Home .Governing globalization Tyranny in China and Russia
Tyranny in China and Russia
Tuesday, 03 July 2012 15:33

Russia and China are the chief strategic threats to the moral and political commitments of liberal democracies, argued Michael Ignatieff in his recent stirring Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture, delivered in Riga, Latvia.

In Ignatieff's words, China and Russia are "post-Communist oligarchies" ...

"They have no ideology other than enrichment".  They are "regimes that are recalcitrant to the global order; predatory on their own society and dependent for their stability, not on institutions, but ... on the capacity of the economic machine to distribute enough riches to enough people."

He has very harsh words for the Putin regime. 

It "is something new in the annals of political science, a tyranny that ratifies itself with rigged elections; a market society in which everything is for sale, but no one’s property is safe; a petro-state that leaves millions so poor they remember Soviet times with nostalgia; a state ruled by a former secret police agent whose only contact with a liberal Western state was as a spy and whose understanding of power was learned in an interrogation rooms of a police state."

Putin's weakness makes him more ruthless.

He "is not a barbarian of old, since he does not express explicit designs on your territory or your freedom; he offers no ideology for export ... but all the same, he is not happy and because he is not happy, you are not secure.  He knows that millions of his citizens no longer thank him for the security his regime has provided. They have tasted some freedom and they both resent his authoritarianism and worry that their own economic freedoms are insecure under his rule.  He himself is resentful of Western scorn and indifference, nostalgic for the good old days when Russian might was at least respected. So he is a ruthless leader determined to earn respect, if necessary, by force."

We must be careful not to provoke Putin.

"As states on its southern frontier, like Georgia, have learned, this new Russia is easily provoked. The states on its northern frontier will have to avoid giving or giving in to provocation.  You will have to be prudent, keep your alliances in good order, never let your guard down, make sure no internal quarrels—especially over language and minority rights– ever provide a rationale for outside interference, and make sure all your citizens, whatever their language or origins, never forget how much their own personal freedom depends on the preservation of your national independence."

Russia's wealth is "precarious".

"... natural resource income that leaves the regime dependent upon the ups and downs of the commodity price cycle; a petro-state vulnerable to Dutch disease, corruption and increasing inequality; a political order without checks and balances, without the rule of law, and without even an orderly democratic mechanism for leadership transition."

China and Russia are fundamentally unstable.

"In the case of China, the wealth is based on control of cheap labour supply chains in global manufacturing and the steady growth of a domestic consumer market measured in the hundreds of millions.  In both Russia and China, rising real incomes have replaced ideology as the key to post-Communist legitimacy.  Yet wealth is an unstable source of legitimacy.  Since both regimes are predatory, wealth is highly concentrated in those with access to power. The strategic question is whether Russia and China are stable.   Ostentatious wealth, built on corruption, power concentrated in few hands and unconstrained by institutions, is not a recipe for stability at home or peaceful relations abroad."

"Both China and Russia are societies in which power is stacked: political power confers economic, social and cultural power. They remain single party states, emptied of the ideology of communism, yet imbued with the same Leninist attitude to power. Leninism dies hard, but sheer ruthlessness is a brittle basis for legitimacy."

"Neither China nor Russia has made peace with their Communist past.  Societies that suppress secrets are not stable. In both Russia and China, the regimes have quietly put Communism aside as a public belief system, but they have never faced up to Communist legacies of terror, starvation and persecution."

We can't assume that Russia and China are evolving towards liberal democracies.

"... it is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve towards democratic liberty. Once market freedoms are introduced, once a middle class is created, an unstoppable demand arises for press freedom, for political pluralism, for rule of law and for an independent judiciary, that is, for all the institutional accouterments of liberal society.   It is not unreasonable to think this, and there are millions of Russians and Chinese who passionately believe it and seek it, and if they have need of our help, we should give it. But we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society, any more than it made sense to predict in 1950, say, that both Chinese and Russian totalitarianism were doomed to crumble ... no one can be sure that either will evolve towards anything remotely like a liberal democratic order."

We must help campaigners for the rule of law.

"If this is true, then in our dealings with the Chinese and Russians, it matters to give help, both private and public, to those who campaign in both countries for the rule of law, not the rule of men, who want poor villagers to be fairly compensated for expropriations of their land, who want ordinary people to have the right to read anything they want on the Internet, who want free and fair elections and an end to the rule of billionaire oligarchs. History is not necessarily on the side of these liberal values, but fighting for them remains a moral duty.  If a blind lawyer in China is fighting against forced sterilization of women, if others are fighting against evictions of peasants, then we can can give them the encouragement of knowing that they are not alone and that we will not remain silent if they are persecuted."

Ignatieff speech provides with a powerful, sobering and necessary reminder of the realities of Russia and China.  As Western liberal democracies are mired in financial crisis, too many people are naively praising the "efficiency" of the "Beijing concensus" and so on.  The merits of "state capitalism" has also become a fashionable topic of discussion and analysis.  And China itself has been in a self-congratulatory mode these past few years, though that is toning down as its economy is now having problems.

For all its obvious problems, liberal democracy does not suffer from the moral bankruptcy of these post-Communist oligarchies.    



Isaiah Berlin, The Soviet Union and the Captive Nations
Text of the Fourth Annual Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture, delivered by Michael Ignatieff in Riga, Latvia, on 6 June 2012

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