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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

From Moscow to Beijing

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Mar. 24, 2004

For a foreign correspondent, a transfer from the Moscow bureau to the Beijing bureau is a shift from a fallen Communist giant to a pseudo-Communist giant. Superficially the similarities are impressive. More intriguing, however, are the underlying contrasts between the two great empires of 20th-century Communism.

When I moved from Moscow to Beijing two years ago, it was in some ways an effortless adjustment from one Stalinist compound to another. Foreigners in both cities are traditionally housed in huge fenced-off compounds with guards at the entrance. In the old days we had no choice: the authorities were trying to keep us isolated and monitored. These days the restrictions have eased and it's possible to live in private apartments in Moscow and Beijing, but the compounds have become a cheap and convenient place to live — especially since the guards can generally be ignored now.

In the Soviet Union and China, correspondents were severely limited in their movements, needing permission whenever they ventured outside the capital. Today the old prohibitions have been dropped, or at least enforced less rigorously. Yet for all the talk of reform and freedom, you can still get into trouble for traveling to sensitive regions. I have been arrested by police in provincial cities in both Russia and China for doing interviews without permission. In both countries, an independent journalist is still a target for suspicion and harassment.

You can easily compile a long list of similarities between the two countries: multicultural empires; nuclear arsenals; smog-shrouded cities; ecological disasters; government corruption; histories shaped by Mongol invasions and excessively powerful bureaucracies; spiritual vacuum after the demise of their official ideology; widening gaps between rich and poor; bureaucratic limits on where people can live; collective amnesia about the atrocities of earlier regimes; and even the obsession with magnificent facades and grandiose streets in their capital cities, concealing the poverty of millions of ordinary people in the shabby buildings behind the facades.

The parallels are endless. But when I walk through Beijing's streets, I am more fascinated by how it differs from Moscow.

One of the contrasts that always strikes me is the language of the shop signs. Chinese business owners love to put English words in the neon signs above their doors. Eager to join the global economy, they are confident and ambitious, and they see English as a status symbol -- a fashionable gesture toward the global mainstream of today.

In Moscow, by comparison, English is deliberately shunned. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Moscow mayor took steps to prohibit English from all shop signs. He defended the ban as cultural patriotism, but I saw it as an admission of insecurity — a widespread fear that Russian is losing ground to English. This is not a confident country. This is a threatened, anxious, angry country, still deeply resentful of its decline and looking for scapegoats to blame.

Another sharp contrast is the attitude toward public investment. Russian cities are crumbling from within, suffering a severe lack of investment in roads, bridges, buildings, pipes, water and other infrastructure. Across Russia, I rarely saw new buildings rising from the ground, but I often saw old buildings being dismantled brick-by-brick by looters and thieves. While China was building, Russia was demolishing itself.

Some of this is a result of Russia's fiscal woes. The Russian government is spending little on public investment because its revenue is so limited. And the Russian private sector is not spending much either, preferring to exploit the investments of the past.

But I think the larger reason is that Chinese people have a longer-term perspective and more faith in the future. Chinese entrepreneurs and governments are willing to invest today because they are confident that they can reap the long-term rewards. In Russia, people have no faith in the future because they have suffered centuries of theft and confiscation by the powers above them. Why should they make a long-term investment when anything profitable or valuable has always been seized from them?

In contrast to the optimism of the Chinese people, most Russians are cynical and pessimistic. Corruption is widespread in both countries, yet Russian officialdom is much more blatant in its greed. Russian postal workers routinely steal any interesting-looking package that passes through their hands, whereas the Chinese postal system is generally quite reliable. Chinese policemen are not quite so brazen in their demands for bribes as the Russian police force.

Someone once commented that the main difference between Russia and China was that China got rid of its Communism earlier. It's certainly true that far more Communist symbols and monuments are visible in the streets of Moscow than in Beijing. But the real difference is not the ideology — it's the attitude toward the state.

China recognizes that the private sector is ultimately the engine of its economy. Russia still worships the "strong central state." Its theorists are still convinced that the Russian people need to be prodded and whipped into activity by a Peter the Great, a Stalin or a Putin. Without the state's guidance, they believe, they are nothing.

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