There are remarkable similarities between some of the key building blocks in the foundation of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia and policies that China’s president, Xi Jinping, has implemented in slightly over a decade of rule. The parallels extend to the chronology and sequencing of policy choices, as well as the rhetoric and legitimizing mythology in which the two leaders have couched those choices.
The chain of coincidences unspooled almost simultaneously in Moscow and Beijing in the early years of Putin’s third presidency (2012–2018) and at the outset of Xi’s first term as the Party’s general secretary (2012–2017). Both leaders confronted sharp declines in the rates of economic growth after years—in China’s case, decades—of phenomenal expansion. Between 1998 and 2008, the Russian economy had an 8 percent average annual GDP growth before gaining only 4 percent in 2012 and 1.8 percent in 2013. China’s expansion decelerated from close to an average of 10 percent since 1978 to 7.7 percent in 2012.
In both cases, the slowdowns looked more like structurally conditioned declines than accidental slumps, and therefore portended sluggish or even stagnating economies. In October 2013, Alexei Kudrin, a leading Russian economist who is also Putin’s former minister of finance and one of the Russian leader’s few trusted friends, warned, “We hit the wall of effectiveness.” Kudrin’s remedy was broad economic and political liberalization. Absent structural reforms, Kudrin insisted, the economy would be trapped between stagnation and recession, with a growth rate of around 1.5 percent.
At that time, assessments in Beijing about China’s economic health were just as glum, owing to skyrocketing debt, diminishing returns, and looming demographic and environmental crises. Eight months into his tenure, in July 2013, Xi had to admit that the economy had entered into “a slowing growth” period and a “painful structural adjustment phase,” which he called a “new normal.”
At about the time of Kudrin’s reform plan, the World Bank submitted to the Chinese leadership detailed proposals for “liberalizing China’s growth model.” But both Putin and Xi rejected restructuring. Instead, they chose to redefine the way in which their regimes were legitimate, which up to that point had been based on economic progress and the growth of incomes. They replaced that with a militarized patriotism founded on the alleged necessity of defending their countries from a supposedly constant and increasingly urgent external threat from the U.S.-led West.
The fundamental social contract between both regimes and their subjects shifted from “stay out of politics and we’ll make you prosperous” to “stay out of politics and we’ll defend you.” As Xi told the 19th Party Congress in 2017, the first one over which he presided as general secretary, China had grown rich and now was “becoming strong.”
The turn was sharp and rapid in Russia. It was more gradual, cautious, and prolonged in China. But the evidence points to a very similar direction in the evolutions of both regimes.
On the face of it, the pivots were paradoxical: Enjoying geopolitical environments that were unprecedentedly benign in their modern histories, both Russia and China were declared by their leaders to be facing perennial, acute, and growing danger. Moreover, the predicament was presented not as a passing altercation with the West but as a lasting geostrategic and ideological contest between incompatible political, social, and cultural systems.
The litany of the West’s offenses was adumbrated in Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. He said the West “lectured” Russia on democracy and interfered in Russia’s internal affairs. NATO’s expansion was “aimed at Russia.” The deployment of elements of U.S. anti-missile defense in Europe threatened Russia’s strategic nuclear force. Worst of all, the U.S. had appointed itself the “master of the world.”
Seven years later, at the beginning of Putin’s third term, the articulated threats grew in number and gravity. Russia’s foes, said Putin, were guided not by international laws but by the “law of the powerful.” Having persuaded themselves of their “chosenness” and “exclusivity,” the West had arrogated for itself the right to decide the world’s fate. Cynically exploiting people’s hopelessness and their resentment of poverty and tyranny, the West had engineered “color revolutions” in faraway countries in an attempt to force on others alien standards, traditions, and cultural values. The result was chaos, violence, and death.
Russia’s claims of a “coup” in Ukraine—by which Putin meant the Maidan Revolution of 2013–2014 in which a Russian-aligned regime was replaced by a pro-Western one—followed the same script. The seizure of power in Kyiv by what Putin deemed a puppet regime was not an accident or a twist of fate, a sudden opportunity too good for the West to miss. No, it was part and parcel of an age-old plan to degrade and subjugate Russia. Among NATO’s alleged goals was basing its battleships in Crimea, which would pose a military threat to the entire south of Russia—not just some theoretical hazard but a material menace.
For his part, speaking three years later, in October 2017, Xi bristled at those who “feel that they have the right to lecture us” and accused the West of trying to “blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China.” He later added “all-around containment,” “encirclement,” and “suppression” of China to the list of the West’s objectives and named the U.S. as the leader of the assault.
Xi declared Beijing’s national-security environment “complex and severe,” with “difficulties increasing significantly.” Warning of “worst-case and extreme scenarios,” he called on the Party and the government to be ready to withstand the “major tests of high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.” Jin Canrong, a prominent China expert, interpreted such “scenarios” to mean “the danger of war.”
According to Putin, the roots of the West’s supposed conspiracy were deep. Russia had been slighted, plotted against, and subverted for much of its history. The “infamous” policy of “containment” had not been invented yesterday, Putin told his parliament in the March 2014 programmatic oration following the occupation of Crimea. The West had been trying to contain Russia since at least the 18th century, he claimed. As soon as the Russian state became strong, its enemies found excuses to constrain its development—all because Russia would not buckle under Western pressure and instead insisted on its own “independent” position in global affairs.
In Putin’s telling, the fall of the Soviet Union made no difference to the West. Before and after, Russia was lied to, confronted with “decisions made behind its back,” forced to accept done deals, and “pushed into the corner.” The West fomented instability on Russia’s borders and used its special services to “weaken and subjugate” the country. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Putin averred, the West “definitely” and “most actively” supported Islamic militants in the North Caucasus.
Xi, too, went back into history to illustrate the West’s unceasing abuse. Recalling the defeat in the Opium Wars of the 19th century that plunged the Middle Kingdom into a period of “hurt and shame,” of “poverty and despair,” he declared that the 200th anniversary of that national calamity in 2050 would be the deadline for China to have “regain[ed] its might and [to] re-ascend to the top of the world.” The West, Xi contended, urged China to alter or do away with propaganda about historical humiliation. But China couldn’t do this, he said, because forgetting history would mean betrayal.
With the memories of past indignities vivid and persistent in both leaders’ discourse, the mission of repulsing present threats morphed into still, more, grandiose visions of national triumph. Victory would avenge historical injustices and reclaim what Howard W. French, a prominent historian of China, called a “half-idealized, half-mythologized past.”
For Putin, Russia’s “rising from its knees” became a key propaganda trope. He declared Russia not merely a country or a state but a state-civilization and a “unique” one at that. Touting its 1,000-year history, he said that Russia was to become again a proud and sovereign nation and one of the “foundations” of the global international system. A mighty Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power, distinct from both Europe and the West, Putin’s Russia embodied a “cultural and civilizational community,” the “Russian world,” which he vowed to “strengthen and develop.”
Framed by Beijing’s leaders as a “splendid” 5,000-year-old civilization, China, too, was destined to be a “great and strong” nation and “a proud and active” global player. Proclaiming the rejuvenation of China the “greatest dream” and “long-cherished hope” of generations of Chinese people, Xi pledged to realize this vision. In Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress, the word “mission” was used 26 times.
Facing a broad array of external threats, Russia needed a “deep modernization” of its armed forces, said Putin. In the run-up to Putin’s third presidency in 2011, the Kremlin embarked on a nine-year rearmament program worth around 20 trillion rubles,, $666 billion at the 2011 rate of exchange, or about a third of Russia’s GDP at the time. Overall, between 2000 and 2022, the Russian defense budget grew by 936 percent.
In China, Xi deemed it “impossible” to have a strong motherland without a strong army, and he accordingly pledged to “deepen national defense” and build a “powerful and modernized” military. Transformed “across the board” in structure, personnel, and weaponry, the Chinese army was to become a “world-class” force, “prepared for all strategic directions.” From 2012 to 2022, China’s defense appropriations doubled.
Yet the vast sums for tanks, jets, missiles, and aircraft carriers were only part of the effort needed to protect the suddenly vulnerable Russia and China. The defense of the motherland was now the people’s business, the patriotic duty of every citizen. The might of Russia, Putin said, was in the readiness of its people to “stand up” for the country, the security of which was the “highest meaning” of the Russian people’s lives. Putin pronounced the seizure and annexation of Crimea a “sovereign, free, and unbending” act of the people and their willingness to “defend and protect” their country.
Xi, too, extolled the “firm will and ability” of the Chinese people to defend the country’s “national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Chinese, he avowed, would never be intimidated by threats of force. Anyone seeking to “bully, oppress, or subjugate us” would find himself “on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” “The Chinese people’s calves would not shake nor their waists bend!” Xi declared in a 2020 speech on the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.
Both leaders drew inspiration from the memories of what a 1941 Soviet song called the “people’s” war. Putin wanted the Russians to emulate the “bravery and resilience” of the soldiers and officers of the Red Army in World War II. Their “iron endurance and valor” in battling the German invaders and their readiness to fight to the death for “truth, justice, and freedom” was to inspire their grandchildren in their own fight for the motherland.
Xi’s “people’s war” was the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.” Possessed of “great courage and high spirits,” the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army had fought the “imperialist aggression,” “shocked the world” with their “iron spirit,” and “won a great victory.” Putting the interests of the motherland above all, the soldiers risked their lives for the “dignity of the nation,” with 197,000 dying heroically. The Korean War brought out the spirit of the Chinese people. Their “tenacious character” defeated an “armed-to-the-teeth” opponent, shattered the myth of the U.S. Army’s invincibility, safeguarded China’s security, and maintained peace in Asia and the world.
Both presidents reinvented themselves as hands-on generals. Since 2015, Putin has been addressed as “Supreme Commander in Chief” at every military or paramilitary function, whether at a meeting at the national police headquarters or a Naval parade.1 Xi followed suit a year later, although at a somewhat lower rank of merely commander in chief.2
Putin’s turn to militarized patriotism early in his third term was accompanied by a shift from a relatively soft authoritarianism to a rapidly expanding repressive regime. Foreign states, Putin charged, were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their “lackeys” inside the country, so the government had to protect the country’s sovereignty by meting out “tougher punishment” for those who sought to influence Russian politics on orders from abroad.
There followed a campaign of intimidating, defunding, marginalizing, stigmatizing, and criminalizing pro-democracy opposition as well as many nonpolitical NGOs. Noncommercial organizations that received funding from abroad were designated “foreign agents” by the Foreign and Justice Ministries. These NGOs had to undergo annual audits and submit exhaustive expense reports every three months and financial and business accounts twice a year. Failure to comply carried hefty fines and could eventually result in being shuttered for noncompliance. In time, the “foreign agent” label was affixed to NGOs that received no funding from abroad, usually as the first step toward closing them.
The line between “foreign agents” and those whom Putin called “agents,” or Russian citizens recruited by foreigners to spy, grew thinner after the “state treason” article of the criminal code was amended in November 2012. In addition to violating the country’s “external security,” the crime was henceforth defined as any “acts” against Russia’s “security,” including “financial, material, technical, advisory, or any other support given to a foreign country.” What constituted “security” was not spelled out, and the charges could be brought up not just against those with professional access to state secrets: Anyone who somehow came upon such materials could be prosecuted and sentenced to up to 20 years in a penal colony.
Xi similarly promulgated a “comprehensive national-security concept” a few months after taking over the country. The document spelled out the key components of “political security”: safeguarding the socialist system, securing the party leadership, and defending the authority of the Central Committee with Xi at its “core.” The same year, 2013, Xi launched the Central National Security Commission to guide and coordinate these tasks.
“Political security” became more urgent. At the 19th Party Congress, Xi declared it the Party’s “fundamental task.” At the 20th Congress, for the first time, an entire section of the general secretary’s report was devoted to modernizing China’s national-security system, which Xi declared the “bedrock of national rejuvenation.” “Political security” inside China was deemed more critical than external protection: The former was “the fundamental task” for which the latter was to provide “support.”
“Dozens” of Chinese and foreign nationals were arrested between the adoption of the first version of Beijing’s Counter-Espionage Law in November 2014 and the iteration that took effect in July 2023. Similarly, China’s 2020 Hong Kong national-security law led to numerous arrests of pro-democracy advocates seen as a threat to Xi’s regime. The latter broadened the definition of espionage by treating the transfer of “documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests” as an offense as grave as trafficking in state secrets. Like its Russian counterpart, the law did not define what falls under national security or national interests. Foreign business executives were reported to be concerned that the law threatened to turn day-to-day business activities into national-security offenses.
As in the Russian case, “foreign agents” were set upon along with spies. Reportedly modeled on the Russian 2012 foreign-agents law, a draft of the Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations law was unveiled by the Ministry of Public Security in December 2014 and adopted the next year. Affecting between 6,000 and 10,000 foreign-funded NGOs operating in China at the time, the law entangled them in a web of intrusive and cumbersome registration and reporting requirements. Still more damaging was the law’s directing “authorities at all levels” to “provide policy consultation and guidance” to the NGOs, effectively controlling their work.
A few months before the law’s official adoption, a Swedish citizen “confessed” on national television to working for an NGO that supported Chinese human-rights lawyers that the authorities had deemed an “illegal organization that sponsored activities jeopardizing China’s national security.”
Like its territorial integrity and political sovereignty, Russia’s “spirit,” said Putin, had to be protected from the West’s attempts to subvert it and bring about “degradation and degeneration.” As with the West’s scouring the globe for mineral resources, its efforts to influence the “worldview of entire peoples” and subjugate them to alien purposes never stopped. The result was “national catastrophes” of disintegration and the loss of sovereignty.
The hazard was acute enough that the “erosion of the traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” was featured in the Strategy of the National Security of Russia. The chairwoman of the Federation Council, the Russian “senate,” called the contest “a real war for the human soul.” In an address to the nation on the morning of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin charged the West with forcing “pseudo values” on the Russians and “corroding our people from within.”
To thwart the assault on the nation’s “soul,” the Kremlin deployed what the leading Russian pollster and political sociologist Denis Volkov called the “state policy of memory”: an official version of history, forged and enforced by the regime.
Putin’s path to controlling Russia’s past began to take shape toward the end of his second presidential term in 2007 when he discerned “mush” in the heads of history teachers and called for common standards in historiography. Two years after his return to office in 2014, the criminal code was amended to include an article dealing with “spreading information that exhibited disrespect” for Russia’s “military glory.” The punishments included large fines and three to five years in a penal colony.
The “defense of historical truth” was added as an amendment to the Russian constitution in a 2020 referendum. The task of enforcing historical truth was entrusted to an investigative committee. Roughly equivalent to the FBI, the committee set up a special department for “crimes connected to the rehabilitation of Nazism and the falsification of the history of the Motherland.”
The 2023 edition of the high-school textbook The History of Russia epitomized the exoneration and glorification of the Soviet regime. Aptly described by the Russian essayist Andrei Kolesnikov as a collection of myths, the book exalted the “blissful retro-utopia” of Stalin’s Soviet Union, a land of popular heroism and all-around national flourishing. In what Kolesnikov calls the “most Stalino-philiac” public narrative since the dictator’s death in 1953, the textbook completed Stalin’s creeping “rehabilitation,” establishing the sacralized image of the godfather of the Putin regime.
Xi addressed the issue of ideological contamination five months into his first term as the general secretary. The “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” was circulated by the Central Committee’s General Office in April 2013, and it warned of “false ideological trends, positions, and activities.” The multipronged assault on China’s political sovereignty included Western constitutional democracy; “universal values”; the promotion of “civil society” in order to “dismantle” the Party’s social foundation; and the “West’s idea of journalism” to challenge the Party’s control over the media.
Western countries, Xi elaborated four months later, perceived China’s “development and expansion” as a challenge to their “value views,” which intensified “ideological and cultural infiltration” in response. The West’s propagation of “universal values” was but an attempt to compete with the Chinese Communist Party for the “people’s hearts.” The campaign’s goal was the overthrow of the leadership of the Communist Party and the entire Chinese socialist system.
Wrong values were bolstered by an equally wrong history. The Soviet Union “fell to pieces,” Xi explained, because of “historical nihilism,” that is, the “repudiation” of the Party’s history, of Lenin and Stalin. The “distortion of Party history and the history of new China” was among the seven key fronts of the West’s assault on the Party’s leadership listed in the 2013 communiqué. A few months later, Xi told the Conference on National Propaganda and Ideology Work that he wanted to mold the nation’s spirits and souls through history. There must be “no place,” he said, for “discourses” that “distort the Party’s history and the country’s history” in newspapers and magazines, meetings and conferences, films and theater productions, text messages and blogs, WeChat and Weibo.
“Historical nihilism” became a moniker for versions of history that differed from the official one. And it became a watchword for the enforcement of what Xi called “the correct outlook on history.” With control of national history becoming one of Xi’s signature policies, the Party’s legitimizing mythology filled textbooks, films, and museums, while unauthorized publications and exhibits were shut down and those who insisted on different facts and interpretations were harassed and often jailed. Artists and writers were tasked with fostering an “accurate understanding of history” by creating works that “extol our Party, our country, our people, and our heroes.” Citizens were encouraged to report “cases of historical inaccuracies” to the Illegal and Harmful Information Reporting Center.
Xi banned textbooks and media from mentioning Mao’s failures, such as the Great Leap Forward, which had been a key element of the official historical narrative for 30 years. In the new edition of the Short History of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao returns as a blameless father of the nation and the engineer of its brilliant triumphs. As a sartorial pledge, Xi’s Mao suit contrasted sharply with the ties and jackets of the other officials atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, at the celebration of the Party’s centennial in 2021.
For all the innumerable differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, the threats they respectively pose to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are essentially the same. Both are ethnically very close to, or identical with, their huge authoritarian neighbors. They are proto- or fully democratic and pro-Western. And taken as a whole, they are living negations of the key elements of both Moscow’s and Beijing’s legitimizing narratives of national revival through confrontation with the West; the absence of civic and political liberties; state control or ownership of the economy; imperial expansion; and warmongering.
Both Xi and Putin have been frank about the scope of the danger. Putin has compared the peril posed by Ukraine to the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. To Xi, an independent Taiwan is “a grave lurking threat” to the centerpiece of his self-imposed mission of “national rejuvenation.”
The economic and political conditions that prefaced Putin’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, too, are akin to those in which Xi finds himself today. Putin’s occupation of Crimea and the Moscow-sponsored armed uprising in Donbas in 2014 followed the nationwide protest during the winter of 2011–2012. Just as Kudrin had predicted, with oil still at $110 a barrel, in 2013 the Russian economy expanded at only 1.8 percent, or half of the previous year’s rate. Trust in Putin was plunging. By the end of the year, his support, which was and still is synonymous with the regime’s legitimacy, was at its lowest point since he had become president in 2000. Half of respondents in a national poll wanted someone other than Putin to be elected president in 2018.
Move forward in time and you can note that the 2022 assault on Ukraine occurred after the longest stagnation in Russia’s modern history, with an annual economic growth averaging 1 percent between 2009 and 2019 and one of the highest rates of Covid-related mortality in the world.
No polls track fluctuations in Xi’s popularity and support for his regime. Yet it is not hard to imagine that the economic and social dynamics of today’s China are as fraught as those that heralded Putin’s invasions of Ukraine. Chinese growth rates have declined steadily over the past 10 years, and the prospects for economic breakthrough remain dim. This jeopardizes Xi’s much publicized goal of transforming China from a “moderately prosperous society” into a “great modern socialist country in all respects.”
The not entirely deflated real-estate bubble and a possible wave of defaults on the enormous debts accumulated by local governments could precipitate a nationwide financial crisis. The unprecedented pro-tests against Xi’s draconian “zero tolerance” Covid lockdowns revealed some level of alienation from the regime, and a record high 20 percent youth-unemployment rate portends more social and political straining.
Nor can the regime be anything but alarmed by China’s rapidly aging population, shrinking workforce, and what the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt called the “stunning national collapse” in fertility rates. Among the lowest in the world, the spiraling fertility along with increasingly late and infrequent marriages could be a sign of a pervasive anomie among the young Chinese. In the Washington Post, Eberstadt has suggested a “deep dissatisfaction with the bleak future the regime is engineering for its subjects” and a vote of no confidence in Xi’s rule. The diagnosis of the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos was similar: “To spend time in China at the end of Xi’s first decade,” he wrote, “is to witness a nation slipping from motion to stagnation and, for the first time in a generation, questioning whether a Communist superpower can escape the contradictions that doomed the Soviet Union.”
War, we are told, is the continuation of politics by other means. Putin’s Russia is a stark vindication of this maxim: The regime that Putin forged step-by-step to maintain power, bolster legitimacy, and secure popular support has propelled the Kremlin toward war.
Concurrences, of course, are not set in stone. But if they are consistent enough over a significant period of time, they do enhance the plausibility of similar outcomes. “Coincidence,” Einstein said, “is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Putin’s road to Ukraine has been attended with wartime consolidation and militarized patriotism. Could the political dynamic unleashed by similar regime-building strategies and the imperatives of regime preservation forge a similar trajectory, one that takes Xi to Taiwan? The evidence outlined here adds to the probability.
1 Although the general secretaries were ex officio supreme commanders in chief, no Soviet leader since Stalin had been addressed so publicly.
2 Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was nominally the military commission’s chairman, but the operational authority over the military was exercised by uniformed vice-chairs. Under Xi’s “Chairman Responsibility System,” he became the head of the armed forces. According to Chinese media, the military is now “accomplishing all the important items that Chairman Xi has determined, and doing all the work that Chairman Xi has put them in charge of, and in all their actions obeying Chairman Xi’s commands” (Andrew Nathan, “Back to the Future,” the New York Review of Books, May 10, 2018).
Photo: Pavel Byrkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
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