The End of the Russia-China Debate

Ten years ago, comparing the reform processes in China and Russia was an intellectual fashion. Was it preferable to start with economics – try and get rich, quick, but don’t rock the boat politically – in the manner of the Chinese? Or was it better to start with politics – recover liberty and prosperity may follow – which seemed to be Russia’s path under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin?

Today, a new comparative debate has started. This time the subject is no longer Russia versus China, because Russia has long ceased to be a point of comparison. Instead, the new comparative debate involves Asia’s two new economic, demographic, and political giants, China and India. China’s annual economic growth has been roughly 8-9% for the last 26 years; India has recorded similar rates for the last decade.

In the “flat world” of globalization – to borrow Thomas Friedman’s powerful metaphor – it seems that Russia no longer has a place. Of course, Russia is still the second-largest nuclear power in the world, and, as one of the world’s leading exporters of oil and gas, it benefits from today’s high energy prices. But Russia’s population is disappearing before our eyes. With average male life expectancy just 57 years, the country is losing close to 800,000 people annually. Indeed, Russia is more a fragile oil-producing state than a modernizing economic giant.

To put it bluntly, Russia is no longer in the same category as China. Whereas the “Middle Kingdom” is proudly regaining its former global status after centuries of decline, Russia is defiantly trying to resurrect its former imperial status, but in a manner that appears doomed to fail.