Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts COVID-19 and Authoritarian Regimes: China vs. Russia
COVID-19 and Authoritarian Regimes: China vs. Russia

COVID-19 and Authoritarian Regimes: China vs. Russia

The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China are certainly the two most prominent authoritarian regimes in the world today, with their quasi-alliance characterized as an “axis of authoritarians”  and portrayed as a major threat to the West and global liberal democracy. However, despite unmistakable similarities that exist between Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, the reality is far more complex. Their respective responses to the COVID-19 crisis shed some light on differences between the political-governance models of these two countries.

The Party-State of China: Defeating the Virus

When the coronavirus outbreak was declared a national emergency on January 20, the Chinese political system responded with swift self-mobilization. In a few weeks, authorities rolled out aggressive testing, placed thousands of “high risk” individuals in quarantine centers, deployed sophisticated digital surveillance technology, and sealed-off over 760 million people in their houses.

Despite this approach, Xi notably distanced himself from the outbreak at the outset. When the virus was spreading swiftly through Wuhan in mid-January, he enjoyed a lavish visit to Myanmar. On the critical day of January 20, when the Chinese government began to take action, he was not in Beijing. On the day of the Wuhan lockdown, Xi gave upbeat toasts—with no mention of the virus—at the Lunar New Year banquet in Beijing. He was not enthusiastic about seeking the limelight;  it was Premier Li Keqiang who led the counter-virus effort and shortly traveled to Wuhan.

In mid-February, when the mobilization machinery was running at full speed and the epidemic approached its peak, Xi gradually resumed public appearances, and the state propaganda apparatus started to portray him as being in charge of every step of the response from the very beginning. The most significant sign of Xi’s reassertion became his chairing of a teleconference meeting, attended by 170,000 cadres throughout the country. On March 9 (just when COVID-19 began ravaging the West), Xi declared victory in the “people’s war against the devil virus” in Wuhan. Having effectively contained the virus in the first months of the year, China is not even in the top 20 in terms of either infections or deaths as of the end of July. Small local flare-ups have been met with a severe response, with the whole cities—like Urumqi, Suifenhe, Jilin etc.—put on wartime footing.

While China was successful in containing the coronavirus, the lockdowns and other restrictions took their toll on the economy, which contracted by 6.8% for the first time in decades. The most hit sectors became small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), accounting for 80% of the urban workforce. Millions were forced out of work, with official unemployment numbers slightly above 6% in April and independent analysts putting the number as high as 20%. Massive loss of jobs could pose severe risks to social stability and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. However, while Western governments were opening their pockets to spend trillions on direct economic stimulus, China refrained from going all-in. By contrast, Li emphasized that a flood of liquidity would be of little use for the economy and advocated for a well-targeted approach. In a move to spur economic recovery, the Chinese government unleashed $506 billion of financial support to fund cheap loans, high-tech investments, and several unconventional steps to boost market demand. One of those mechanisms was introducing vouchers nationwide to get people shopping through China’s ubiquitous e-payment platforms.

The Russian Autocracy: Muddling Through the Pandemic

The pandemic hit Russia right in the middle of Putin’s gambit to amend the country’s constitution. The proposals would allow him to stay in power after his current term expires in 2024. Initially, the Kremlin paid little attention to the virus threat. Until mid-March, all the major political decisions were made without taking coronavirus risks into account.

But after visiting Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, Putin begrudgingly decided to postpone the quasi-referendum on constitutional change on April 22 and the Victory Day Parade on May 9. Putin did not take a public role in managing the counter-COVID effort during the most difficult period of the epidemic from March to May. He retreated into the proverbial bunker, while the main responsibility to cope with the virus was placed on regional governors. It was Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin who de facto became Russia’s front-man in dealing with the virus.

For all of the Kremlin’s authoritarian tendencies, the lockdown restrictions were not very strict. Moscow’s municipal authorities managed to deter people from going out through ramping up mobile monitoring and CCTV surveillance. However, Big Brother hardly watched the hinterland. Some regions simply failed to adopt digital pass systems and quickly abandoned the idea. The enforcement of COVID-prevention measures, such as self-isolation, closure of public facilities, and wearing face masks, was lax in many places across Russia. In my hometown Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East, some gyms and restaurants continued to operate as an open secret.

Russia’s bungled response was epitomized by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, as well as a number of other high-ranking officials, contracting the virus. Sergey Sobyanin himself admitted Russia’s failure to contain the disease by saying that the COVID situation in the country was “unfolding in line with the European scenario when the epidemic is already inside and you can only try and flatten the curve.” In July, after the coronavirus peaked in Moscow, Sobyanin revealed that the collective immunity level in the city stood at 60%, the same as in New York. This meant that the majority of Muscovites got the virus despite all of the preventative measures

Russia’s encounter with COVID-19 was not as disastrous, in terms of loss of human life, compared to the public health system failures in Italy, Spain, the United States, and Brazil. At the very least, the Russian health system avoided a meltdown. Partly thanks to one of the world’s largest bed stocks inherited from the Soviet Union, COVID-19 has not become a humanitarian catastrophe. As new cases still increase by thousands each day, one cannot call it a success story, either.

The nationwide non-working days and self-isolation (the euphemisms that the Kremlin used for quarantine) delivered a severe blow to the Russian economy. And yet, Russia’s Finance Chief Anton Siluanov argued against “showering people with helicopter money.” The Kremlin has been reluctant to tap $550 billion of its reserves for massive direct aid to the population. SMEs—the sector most severely affected by the crisis—have been virtually excluded from government support. Amid a sharp drop in oil revenues, it made little sense to the Russian regime to splash rainy-day cash on SMEs. Moreover, SMEs only account for 26% of the workforce and are regarded by Putin as swindlers. Instead, a $40 billion relief package released by the Russian government was mostly limited to the unemployed and families with children. Such austerity, however, did not come as much of a surprise. Since Putin came to power two decades ago, the Kremlin has always prioritized budget stability over massive social spending. The corona-crisis just underscored a statist approach and fiscal conservatism typical of Putin’s Russia.

Not Two of a Kind

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that strongman regimes in neo-totalitarian China and hybrid autocracy Russia are anything but varieties of one species. There were some similarities, such as the low-profile posture adopted by both Xi and Putin during the initial phases of the epidemic and their reluctance to provide direct financial aid to households and small businesses. But, overall, their responses to the crisis stood in contrast to each other, both in their strategies and the results that they achieved.

Even though disastrous mistakes were made by Chinese authorities at the beginning, including the cover-up in Wuhan, Beijing was able to quickly take control of the situation and stop mass spread of the virus inside China. By contrast, although Russia had advanced warning, the response was lackluster.

Even being completely aware of China’s success in containing the virus, the Kremlin did not seriously try to emulate the former’s methods. The most likely reason is that Russian leadership understands the inherent limitations of Russia’s governance model. For one, unlike China’s model with its knack for mass grass-roots mobilization and quasi-self-governance, the contemporary Russian system deliberately cultivates public atomization. Russia is also lagging China in digital infrastructure, another crucial component in a successful counter-pandemic effort. The most profound limitation, though, is the quality of governance. Russia’s state apparatus has much lower efficiency compared to the Chinese party-state. Alexei Kudrin, a top government official and Putin’s old crony, recently pointed out that “governance in Russia is non-effective.” Having no illusions about the capabilities of Russia’s proverbial “power vertical,” the Kremlin has virtually capitulated to the coronavirus’ spread since May. This included pushing ahead with the rescheduled Victory Parade and vote on Putin’s constitutional amendments. Such risk-taking drastically contrasted with China, where COVID management is a new political merit and hence even small outbreaks trigger forceful reactions.

China-like feats of governance are unimaginable in Russia. COVID-19 has shown nothing particularly new in this regard. Putin’s Russia will continue as a neo-feudal and increasingly archaic regime whose governance capabilities are, with few exceptions, mediocre. Putin and Xi may be the most intimate of friends, but they preside over very different political systems.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.