Three months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech claiming that “the foundations of the international order are under serious and sustained challenge.” Yet Blinken passed over the invasion quickly: “Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a clear and present threat…[but] China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”
The US foreign policy establishment increasingly casts China and Russia as the same in essential respects—authoritarian states aiming to undermine liberal values and American power (two very different issues that are usually conflated in Washington). Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink, for example, contrasted a US vision for the world “that privileges freedom and openness” with the “coercion and aggression” of “the vision put forward by President Putin and Xi.” From this perspective, the most important difference is that China is more powerful, so the US must not allow Russian aggression to distract from the larger priority of containing China.
Conflating the two countries in this way represents a profound failure of analysis that, in the name of saving the global system, may strangle the only hope for its peaceful renewal. China and Russia traveled very different paths in the period of free market globalization and its long post-2008 disintegration, and those divergent histories have produced fundamentally distinct ruling elites with different global orientations. The extraction-oriented Russian leadership, threatened by and resentful of the West, aims to destabilize the US-dominated system while offering no positive alternative. By contrast, the Chinese leadership, though marked by similar fears and resentments, has a far more capacious and constructive global vision derived from its wider international linkages and orientation toward production rather than extraction.
For precisely the same reason that China is more powerful than Russia—its successful, multifaceted growth under free market globalization—it is also potentially a partner in the task of reforming a global system that’s drowning in inequality and enmity. This does not require acceding to the Chinese government’s many unjust practices, but it does demand a greater appreciation among Americans for the differing sensibilities and aims of Russian and Chinese leaders that have arisen from the two countries’ sharply contrasting experiences of the past four decades.
In the 1970s, the state-guided industrial economies that dominated the postwar era—whether they went by the name of socialism or capitalism—fell into stagnation and crisis. Around the world, that crisis was resolved by the early 1990s with a transition to market-driven societies dominated by individual self-interest and increasingly integrated into a single global economy. But the timing and manner of that transformation had a decisive impact on the outcomes in different countries.
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China’s liberalizing reform, inaugurated in 1978, was gradual and piecemeal—“feeling the stones to cross the river,” as the saying went. Market forces were introduced around the edges of the planned economy and only slowly expanded to replace it. Foreign investment was initially permitted only in limited areas of the south, and the major economic regions were opened years later after slow adjustment. The power of labor and the security of the “iron rice bowl” were dismantled bit by bit as consumer choice, entrepreneurial opportunity, and geographic mobility expanded in dramatic fashion.
Crucially, the power of the state to regulate the economy and politics was not eliminated. Instead, it was remade to serve the needs of market growth: building infrastructure and ensuring an abundance of well-educated, disciplined, and repressed labor for foreign and domestic capitalists; forcing foreign investors to upgrade the Chinese economy rather than just exploiting Chinese labor and moving on; preventing financial instability by maintaining ultimate control over the banking system and the country’s capital account; suppressing political instability by squelching protests and regulating dissent. The Chinese leadership, largely trained as engineers to serve the planned economy’s goal of rapid industrialization, adopted the market as the means but retained expansion of manufacturing and technological upgrading as their goals.
On the one hand, this transformation brought tremendous suffering. Economic inequality soared and abuses against workers dramatically intensified. Environmental damage ran rampant, poisoning the air and water across the country. Deregulation and privatization went hand in hand with a spectacular increase in official corruption. The loss of status and security among regular people created explosive popular resentments directed variously against corrupt leaders, abusive employers, migrant workers, and ethnic minorities.
On the other hand, industrial growth through market reform also brought prosperity to hundreds of millions of impoverished people—not just higher incomes, but previously unimaginable opportunities to learn, travel, and create. China’s share of world GDP soared from 1.7 percent in 1978 to 18.4 percent in 2021, dramatically raising the country’s influence and status in international society. And contrary to the assumption of most Western commentators today, liberalizing reform also significantly expanded individual and political freedoms. Up until a sharply repressive turn under Xi Jinping, the space for personal self-expression and political debate, cultural and sexual diversity, religious and ethnic identity, labor and feminist activism, investigative journalism, and civil rights litigation all dramatically expanded.
The course and consequences of liberalizing reform in Russia were far different. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was institutionally and ideologically far less flexible than China. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 as a reformer, and liberalization in politics and foreign policy developed quickly while economic liberalization lagged behind. Once politics opened up, previously suppressed discontent quickly surfaced and overwhelmed Gorbachev’s humane goals.
As the Soviet Union disintegrated, a coalition of radical liberalizers and opportunists led by Boris Yeltsin seized the initiative. Shortly after coming to power, with the advice and support of Western governments and their multilateral institutions, this coalition almost overnight privatized the economic and political sources of public power, throwing the economy into chaos and devastating the capacity of the state to guide economic development.
It was as if the deindustrialization that ravaged the blue-collar workers of the American Rust Belt over several decades had been imposed on the entire country and most social classes in the span of a couple of years. By 1995, real wages and national GDP had both plummeted to half the level of 1990. Whole industries collapsed; only energy and mineral extraction survived in good health. Domestic investment crashed as the new oligarchs, who had seized the wealth of the state for themselves, moved billions of dollars into foreign banks and real estate. These upheavals drove a loss of livelihood, security, and meaning that caused deaths of despair and violent crime to soar, leading to an estimated 6.6 million premature deaths in the period from 1991 to 2004.
The social and cultural devastation of the 1990s poisoned Russian politics. Democracy, liberal values, and Western influence were tarred by their connection to kleptocracy, mass suffering, crime, and decadence. Cynicism strangled faith in public purpose and the common good.
Yeltsin and the oligarchs placed Vladimir Putin in power with the expectation that he would perpetuate this system. This he did, stabilizing and consolidating the primacy of neoliberal economic policy, the dominance of the extractive sector, and the power of a predatory and nihilistic elite that successfully marginalized both nationalist and social democratic challengers.
But stabilizing the system required a selective repudiation of the Yeltsin oligarchy to rebuild the shattered legitimacy of the government. Because of the traumatic impact of the ’90s on the body politic, Putin was able to accomplish this merely by imprisoning some of the most hated oligarchs, seizing control from them of much of the energy sector to fund the state (now itself little more than a corrupt patronage system), and squeezing critics out of the mainstream media. Growth finally resumed on the back of a global surge in energy and mineral prices and the semblance of restored law and order, and a demoralized and disorganized society applauded. Putin’s approval rating stood at 88 percent in 2008, at the end of his second term in office.
By the mid-aughts, then, both China and Russia had completed the transformation from collectivist state-led societies with a high degree of national autonomy to individualist market-organized societies deeply integrated into the global system and enjoying rapid economic growth driven by exports and foreign investment. In both countries, the state’s role was more intrusive than is permitted within liberal ideology, leading many Western critics to decry the supposed persistence of communism. In fact, in both cases the state’s authoritarianism was not a remnant of the past but the elite’s response to the instability and discontents that market-led growth generated in the present. The political and cultural economy of the two countries was not a rejection of the liberal international order but a product of it.
The self-appointed leaders of the liberal international order in Washington, by lecturing Russian and Chinese leaders on their transgressions, encouraged not reform but resentment against Western hypocrisy. The United States, by expanding NATO, supporting the color revolutions that overthrew governments in the former Soviet sphere, and deploying military violence to police the liberal international order, inspired insecurity and defiance rather than submission in Moscow and Beijing. The common experience of forging a place for their country within globalization, and facing denunciation and armed threat for having done so, increasingly brought Russian and Chinese leaders into alignment.
Yet behind these similarities were deep structural differences setting the two countries on diverging trajectories, most dramatically illustrated by the size of the two economies in recent decades.
On the eve of the global crisis of 2008, three key contrasts foreshadowed the different paths that Russia and China would travel through the turmoil that followed. The first was the nature of the elite and the capacity of the state it controlled. In Russia, political power was held by an uneasy coalition of free market technocrats and hard-line veterans of the security services. They oversaw a state that appeared centralized but that in reality was an unreliable patronage system in which regional potentates regularly shrugged off orders from the center, while developmental initiatives were banned by economic orthodoxy. Only the rapacious but domesticated oligarchs in the extraction sector and the military-industrial complex—now significantly populated with Putin’s own men—displayed economic dynamism.
The Chinese political elite, in contrast, was dominated neither by economists nor militarists but by engineers, their thinking directed at supply chains rather than market exchange or armed force. As in Russia, liberalization fragmented the Chinese state, and the rise of market forces went hand in hand with the growth of corruption and patronage. Yet the organizational capacity of the Chinese state was enhanced rather than destroyed by market reform, and Chinese leaders were still willing and able to bend market forces to development goals. Government officials had to show more than loyalty to their patrons in order to succeed: Promotion was based largely on the record of economic growth and social stability under their leadership.
A second pivotal contrast was activity at the grass roots. Even though formal restrictions on speech and protest were far weaker in Russia than in China, in practice, the experience of the 1990s left few Russians who wanted to take advantage of those freedoms. The picture in China was the opposite: huge and growing numbers of protests despite often harsh repression. It was fear of this popular revolt that pushed Chinese leaders, most prominently under Hu Jintao, toward a halting but real shift from simply enforcing the naked brutality of the market to also improving social security, protecting the environment, reducing poverty, and limiting the intensity of labor exploitation. That, in turn, drove up wages, broadened the gains of economic growth, and strengthened state legitimacy.
The third key contrast between China and Russia was in their orientation toward the rest of the world. Chinese growth was increasingly entangled with countries on every continent, providing export demand, foreign investment, and development financing. The need to secure supplies of raw materials and to find profitable outlets for China’s excess production capacity and foreign currency reserves drove these linkages. But the stories Chinese leaders told themselves about their activities—a desire to support development in the Global South, a belief in democratizing the global system, China’s supposed 5,000-year tradition of harmonious interstate coexistence—began to shape a new vision for China’s place in the world. China came to imagine itself as offering a model of development and a role in linking states, markets, and cultures so that other countries could develop as well.
Where Chinese growth drove a widening set of foreign connections that reinforced broadening wealth inside the country, Russian growth was narrowly focused on exports of fossil fuels and minerals, and growth in these sectors made Russia dependent on the markets of NATO countries—the same countries that were ignoring Russian calls for a more balanced European security system. Where China increasingly went out into the world and developed a vision with potentially broad appeal, Russia felt besieged, doubling down on parochial nationalism and nostalgia for great power status.
The global financial crisis of 2008 catalyzed these differences into a yawning divide. As export demand from the rich countries—the motor of growth in both China and Russia—suddenly dried up and neoliberal economic policy fell into disrepute, both Chinese and Russian leaders faced the urgent need for a new approach to growth. They discovered an immense disparity in their capacity to meet the challenge.
The Russian system had seemed to work as long as energy profits supported rising consumerism in the big cities and kept the patronage networks operating. But in 2009, Russia suffered the worst economic contraction of all the G20 countries, revealing an economically and politically fragile order. As a government-affiliated analyst put it, “We thought we were rising with China; now we know we are declining with Europe.”
Dmitri Medvedev, elected president in 2008, flailed about for a response, calling for reforms he had no power to impose. In the eyes of Putin and his followers, the failure of Medvedev culminated with a months-long, nationwide wave of protests beginning in December 2011. The largest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, they signified both the disintegration of support among the successful middle class and, in the context of the still unfolding Arab Spring, a potent political threat.
Putin and his coterie concluded that a new direction was needed. The legacy of the ’90s closed potential paths like economic developmentalism, internationalism, and left or liberal politics. But it strengthened social conservatism and chauvinist nationalism, the vigorous political currents outside Putin’s law-and-order statism. Upon returning to the presidency, Putin co-opted these currents to draw on populist energies and to isolate the protesters by tarring them as puppets of liberal Western forces.
This redefinition of Putin’s politics was already in motion by 2012 but was cemented by the Ukraine conflict of 2014 and the major economic contraction of that year, brought on by collapsing energy prices and Western sanctions. Feeling ever more isolated and aggrieved, the Russian leadership began reinterpreting great power tensions: What had been a competition over interests became an existential clash of civilizations.
Russia’s unusually devastating neoliberal transformation made it an extreme case, but after 2008, as social conditions around the world increasingly resembled Russia’s, reactionary populism and the scapegoating of those considered foreign became a common response in democracies and autocracies alike. Xi’s government was no exception, as demonstrated by its attack on liberal and progressive Chinese activists, its suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement, its policy of coercive assimilation against ethnic minorities that has devastated Xinjiang, and its belligerent foreign policy rhetoric.
Yet China’s course also diverges from Russia’s in consequential ways. Alongside the reactionary turn, other initiatives of a very different tenor are also central to the Chinese agenda. Faced with the collapse of exports in 2008, China’s state capacity allowed it to pursue the world’s most ambitious state-led development policy. The grassroots ferment of the aughts and the elite’s selective responsiveness to popular demands paved the way for the Chinese leadership to prosecute a huge and effective campaign against elite corruption, to reduce economic inequality under the slogans of ending poverty and establishing “common prosperity,” and to begin a rapid transition toward green growth.
As in domestic policy, so in foreign policy. In some ways China resembles Russia, with the nation increasingly defined against the West. Yet Chinese military policy has been far more cautious, deploying carefully calibrated responses (“gray zone tactics,” in Pentagon parlance) to the perception of US antagonism, unlike Russia’s escalating armed interventions in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine or its increasingly brazen interference in the domestic politics of Western countries. More important, China has pursued a range of impressively funded nonmilitary international initiatives—including the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and development financing through state policy banks, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank—that have been widely welcomed across the developing world.
These programs should not be romanticized. Outcomes have been mixed, often facilitating growth and development in countries strangled by deprivation, but just as often creating problems of excessive indebtedness and environmental damage. Chinese leaders have proved to be responsive to criticism and are undertaking important reforms aimed at environmental and financial sustainability, yet they show little concern for essential parts of successful development like strong labor rights, technology transfer, and public transparency.
At the same time, US leaders’ vilification of these programs as part of a Chinese plan for world domination is misplaced. The idea of “debt-trap diplomacy” has been repeatedly debunked. The principle drivers of Chinese initiatives are domestic economic pressures and opportunities—though great power conflict threatens to change that by militarizing international relations.
Ultimately, China’s overseas programs reflect the profound differences between Russia and China. Russia, traumatized by its disastrous integration into the global economy, found its political culture twisted by cynicism and grievance, while its institutions were hollowed out in ways that made constructive redress impossible. With Russia facing the hostility of the West, the politics of reactionary nationalism found a wide audience in both elite and popular circles.
China has experienced many of the same dynamics, so reactionary nationalism is a real danger. But China’s very different encounter with globalization has created strong constituencies and powerful ideals pushing for constructive engagement with the outside world and restraining the leadership’s more aggressive impulses. Which of these contending drives will chart China’s path forward is not yet clear.
This history means that Russia and China pose qualitatively different challenges to the US today. Where Chinese leaders see their future as linked to the prosperity of those billions in the Global South for whom the liberal international order has never delivered a decent life, Russia’s leadership is offering little to the rest of the world but instability.
Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has confronted only risky choices on Russia. With a string of failures on the battlefield and inept attempts to rally domestic support for the war, facing pressure from both China and India over the invasion, Putin may now be weaker politically than at any previous time in his long reign. This may tempt the US to push for Russia’s outright defeat, yet the hollowing out of Russian politics since the ’90s leaves hard-line nationalists better positioned to succeed Putin than any other group. The only hope for escaping this dilemma is to change the larger geopolitical context.
Unfortunately, US hostility toward China threatens to make that impossible. US leaders, prone to conflating the protection of democracy, human rights, and the prosperity of the American people with maintaining the world’s current political and economic hierarchy, have seized upon China as a unifying presence because it seems to endanger all of these. The only point of bipartisan agreement in Washington now seems to be the desire to frustrate and discredit all of China’s efforts, without regard for whether they are progressive or reactionary and with no concession to Beijing that any Chinese goals could ever be acceptable. China predictably responds with bellicose countermeasures. The further the two sides push this vicious cycle of antagonism and aggression, the more China will align with and come to resemble Russia, and the deeper the world will sink into disastrous conflict.
As the world’s most powerful authoritarian country, China provides an easy symbol on which to focus anxieties about the decline of democracy worldwide. But as Russia’s recent history illustrates especially well, it is not hostile foreign forces that endanger democracy. Instead, the root cause of democratic decline is the way that free market globalization associated political liberalism with the oligarchic concentration of wealth, popular insecurity, and Western domination. This set up illiberal nationalist demagogues to present themselves as the obvious alternative when the system crashed in 2008. China’s reactionary turn under Xi Jinping is another symptom of a global trend, not its author. Far from attacking the sources of authoritarianism, great power conflict will feed the power of nationalists and militarists in all countries.
But there is a different path: critical engagement with China to reform a global system badly in need of it. The Chinese government has suggested that the US take part in China’s international development, climate, and public health initiatives and that China would be willing to join those of the US. Taking Beijing up on this offer would provide a stabilizing set of shared projects focusing great power energies on the truly existential threats to humanity. Success in those projects would expand the fruits of the global economy, increasing resilience and reducing the appeal of demagogues.
At the same time, this sort of engagement would allow Washington to apply constructive pressure on Beijing to improve its international initiatives. Whether the subject is debt restructuring, human rights practices, or greenhouse gas emissions, US criticism of China will be counterproductive unless it springs from a vision of the two countries succeeding together.