, The China Wave. The Rise of a Civilizational State, World Century Publishing Corporation, 2012, 59.

Ibid., 60.

Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between West and East, Polity, 2013.

Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, Princeton University Press, 2011, 66.

Berggruen and Gardels, 9.

Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry into the Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan, June 2010,

Paragraph 256 of the report.

Richard Sakwa, "'New Cold War' or twenty years of crisis? Russia and international politics", International Affairs 84, no. 2 (2008).

Yu Keping, "Good Governance and Legitimacy", China's Search for Good Governance, edited by Deng Zhenglai and Sujian Guo, 16 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Allen Lynch, "Deng's and Gorbachev's Reform Strategies Compared", Russia in Global Affairs 24 (June 2012).

The process of the pillaging of Russia has been well documented in Pavel Khlebnikov's book "Godfather of the Kremlin and the History of Pillage of Russia", which in English translation carries the title Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism, Harvest Books, 2001.

James Joyner, "America's Number One Geostrategic Threat?", New Atlanticist Policy and Analysis Blog, 28 March 2012,

The Economist, 7-13 July 2007, 39.

Francis Fukuyama, "The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class", Foreign Affairs (January/February 2012).

Published 13 August 2013
Original in English
First published by Vikerkaar 6/2013 (Estonian version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Vikerkaar © Rein Müllerson / Vikerkaar / Eurozine



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