The Myth of the Authoritarian Model

Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss argue in Foreign Affairs that authoritarian governments may appear to be working in places like China and Russia, but the correlation between and growth is in fact spurious. They write, “In the economic-growth race in the developing world, autocracies are both the hares and the snails, whereas democracies are the tortoises — slower but steadier.” The article focuses mainly on Russia, but in the last section it addresses Sino-Russian relations:

Kremlin officials and their public-relations operatives frequently evoke China as a model: a seemingly modernizing autocracy that has delivered an annual growth rate over ten percent for three decades. China is also an undisputed global power, another attribute that Russian leaders admire and want to emulate. If China is supposed to be Exhibit A in the case for a new model of successful authoritarianism, the Kremlin wants to make Russia Exhibit B.

Identifying China as a model — instead of the United States, Germany, or even Portugal — already sets the development bar much lower than it was just a decade ago. China remains an agrarian-based economy with per capita GDP below $2,000 (about a third of Russia’s and a 15th of Germany’s). But the China analogy is also problematic because sustained high growth under autocracy is the exception, not the rule, around the world. For every China, there is an autocratic developmental disaster such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo; for every authoritarian success such as Singapore, there is a resounding failure such as Myanmar; for every South Korea, a North Korea.

In a January 8 article in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman takes the opposite position, concluding that ” … hopes that the two countries [Russia and China] would embrace the western political model now seem outdated and naive.”

Recently on “It’s Your World: a broadcast of the World Affairs Council,” Anders Åslund, a former economic adviser to the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, argued that Russia and China have much less in common economically than many analysts think: Anders Åslund on China and Russia

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