Stresses between leaders and followers are everywhere in evidence. Nearly no place on the planet is exempt from the changes in culture and technology that have altered forever relations between those who ostensibly lead and those who ostensibly follow.
However, what has happened in China in the last couple of years, and what has happened in Russia, is similar in ways best explained by turning back the clock – by looking to the past to shed light on the present.
Both Chinese and Russian authorities have clamped down on dissent. Fearful of the political restiveness that characterizes much of the rest of the world, political leaders in China and Russia have increasingly sought to stifle, even suppress, their domestic opposition. And both have similarly sought to strengthen their positions at home by adventurism abroad. China’s President Hi Jinping has stirred the pot in the South and East China Seas. And Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has seized Crimea and wreaked havoc in Eastern Ukraine.
To see how deep the imprint of authoritarianism both in China and Russia it’s instructive to read two recent pieces – in, of all places, “The Arts” section of the New York Times. (Links below.) Of course controlling dissent by controlling creativity is nothing new. Hitler’s bonfire of the books, the burning in 1933 of some 25,000 “un-German” volumes, is the most infamous example of this type of political hooliganism. Still, it’s worth being reminded that the life of the mind remains at risk.
A new opera, titled “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” about the founding of the Chinese Republic, had its American premiere last week in Santa Fe. It did not, however, make its debut as originally intended, in Beijing. Instead it was forced first to be performed in Hong Kong – a Chinese outpost. Moreover its star, the tenor Warren Mok, who was supposed to perform in Santa Fe, went missing, withdrawing in the last minute, near certainly because of political pressure. Along similar lines was a recent performance in New York City of Russia’s fabled Bolshoi Ballet. Here is an excerpt from the review by Alastair Macaulay, who obviously was aghast at the regressive display. “It was hard not to think of politics when watching the Bolshoi’s repertory – which was entirely pre-glasnost…. What on earth does the company’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, make of this artistic recession? … What lies ahead for this whole company, so richly talented, yet now tumbling back into a pre-1989 [Soviet] nightmare?”
To understand this crass, clumsy intrusion into arts (among many other things), we need to return to China and Russia in the not-distant past. Both were totalitarian states – they had political and economic systems in which the government had complete control. Both were led – China from 1949 to 1976; Russia from 1924 to 1953 – by totalitarian dictators, Mao Zedong and Stalin respectively, who would as soon eliminate their followers as surrender to them a speck of power. And both were Communist states at a time in which Communism and totalitarianism were nearly always one and the same. In fact, the legacy of Communism lingers as does that of totalitarianism. Hi Jinping is not only President of China, he is, simultaneously, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Vladimir Putin is not only President of Russia in the present, he is the self-same Vladmiir Putin who for fully sixteen years, until it disbanded, was part of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s notorious security agency. Moreover the two men share something else – nostalgia for the good old days. Beijing has invested heavily in glorifying its Communist heritage, which explains why Chinese tourists increasingly are visiting sites that extol Mao. And Moscow has similarly revived the dream of restoring to Russia at least some of the empire it enjoyed during the Soviet era. Not for nothing did Putin describe the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century.
Totalitarian leadership begets totalitarian followership – by that I mean followers who go along to get along. Let me clear here. This certainly does not mean that there has been no Chinese or Russian dissent in the past, and it certainly does not mean that there is no Chinese or Russian dissent in the present. But what it does mean is that neither country has a long history or a clear ideology in support of the idea of democratic rule. To the contrary. History makes clear why change from below in both China and Russia has been – and will continue to be – inordinately difficult to implement.