23 July 2016

Russia, China and America 2016

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

I have been having discussions in several venues today, who seem convinced – deploying an ironically nationalistic logic – that the Russians and the Chinese both want Trump to win, and want Clinton to lose, because Trump will weaken the American military and international prestige. For support they pointed to articles like this one by Harriet Sinclair, and op-eds like this one by Tim Mak. But is either one actually the case?

The short answer is no. On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin explicitly declined to endorse either of the candidates in the American election when pressed on the question by Fareed Zakaria, citing the ‘colourful’ (‘яркий’) comment Putin had made earlier about Trump. Putin, however, replied on-record, in public, that ‘we… do not interfere into the internal political processes of other countries, especially the US’; he did say that he ‘did note’ and ‘welcome’ the desire to ‘restore relations with Russia’. On the Chinese side, even though some news outlets and commentators associated with state media like the People’s Daily and Xinhua have spoken up in support of Trump, the only statement on US elections to come from the CCP directly was a comment by Finance Minister Lou Jiwei to the effect that Trump’s economic and trade policies toward China are ‘irrational’. Indeed, the official organs of the Chinese government have actually chastised print media like the Global Times for publishing pro-Trump editorials. In that sense, the Chinese government is simply doing what it has always done in American election years: watching cautiously from the sidelines and speaking up only where its own interests are threatened.

The longer and more involved answer goes thus. Both Russia and China indeed are watching American elections with interest, for obvious reasons. But their opinions of the candidates simply don’t fall into such cut-and-dried attitudes. It’s not that hard to figure that Chinese rightists and liberals hate Trump because he is wrecking their idealised notion of what American democracy is supposed to achieve. As Eric X Li puts it in an uncharacteristically-nuanced article on Foreign Affairs: ‘they despise Trump, but they can’t quite bring themselves to say that the moneyed elites are right and the people are wrong – such an admission would not help them make their case for Western-style democracy in China’.

On the other hand, Eric Li notes that on the leftist, traditional, pro-government side of Chinese politics, the attitudes toward Trump are a little bit harder to gauge. On the one hand, Chinese patriots are – also for obvious reasons – repulsed by his consistently anti-China rhetoric, with Dai Xu (a nationalist and PLA officer) calling Trump an ‘imperialist’, a ‘war-monger’, even an ‘American Hitler’. On the other hand, Dr. Jin Canrong of Renmin University of China in Beijing, has cited Trump as a ‘pragmatist’ whom the Chinese government can work with. Whether Dai Xu’s or Jin Canrong’s attitudes win the day on the Chinese left remains to be seen; as with many other groups both inside and outside the United States, Trump simply appears to be too much of an unknown factor.

Which is probably one of the reasons why so many Russians are noncommittal about the 2016 elections. One poll by Interfax, cited with a misleading headline by the International Business Times, noted that Trump supporters in Russia outnumber Clinton supporters by a factor of three – 28 per cent against 9 per cent. The same poll found that about equal numbers of Russians hold negative (23 per cent) and positive (22 per cent) views of Trump.

What consistently gets left unsaid in Anglo-American citations of this poll, is that fully 63 per cent of the Russian people have no preference for either candidate! (Of course, saying so doesn’t exactly grab headlines in the West, which is part of the problem.) But, as something of a Russia-watcher, here is my theory for why the numbers break down the way they do. I’m borrowing something of Anatoly Karlin’s analysis of Russian politics for my own purposes.

Russian liberals, as even they themselves will claim, make up only ten or so per cent of the Russian electorate. The reason that the Russian electorate has soured so heavily on liberalism as a comprehensive economic and political doctrine has to be traced back to the disaster of shock therapy, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Russians by alcoholism, suicide, disease or malnutrition. Though a handful of Russians who managed to benefit by these reforms – and others, too young or too sheltered to remember them – still champion liberal market and political reforms as a package deal (notably the political tendency associated with Yabloko, Parnas, SPS and other right-liberal parties), most Russians simply won’t drink that Kool-Aid anymore. Russians see Bill Clinton in particular, who turned the liberal reforms in Russia into a kind of crusade, as a bête noire, though they can hardly have a higher opinion of Hillary, who has been a consistent supporter of both her husband’s economic and foreign policies vis-à-vis Russia, and who has continued in her capacity as a senator to support indirect interventions in Georgia and the Ukraine. Only to that particular privileged segment of the Russian populace which was sheltered from the negative effects of shock therapy, and which holds out hope for the promises of the ‘90’s reforms, would Clinton have any appeal.

Trump’s support in Russia follows a similar pattern. Though it’s a little bit harder to draw a line between the two, between 20 and 30 per cent of Russians fall into the camp of ideological nationalism, whether of the left or the right. Between them, the opposition politicians Gennady Zyuganov (of the retro-Soviet KPRF) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (of the xenophobic right-wing LDPR) carry between 20 and 30 per cent of the vote in any given legislative election. Comparisons between Trump and Zhirinovsky are particularly commonplace, and are even quoted (though you have to wade through a lot of Russophobic tripe to get to the quote) in Politico. They see in Trump the same sort of crass, vulgar, flamboyant self-displays of megalomania (of the sort that Il’in warned against), that they will see at the rallies against immigration, and, like Dugin, they connect to that; in addition, they may latch on to some of Trump’s statements about NATO and wanting to invest in Russia, and believe that he must be one of them.

But… turning to the silent majority. The 63 per cent from that Interfax poll that get ignored or glossed over in the Western headlines.

This, I believe (and not without some justification given the above analysis), is the selfsame silent majority that, in election after election, returns in excess of 55 per cent of the vote to the cautious, realist, non-neoliberal, decidedly un-flamboyant United Russia party, and to President Putin personally (who is neither a rabble-rouser nor a megalomaniac). The silent majority among whom Anatoly Karlin numbers himself, and calls ‘the sceptical Russophiles’, who love their country with realistic eyes, who are under no illusions about the ‘bittersweet glories’ and the ‘traumatic infamies’ of their past, who don’t keen to ideology, who see Russia as following its own path, albeit one with non-exclusive implications. It is the tendency that Karlin associates historically with the political poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev, flavoured by a tinge of Romanticism and rebellion against one-sided rationalism, but still grounded enough to be rooted in life as such. They will rally around the banner when they are under a legitimate threat, but they are neither seduced by the siren call of ideology nor by the antics of a cult of personality. They look at the two options afforded by the West and – like Kireevsky and Khomyakov before them – reject both in favour of their own.

EDIT (29 July): Two articles are well worth reading on the subject, and with a couple of differences in emphasis they seem to be saying much the same thing as I am here. The first is by Olga Kuzmina, who demolishes the argument from the linguistic view, that Putin had any kind of newsworthy praise for Trump, and at the same time highlighted the differences between Putin’s rhetorical restraint and the utter lack of it on Trump’s part. The second, at the National Interest, is by Maksim Suchkov, who analyses the popular feeling toward both candidates. Even though he clearly doesn’t think much of the comparison between Trump and Zhirik, he still criticises the American focus on Trump’s supposed Russia ties as both vapid and wrongly-aimed. Do give both articles a careful read, gentle readers!


  1. Great article, Matthew. Really enjoyed it

  2. Thank you very much indeed, Matthew, and welcome to the blog!