Why China Eclipsed Russia

As the 60th anniversary of China's Communist revolution approaches, Peter Osnos, the former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, explains why the country of 1.4 billion didn’t go the way of the Soviet Union.

On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution that gave Mao Tse-tung and the Communist party control of a vast, chaotic, and depleted nation. Today’s China has become a superpower, a country that in scale, ambition, and demonstrated success will be a dominant global force in the twenty-first century. As it happens I was a correspondent in the Soviet Union in 1977, the year it marked the sixtieth anniversary of its own Communist revolution. It too was then an acknowledged superpower that, along with the United States, sought to project military capacity and ideological hegemony the world over. Yet only fifteen years later, the Soviet Union disappeared, its empire shattered, its economy in ruins.

The downside of all China’s growth is massive urban congestion and environmental degradation—the Soviets never reached that stage.

So the logical question about China as it approaches this benchmark is whether its upward trajectory will endure and, if so, what form it will take, and with what consequences for the 1.4 billion Chinese and the rest of us. I have been to China on three trips since 2006 for a total of a month, spending time in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Guilin, and the surrounding countryside. These have been private forays without official briefings but with significant access to journalists and other resident observers. I’ve also had some experience now with China’s infrastructure of airports, roads, and markets both traditional and modern, as well as encounters with its civil bureaucracy. But mine are a visitor’s impressions, certainly not an expert’s.

On that basis, when it comes to comparing China today with the Soviet Union at a comparable stage, it feels safe to conclude that China is a country with a much stronger foundation for progress than its predecessor Communist behemoth. This is mainly because it has abandoned Marxist-Leninist economic principles without meaningful political reform, a trade-off its own people seem largely to accept. The simple way to summarize the difference is that the Soviet Union, for all the immense nuclear strength and apparent self-regard of its heyday, was really a facade, behind which was an economy that, at its pinnacle, was shallow and shoddy. Neither the industrial nor the agricultural system was of a size or quality to fill its needs. Most of its international trade was essentially in barter, particularly with its Eastern European satellites. Those were the early years of the computer age, but for all the engineering and scientific talent in its population, the Soviets were way behind the West in most areas, except the military—even as the United States, in particular, chose to portray the Soviet Union as being on the verge of overtaking it in crucial ways.

Russia still has a nuclear armory of immense strength and has become a formidable petrocracy. But whatever Russia’s revived superpower pretensions, there is no real doubt that China far exceeds it in economic, financial, and technical development. By sheer size, China’s military capacity and reach is enormous, though still lagging far behind that of the United States. History suggests that armed power tends to be used one way or another once it is accumulated. Yet the Chinese leaders appear for now convinced that only by steadily lifting the living standards of its people can party supremacy be assured. The Soviets said they would and could improve the lives of the citizenry, but never remotely reached their goals.

In business terms, China is much more engaged on the international scene than the Soviet Union ever was. Whereas the Soviets could destroy the United States with warheads, risking the consequences of retaliation, China’s massive holding of U.S. debt has created a kind of mutually assured destruction on the financial front between the two nations. The prospect of a security crisis with China over say, Taiwan, seems much less acute than a confrontation in some arena of finance or commerce.

China’s manufacture of so much of what the world consumes is another source of strength, with millions of people joining the middle class each year. What are dazzling, at least in the major cities I have visited, are the soaring skylines and luxury-branded shopping malls, well supplied with goods and milling customers, although for most of the population prices are surely out of reach at the upper end. At its peak, the Soviet Union manufactured little of appeal elsewhere, had an architectural style that was grandiose or sterile, and as for luxury items such as caviar and furs, these were only available in hard-currency stores for apparatchiks and foreigners. The downside of all China’s growth is massive urban congestion and environmental degradation that, casting forward a decade, could be asphyxiating and must be contained. The Soviets never reached that stage.

Until the final years of Gorbachev’s Perestroika era and certainly at the time of its sixtieth anniversary, the Soviets imposed ideological and political orthodoxy in what was, unapologetically, a police state. The Chinese Communists hold on the real levers of power is equally doctrinaire and fierce in the face of dissent outside approved boundaries. But for a variety of reasons—some reflecting the manipulative sophistication of the leadership, others the inherent complexity of a world with the Internet and cross-cultural influences—civil society in China feels less constrained. Chinese youth culture and the arts seem intertwined with international tastes and styles, an important relief valve for what remains an authoritarian structure of official supervision.

Over thousands of years, China’s history has experienced cycles and eras far longer than the six decades since 1949. My own measurement of time is even shorter. It is only twenty years since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement ended in tragedy, and forty years since the upheavals and violence of the Cultural Revolution. There are deep-seated tensions in China—the riots in Tibet last year and in Urumqi this summer being only two recent examples. Nonetheless, this is an extraordinary period of largely positive changes for China. And unlike in the Soviet Union at sixty, the Chinese leadership’s rhetorical declarations of triumph seem to be anchored in accomplishments that are measurable to the population in ways that count. As the fate of the Soviet Union dramatically showed, modern superpowers cannot be sustained by polemics and police forever.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.