Recently an American friend saw my article on Gorbachev and asked me who I think Xi Jinping is more like, Gorbachev or Yeltsin? My answer? Neither. Xi is more like Putin.
Xi Jinping chose Russia as the destination of his first visit abroad after assuming office as the president of China. Over the past year, Xi has met with Putin many times, more than he has met with any other world leader. This has been interpreted as China prioritizing “good neighbor” diplomatic relations, or as China and Russia trying to join together to confront the U.S. However, most political and media analysts overlooked an anecdote from last March, when Xi paid a visit to Russia. Russian media reported a conversation in which Xi told Putin,“I feel that our personalities are quite similar.” Official Chinese media also picked up this piece of news, which we can take as an indication that Xi actually did say this.
This remark seems a bit abrupt. It doesn’t really fit with Chinese leaders’ customary diplomacy. Talking about someone’s “personality” is generally a private topic, both in the East and the West. Such a remark is not like the easy diplomatic clichés: “our countries are separated only by a narrow strip of water,” or “we share the same historical traditions and cultural background”. Even among Western officials, who tend to have more casual exchanges, we rarely hear leaders bring up their own personalities. Even though Xi has been unconventional in his speeches since assuming office, his remarks about sharing a similar personality with Putin was remarkable enough to catch my attention.
To become the top leader of a country usually requires a unique personality, and Putin might be one of the most unique leaders out there. His personality has puzzled and perplexed most westerners, but Xi obviously admires Putin. Why else would he say that the two men have similar personalities?
Russia in 2000 and China in 2012, when Xi took office, had many similar problems. After a decade of effort by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russia had basically succeeded in its democratic transformation and personal freedoms and human rights were protected. However, the chaos of early-stage democracy combined with the messiness of early-stage capitalism resulted in corruption, a wealth gap, and conflicts between oligarchs and vested interests and the disadvantaged groups.
And China? During 35 years of “reform and opening up,” the economy has grown rapidly and people’s lives has changed for the better. There were great strides made in both economic freedom and personal freedom (except for political freedom). But China also has its problems: an enormous wealth gap, collusion between government officials and businessmen, corruption (even worse than in Russia), deteriorating morality, and serious social inequality and injustice. The Russians gained democracy, but couldn’t immediately adjust to a democratic system, or understand what to do with their personal freedoms. Similarly, the newly prosperous Chinese people are bewildered and cannot see hope for the future, much less for a “Chinese dream” At this juncture, Putin appeared in Russia while China has Xi Jinping.
Let’s look at Putin more closely. Putin received a strict socialist and patriotic education and even joined the KGB, but he witnessed first-hand the collapse of the system that he had pledged loyalty to. These events fostered two contradictory beliefs. On one hand, there’s the idea that Soviet collapse was inevitable, and that democracy and freedom are historical trends. On the other hand, Putin is nostalgic for the glory days of the former Soviet Union, when the communist party had unchallenged authority and kept society “orderly.” These contradictory beliefs run through Putin’s governance of Russia, so that outsiders find it difficult to understand what exactly Putin wants to achieve. Putin himself might not be sure which of these conflicting pulls will win out over the other.
Actually, when he first came to power, Putin tried hard to please the West (especially the U.S.) in an attempt to forge a friendly relationship. To establish a good relationship with NATO, he actively cooperated with the U.S. fight against terrorism. He also formed good personal relationships with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair; he even wanted to develop a good relationship with George W. Bush, like the one between Gorbachev and Reagan as well as between Yeltsin and Clinton.
But NATO continued to expand toward the east, obviously taking democratic Russia as an imagined enemy. Meanwhile, the West adopted a double standard toward Russia’s fight against terrorism in Chechnya. When the “color revolutions” broke out in Russia’s satellite states, Putin began to gradually change his position, and revised Russia’s relationship with the West. We might say that the “Soviet” strain of thinking gained the upper hand in Putin’s mind. Even today, the West seems unable to understand the inferiority complex Russia developed after losing its status as a superpower, and the resulting determination to fight for every inch of territory. The West didn’t understand how strongly Russia would react to seeing its satellite states fall one by one to “peaceful evolution.”
But it was Putin’s domestic policies that truly alienated him from the West. And the reforms implemented by Putin after being elected in 2000 are similar to Xi’s moves since 2013.
First, Putin began an anti-corruption campaign that targeted political rivals. That allowed Putin to win over the people’s hearts even while paving the way for his continued rule. If Putin had made it clear that he was targeting political dissidents, his campaign might have backfired. However, during Yeltsin’s time there was no shortage of argumentative, uncompromising politicians and political parties who became corrupt as soon as they were elected. So Putin used this opportunity to combat corruption while also weeding out political rivals. Not only did he not face a public backlash, but Putin actually won support from most Russians. As a result, he was reelected to the presidency in 2004 by a huge majority.
Second, Putin established a vertical power structure. He weakened local power to give himself sole authority over most decisions. With the establishment of this vertical power system, Putin ended the days where each local government could ignore decrees from the Kremlin and began the era of “Emperor Putin” in Russia. This centralization of power was obviously a reaction to the decentralized democratic system established by Yeltsin; Putin felt that the ten-year experiment with decentralization had failed. Putin’s new vertical power structure abandoned the original administrative structure and created a closely-knit web where all strands of power lead back to the same place: Putin. This gave him the freedom to reform as he saw fit. Putin was able to efficiently improve people’s lives and stabilize society, but he was also able to abuse his power and damage Russia’s democracy.
Third, Putin severely suppressed the media and political dissidents, stomping out criticism from the still-strong Community Party and active liberal groups alike. This was the most important action taken by Putin after he assumed power; it was also the action most denounced by the West. From his experience under the USSR, Putting naturally knew how useful the media could be in controlling the people, but he no longer had the ideological weapons that the Soviet Union had used so effectively. Freedom of the press had flourished under Yeltsin, so that Russian people could enjoy the same freedoms as in the West. There’s no denying that this brought a certain amount of chaos. For 70 years, the former Soviet Union had advocated authority and socialist education. Now Putin could not accept the media openly mocking and attacking leaders, much less establishing its own authority. Besides bringing the media under his control, Putin set out various regulations to restrict, threaten, and oppress the media. He’s even alleged to have had several journalists assassinated. Since Putin came to power, nearly 40 journalists have been murdered, with the cases still unsolved. Under these circumstances, the Russia media must behave itself, remaining within the boundaries specified by the Kremlin. This huge backsliding on the freedom of the press has made it much easier for Putin to rule.
Putin has implemented other policies seen in the West as undoing the progress made under Yeltsin. For example, Putin has suppressed civil society and tried instead to set up different “government-organized NGOs.” Taking such steps might have aroused resentment among the Russians, but Putin made good use of his experience with the KGB: he used his control of the media to describe any chaos or resistance resulting from his policies as part of a Western conspiracy.
Of course, the West has contributed to shaping today’s Russia and Putin. After the collapse of the USSR, the West (especially the U.S.) focused most of its attention on protecting Russia’s democratic system and personal freedoms. They gave little help to re-establishing the devastated Russian economy or improving Russians’ material lives, failing to live up to previous promises. From a grand historical perspective, maybe this is justifiable, but it was of little comfort to the Russian people. From a Western perspective, it’s terrible that Putin seized total political power, reduced political freedoms, and oppressed the media. But in fact, Putin used these policies to establish his own authority. Afterwards, he set out to stabilize society, improve people’s standard of living (with the help of soaring energy prices), and combat corruption (getting rid of political rivals and dissents at the same time). Putin tied the fate of the country to his own persona, rebuilding the “Russian Dream.” As a result, much to the surprise of the West, Putin has won support from most Russians.
Obviously, the West still doesn’t really understand Putin’s personality. For U.S. think tanks, which once housed so many experts on the USSR, it’s much easier to study the Communist Party than to research Putin’s personality. The Communist Party has principles that are different from the West’s, but it does have principles. By contrast, Putin is relying on his personality, not principles, to govern Russia. This personality is shaped by his education, his personal experiences, and his understanding of Russia and its people. The West may not like Putin, but what Western leader can say they understand Russia better than Putin does?
When I told my American friend that, in Xi Jinping, China had another Putin rather than a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin, he was somewhat disappointed. After a pause, he sighed and said to me,”Putin is not that popular.” I said that was the viewpoint of Western people. In Russia, Putin is obviously more popular than Gorbachev or Yeltsin. My friend then asked me if I liked Putin. I immediately replied, “We are not talking about my personal preference. We are talking about the current situation in Russia.”
Putin’s ruling Russia as a strongman seems to have resolved many of the problems left over from the Yeltsin era, which were problems common to many emerging democracies. But eventually Russia will have to pay the price for backsliding on human rights and values. As saying goes, what goes around comes around.
The problem for Russia is exactly that Putin is a strongman: within Putin’s political party, he’s the only person who can fill that role. This mean Putin’s “strongman government” has an obvious personal flavor. For Putin, he can hold onto power as long as he lives, but for a politician (especially an ambitious politician), this isn’t enough. After suffering the troubled decade of Yeltsin’s democratic transformation, Putin has temporarily brought Russia back to the authoritarian era, based on his understanding of Russia’s national conditions. But can Putin use his strongman government to initiate orderly economic and social development? When the time is right, can he strike a balance between economic growth and democratic development, between a rising standard of living and democracy, between personal freedom and political freedom?
Right now, Russia’s future hinges on Putin’s will. He could hold onto power for the next decade to maintain Russia’s national stability and great power status and continue to develop the economy even while beginning a new era of democratic diversity. Or Putin could take holding on to power as his only goal, not caring about what will happen to Russia after his death. Obviously, Russia will be lucky if Putin chooses the former. In the case of the latter choice, Russia will be in for some hard times.
Now, what about China? I think my readers understand what I’m trying to say…
A version of this piece also appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.
Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.