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Is China more democratic than Russia?

On paper, Russia’s political system is an impressive reproduction of Western representative democracy, while the Chinese system remains an unreconstructed autocracy. The reality of the situation is much more complex, says Ivan Krastev.

Asking the question, ‘who is more democratic, Russia or China’? is in some ways like asking the question ‘who is more feminine, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger’? We can spend some time comparing bicep sizes, and we can speculate about their gentle souls, but Russia and China are essentially two non-democracies. The average Chinese or Russian may today be wealthier and freer than any time before, but neither country can satisfy a minimalist definition of democracy, i.e. competitive elections with uncertain outcomes.

‘Though not quite representing an alternative to the age of democratisation, the Russian and Chinese systems are essentially adjustments to it: the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking Communism.’

The broader trends of democratisation and globalisation have not, however, passed either by. If in the past, monarchical power or ideology gave strong foundations to non-democratic regimes, today the only way to claim the right to govern is to claim popular backing. Coercion is no longer the central survival logic of either the Russian and Chinese regimes. A corollary of democratisation is the empowerment of people, and in particular the role of technology and communication within a globalising society. However hard they may try, non-democratic countries are still unable to prevent people from using the Internet, keeping cross-border connections, travelling or obtaining information about the wider world.

Added to these trends is another factor: financial crisis. At the onset of the difficulties, many analysts assumed that the changes would destabilise emerging democracies; others saw the crisis as a death sentence for authoritarian regimes. What seems to have happened is  instead something more complex: a blurring of the border between democracy and authoritarianism. Though not quite representing an alternative to the age of democratisation, the Russian and Chinese systems have essentially become adjustments to it. Broadly speaking, the Russians are faking democracy while the Chinese are faking Communism.

A tale of two sophistries

At the juncture 1989-1991, both Communist leaderships — Soviet and Chinese — came to realise that Communism had become a dysfunctional type of system. But they had different understandings of what was wrong with it. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachev decided that what was worth preserving were the socialist ideas, and what was bad was the Communist party and its inability to bring to mobilise the energy of the society. His idea of social transformation meant moving beyond the party rule, and developing a state which could be competitive in the Western paradigm. The Chinese communist party took a totally different view. They believed what was bad about communism were the Communist, socialist ideas, especially in an economic sense, and what was good about socialism was the Communist party and its capacity to keep control of society. So they did everything to keep the power infrastructure intact.

‘If an alien with a degree in political science came from some other planet and landed in Russia, he would most probably think the country was a democracy. China, on the other hand, does not look like a democracy, not even to our alien friend.’

What do these regimes look like today? The Russian regime, observed from afar, certainly looks like a democracy. It enjoys a democratic constitution, runs elections, has a multiparty political system, has some free media and has not yet used tanks to crush massive public protests. If an alien with a degree in political science came from some other planet and landed in Russia, he would most probably think the country was a democracy. China, on the other hand, does not look like a democracy, not even to our alien friend. It is, instead, rather like a classic communist regime. As Richard McGregor observes in his book ‘The Party’: ‘Beijing retains a surprising number of qualities that characterised communist regimes of the twentieth century. The Party in China has eradicated and emasculated political rivals, eliminated the autonomy of courts and press, restricted religion and civil society, established extensive network of security police, and dispatched dissidents to labour camps’.

On the level of institutional design not so much has changed in China since 1989, but almost everything has changed in Russia. The paradox, though, is that Russia’s imitation of democratic institutions has led to the establishment of an ineffective political regime deprived of political dynamism and characterised by low quality decision-making. The Chinese regime is generally accepted to be much more effective than the Russian one, and the quality of its decision-making is certainly much better. Moreover, it is arguably more democratic than Russia. Chinese regimes are much more capable for self-correction. They have succeeded in integrating key democratic elements while preserving the communist infrastructure of power.

Five Reasons why China is more democratic than Russia

Power Rotation

Russia clearly has elections, but no rotation of power. In the two post-communist decades, the president has not lost a single election: the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it. In the case of China, clearly, the opposition doesn’t have a chance of winning either. Yet on the other hand, Chinese leaders do not stay in power for any more than ten years, after which a new party leader and president are automatically elected. In other words, in the Russian system elections are used as the way to legitimise the lack of rotation, while the Chinese Communist institutional structure has developed to allow an element of power rotation. Of course, we are still talking about two non-competitive regimes. But the Chinese understand that you need to change leadership, or you have a problem. The Chinese system, based on the principle of collective leadership, prevents the emergence of personalised authoritarianism and provides much more checks and balances. Unlike Russia, China is not haunted by the ghost of succession: the Party ensures a clear process of succession.

Listening to the People

By definition, non-democratic regimes have in-built hearing problems. Surveillance and polling can never replace the information that comes from people regularly taking place in free and competitive elections. Democratic elections are not only an option to elect leaders, but also a direct way to gauge where people stand.

You may go out in the streets, express your disagreement with politics and even insist that Putin should leave - but this does not mean your voice will be heard. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Alexey Nikolaev

When it comes to ‘hearing the people’, however, there is an important difference between China and Russia. This comes down to the fact that the Chinese government has not criminalised labour protest. Labour conflicts, ordinarily directed against regional leaders or company directors, are not considered dangerous for the party. So every year there are hundreds of thousands of strikes, and these have become an important source of reliable information. When people go on a direct protest, it is much better than pure polls — valuable not only because they are visible, but because they also offer an opportunity to contest the ability of the local leaders to settle conflicts. In Russia, the supposedly more democratic system, you don’t see strikes, because the price for protesting on labour issues is very high. Russia’s rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.

Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent

Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement, and here is where we uncover another point of divergence. If you compare Russia and China, you will see that in Russia there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask Putin to resign. The Chinese regime is certainly much harsher and intolerant in this respect. But while the Kremlin broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it. It does not allow for dissent on policy matters and Government officials are careful not to advocate policies favoured by the opposition.

‘In the case of Chinese collective leadership, having different views is actually seen as legitimate. The loyalty test in China starts only once the Communist party has taken a decision. The loyalty test in Russia starts as soon as the president makes a proposal.’

Though the Chinese system is much more classically authoritarian and communist, its decision-making process is of a much better quality, more inclusive than the Russian one. In Russia, even when you have differences within the elite, most of the people explain them simply by economic differences. In the case of Chinese collective leadership, having different views is actually seen as legitimate. The loyalty test in China starts only once the Communist party has taken a decision. The loyalty test in Russia starts as soon as the president makes a proposal. A sense of general optimism and rising power also seems to have made China more tolerable to dissent on policy positions.

Recruitment of elites

Perhaps the most interesting comparison you can make between the two political systems is the way each of the countries goes about recruiting its elites. Where do people come from to occupy the most important positions in the state and leading industry? A study conducted by Russkiy Reporter in the end of 2011 revealed a number of interesting facts on this front. First, the great majority of the Russian elites went to one of just two Universities. Second, none of those occupying the top 300 positions came from the Russian Far East. And, third, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known Mr Putin before he became president. In short, Russia is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense: most of these people have not had proper careers, but have simply ended in this ruling group.

This is not the way in which the Chinese Communist party works. It is doing its best to create different layers of society, and does try to make the system reasonably meritocratic. If you are cynical enough, if you want to do well, if you want to make money, the Communist Party is open for you. The Communist party serves as a vehicle to recruit and socialise the elites, and the Chinese leadership invests a lot in ensuring regional representation and providing its cadres with opportunity to get diverse experience.


My last point comparing these two systems is to emphasise the way in which the Chinese and Russians totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in Russia: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there. They are not experimenting in the process of trying to build a governable state.

What does it all mean?

In summary, while there was once a time that you measured democracy looking at institutions, now you need to also ask questions about how the institutions function. Do they look like democracies? Is it possible that the democracy is faked? Russia is a brilliant example that should force us to think. It has fashioned a democratic surface, but under this surface all types of non-democratic practices are flourishing. China is another country — authoritarian and severe undoubtedly. But because of the pressure of the system, the different ideas underlying its transformation, and the country’s involvement on the world stage, its political practices are much more open than its formal institutions may lead us to believe.

Between a faked democracy and a faked communism, the latter seems to be the more capable, governable and accountable regime. Photo: (cc) Flickr/openDemocracy

The nature of any political regime for self-correction is its major characteristic and it is the capacity of self-correction and public accountability that it is at the heart of any democratic advantage. There are now many in Kremlin who, on the contrary, think that excessive democratisation has been responsible for many of the problems that new country faces. Many envy ‘true’ Chinese authoritarianism. But the truth is that in many of its practices China is more democratic than Russia, and its decision-making is undoubtedly superior. Over the last two decades, when China was busy with capacity building, Russia seems to have been pre-occupied with incapacity hiding. When Western commentators try to make sense of the different performance of the new authoritarians, they would well advised to look beyond formal institutional design.


Ivan Krastev was talking to Darya Malyutina


Thumbnail: 'Politburo' by Maxim Kantor. All rights reserved 

About the author

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).

His latest books in English are Democracy Disrupted (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) and, In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders, (TED Books, 2013); The Anti-American Century, co-edited with Alan McPherson, (CEU Press, 2007) and Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anticorruption (CEU Press, 2004). He is a co-author with Steven Holmes of a forthcoming book on Russian politics.

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