Part 2: The Centrality of Regime Security
- Notwithstanding various underlying problems, the Sino-Russian relationship has become remarkably intense in recent years. The motives driving both governments closer together have been varied, but one influential factor that deserves particular emphasis concerns the specific interests of China’s and Russia’s ruling political elites.
- Both states increasingly resemble each other in terms of the essential functioning of their political institutions. Much of the incentive for deepening Sino-Russian relations seems to derive from shared considerations of regime survival, legitimacy challenges, and domestic political stability.
- Each government perceives the other not only as more reliable than their Western counterparts, who they suspect of supporting their domestic opponents, but as sharing the same interests and concerns of keeping anti-authoritarian domestic forces at bay.
As I outlined in part 1 of this article, Sino-Russian relations are beset with a plethora of underlying problems and challenges. All these obstacles notwithstanding, however, Beijing’s and Moscow’s rapprochement has continued unabated and has even intensified in recent years. Why has this come to pass? What can be said for certain is that the motives for the deepening Sino-Russian rapprochement – particularly on Russia’s part – have not been unidimensional, but derive from a variety of factors, none of which, if viewed in isolation, provides a sufficient impetus for reaching this depth of bilateral cooperation. They include geopolitical and balancing concerns, economic interests (including those of sub-national and corporate actors), but also status-seeking, nationalism, historical (mis)perceptions and related grievances. If we nonetheless do try to single out a particularly influential factor driving both governments closer together in recent years – especially one which has so far received relatively scant attention in the existing literature on Sino-Russian relations – and to examine its role in more detail, then I would argue we should be guided less by abstract conceptions of national interest (i.e. the Realist view of states as ‘black box’ unitary actors) and instead focus more of our attention on the specific interests of the Chinese and Russian political elites. This is a point which is implicitly raised in Michael Cox’s commentary, but deserves to be made more explicit.
Domestic drivers of alignment
One of the most remarkable features of the relationship between China and Russia has been the gradual convergence of their political systems over the last two decades. To be sure, both regimes remain distinct from each other, in terms of the nature of their political institutions and especially in terms of their economic organisation. But there is no denying that the two have substantially converged over time and now resemble each other relatively closely in terms of the essential functioning of their political systems. In the post-Cold War period, China’s single-party dictatorship began to be increasingly based around collective decision-making in party committees and became imbued with relatively institutionalised rules and rudimentary power checks. This slight ‘liberalising’ trajectory ended in the early 2010s. Since Xi Jinping assumed the supreme leadership role in 2012/13, he has overseen a deinstitutionalisation and transformation of the political system into a much more personalist system centred around him. Russia, for its part, was a flawed but reasonably pluralist democracy up to the early 2000s. But subsequently, in the space of two decades, Vladimir Putin essentially neutralised opposition political parties, gradually stripped away more and more political freedoms, and repressed the remaining independent media. This process significantly accelerated following the Ukraine conflict in 2014, and it further escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the minutiae of political practice in Beijing and Moscow differ in myriad ways, both political systems are now in essence very similar: They are each headed by a single uncontested leader, who circumvented legal restrictions on his tenure through purpose-built constitutional amendments and oversees feeble political institutions, being surrounded by an inner-circle coterie of loyal associates who control all de facto levers of power. They both feature an uncontested governing party, towering over a staffage of nominally ‘democratic’ parties that mimic a ‘systemic opposition’, as well as a rubber-stamp legislature, while the most important sectors of the economy are being directly or indirectly controlled by rent-seeking political elites. In both states we find a media landscape that is almost completely controlled by the government, with independent, investigative journalism now well-nigh impossible and potentially perilous for the life and/or liberty of those who engage in it. Mass protests critical of the government have de facto been criminalised and rendered increasingly impossible; NGOs critical of the government have been dismantled or expelled; and explicit public criticism of the top leader (or his family) is considered taboo and is rigorously suppressed. While China has a much more sophisticated system of online censorship than Russia, it is not for the Kremlin’s lack of trying: Following bungled initial attempts to censor various foreign websites, Vladimir Putin appears to be envisaging a strict online censorship regime for Russia that closely resembles the Chinese one, as soon as the technological means for this are in place. Both governments also follow a very similar approach regarding the cyber-sphere and the mass deployment of artificial intelligence (AI)-enhanced surveillance technology (which both states are likewise increasingly marketing to authoritarian regimes across the globe).
Very significant differences with regard to their political organisation do remain between both governments. Their economies are scarcely comparable, save for the concentration and privileged status of government-controlled mega-corporations in both of them. Nonetheless, the fundamental similarities in the political functioning of both systems are evident. In this context, both leaderships have apparently come to perceive potential challenges to their rule in a very similar light. Shared considerations of regime survival and domestic political stability appear to provide much of the incentive for continuously deepening Sino-Russian relations. There is a tendency among analysts to view both regimes as deeply entrenched and domestically unassailable. But it is important to point out that both governments, notwithstanding their outward strength, seem to frequently perceive themselves as exposed and vulnerable, struggling to legitimise their rule and taking the spectre of public revolt very seriously.
This has always been a concern for the Chinese government, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the earlier events on Tiananmen Square. Since the long-time ideological basis of Communist Party rule has largely evaporated, China’s leadership has instead relied on ‘performance legitimacy’ to buttress its rule, i.e. the provision of continuous, rapid economic growth. So far, this project has been an undeniable success. Nonetheless, as many analysts have pointed out, the Communist Party has remained perpetually concerned about public dissent and potential unrest, concerns which appear to have risen again since Xi Jinping assumed the top leadership role. Xi has repeatedly exhorted party functionaries to guard against the dangers of public unrest and to carefully study the lessons of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and he has reacted nervously to every hint of domestic opposition – particularly in light of the fact that his personalist style of rule appears to have garnered him a considerable number of intra-party opponents.
Legitimacy challenges are a newer, but arguably even more pressing concern for Russia’s Vladimir Putin. At the beginning of his rule in the early 2000s, Putin’s power was democratically legitimated and based on the popularity he gained from restoring order in Russia and enabling persistent economic growth. But this growth occurred almost exclusively on the back of rising global commodity (especially oil) prices, while the non-resource sector of the Russian economy continued to atrophy. From around 2013, the oil price began to stagnate and decline, and there are scant prospects that it will return to a significant growth trajectory in the near future. Consequently, average annual economic growth in Russia between 2013 and 2019 shrank to a mere 0.9 percent. Putin’s relentless turn in recent years towards increasingly overt authoritarianism at home appears to be in large part inspired by a realisation that the recipes that had hitherto enabled him to preserve his power within the political context of a ‘managed democracy’ are becoming less effective. Recent revelations about the opulent lifestyles of the Russian political elite have once more underscored what would be at stake for Putin and his close associates in the event of a loss of political power. This makes it easier to understand why Putin, like his Chinese colleagues, appears to have now made the suppression of any potential domestic threats to his rule one of his topmost policy priorities.
While analysts of both China and Russia, respectively, have frequently pointed out the high degree of regime uncertainty and legitimacy concerns in Beijing and Moscow, the potency of this factor for driving both governments closely together has not been extensively studied. The growing partnership between Beijing and Moscow over the past two decades appears to owe a great deal to the fact that each government perceives the other not only as more reliable than their Western counterparts – who are liable to sympathise with (or even actively support) their domestic opponents – but indeed as sharing the exact same interests and concerns of keeping these kinds of anti-authoritarian domestic forces at bay and being willing to offer each other a wide range of political and diplomatic support to this end. At bilateral meetings, Beijing and Moscow have increasingly put the suppression of perceived domestic threats at the top of their agenda, vocally supporting each other’s efforts to “create mechanisms to counteract interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states”, as well as “through our cooperation, to prevent Western attempts to carry out colour revolutions, interference in our internal affairs”, or to “provoke all kinds of street unrest in our countries”. As recently as March 23, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers signed a declaration pledging to reject the politicisation of human rights and interference in their internal affairs. Both governments now present a united front in denouncing practically any form of pro-democratic movement and public protest in their respective neighbourhoods as foreign-instigated interventions and ‘colour revolutions’. Both sides have extensively “exchanged experiences” in coordinating state control of mass media and training domestic security personnel, and they have actively cooperated in tightening internet censorship and implementing ever-more-refined surveillance technologies on their territories. In addition, China’s government has fashioned its economic engagement with Russia in such a way that revenue streams are often funnelled directly to the powerful individuals constituting Putin’s inner circle, including those subject to Western sanctions.
While Sino-Russian rapprochement has been a gradual process that began as early as the late 1980s, its pace has accelerated considerably since the early 2010s, advancing the relationship to a new stage which, as Michael Cox rightfully points out, the ‘sceptics’ failed to foresee. The increasingly close-knit Sino-Russian relationship is already creating certain structural lock-in effects, such as the increased sharing and development of industrial and technological standards, which might cement bilateral integration for a long time to come. It is worth emphasising that China’s overall approach vis-à-vis Russia has not changed dramatically throughout the last decade. The remarkable deepening of bilateral cooperation in recent years is largely attributable to Vladimir Putin’s willingness to make unprecedented concessions and opening Russia up to China, both economically and geopolitically.
A key reason for this was undoubtedly the geopolitical fallout from the Ukraine crisis which tore up Russia’s (already tattered) political and economic relations with the West. But in large part, it also appears to have been the domestic political shift within Russia – as Putin began to finally commit himself to an overtly authoritarian style of politics that not only closely resembles the Chinese one, but has undoubtedly been inspired by it. This has been one of the leading factors allowing the relationship to become closer than most had previously anticipated. Indeed, the escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia in 2014 was itself in no small part linked to the Russian government’s concerns for domestic and regime stability, which caused it to perceive the public protests in Kiev leading to the ousting of a kindred government in its historical ‘brother state’ as a threat that needed to be resolutely countered. Beijing, which continues to prioritise domestic and regime stability concerns to a similar degree, appears to have shared this perception.
By shifting our focus from the security interests of both states to the specific interests of their ruling elites, it is easier to make sense of the dynamics of deepening Sino-Russian alignment. From this perspective, both regimes have a greater common cause to propel their mutual rapprochement than the ‘sceptics’ had previously acknowledged. This also sheds light on the puzzle of mutual trust, which Cox addressed when he criticised those scholars who believe “that only liberal democracies could ever build the bonds of trust upon which solid alliances could be founded”. Granted, trust-building between Beijing and Moscow is objectively complicated by the nature of their political systems. In both countries, the policymaking process is characterised by extreme opacity and secrecy, and crucial decisions are made by a small number of individuals behind closed doors. Nonetheless, the governments in Beijing and Moscow appear to sufficiently trust each other to pursue an increasingly close partnership – not only despite the fact that both are non-democracies, but to some extent because both are non-democracies and their elites have a reliably shared set of interests regarding a primary policy goal: keeping themselves in power. For the same reason, both of them perceive a democratic West as a persistent menace to their rule.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.