This Time, Russia-China Alliance Will Last

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The emerging Sino-Russian alliance looks like an opportunistic arrangement. Russia, rejecting and rejected by the West, needs a strong alternative while resource-poor China hopes to harness the potential of its huge northern neighbor. In fact, China and Russia are made for each other. Despite many cultural differences, their people have more values in common than either share with the West.

Twenty-five years ago, when China quashed the student protests in Tiananmen Square and Russia allowed the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, the two countries appeared to be moving in opposite directions. China’s Communist leadership tightened its grip on power. The Soviet Communist Party, by contrast, was noisily falling apart. Yet, amazingly, different paths led the two countries to the same spot.

Evidence of this can be found in the World Values Survey, a compilation of data on public attitudes by a global network of social scientists. In the last four years, they have found:

  • Only 2 percent of Chinese and 2 percent of Russians identify protecting freedom of speech as among their personal goals, compared with 17 percent of Americans and 22 percent of Germans;
  • Democracy is “absolutely important” to 30 percent of Chinese and 26 percent of Russians but to 59 percent of Germans and 46 percent of Americans;
  • Only 45 percent of Chinese and 33 percent of Russians are “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in politics, compared with 62 percent of Germans and 59 percent of Americans;
  • Just 29 percent of Chinese and 22 percent of Russians “might attend a peaceful demonstration,” compared with 47 percent of Germans and 55 percent of Americans;
  • A whopping 38 percent of Chinese believe that when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to them than women. In Russia, 29 percent agree, compared with 15 percent in Germany and 6 percent in the U.S.;
  • For 26 percent of Chinese, 23 percent of Russians, 19 percent of Germans and just 6 percent of Americans, it is “important to be rich, to have a lot of money and expensive things.”

The surveys reveal important differences, too, such as on religion, which is important to Russians but not to many Chinese. And, somewhat surprisingly given the countries’ divergent paths, Russians appear to hold more left-wing views than Chinese: They want the government to play a bigger role in distributing wealth and believe crime is the only path to wealth.

On the whole, however, both Russian and Chinese societies are relatively apolitical, materialistic, traditional and uninterested in liberal values. They suit each other.

In both countries, the political leaders are well-attuned to the majority’s views. Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in April that the Western model of government wouldn’t work for China: “The fruit may look the same, but the taste is quite different.” In a recent interview with French journalists, Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed that view in his trademark sarcastic style: “We have perfectly standard democratic institutions which, of course, are in some ways particular. In what way are they particular? In the way that an overwhelming majority of our citizens are apt to rely on their historical traditions, their history, and if I may say, traditional values.”

It’s no wonder Xi likes Putin, the first foreign leader he met as China’s president, and calls him his “good friend.” The Russian president returns the warmth. The two countries’ huge gas pipeline project, Russia’s recent (and so far unsuccessful) attempts to replace U.S. payment operators Visa and Mastercard with China’s UnionPay, plans to set up a Sino-Russian rating company to counterbalance the establish Western ones — these are all expressions of a rediscovered closeness.

Russia’s former privatization minister, Alfred Kokh, now a determined Putin foe, recently wrote an angry [online] post arguing that Russia was too removed from Chinese culture and too close to the European and American culture for the alliance to work. “You know nothing about China,” he wrote to his compatriots …. You know the American dream … Ford and their civil war …  And now, the way we are, we are ready to hate America and love China?”

Kokh was right about the [elements of American] culture Russians relate to best, but there’s something deeper going on. After 25 years of exploring vastly different models of organizing society, Russians and Chinese are close enough in attitudes to join in partnership against the West.

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