In today’s Times (27 August) Peter Hitchens writes a letter in which he expresses his regret at the fact that whilst China and the west drew closer in the decades since the close of the 1980s in spite of the events of the 4th of June 1989 (aka the Tiananmen Square incident), Russia and the west have for a number of years experienced severely strained relations. Hitchens finds this unfortunate due to the fact that whilst the USSR fell (mostly) without a shot, China defended its system against provocateurs in June of 1989.
Perhaps it would be beneficial to start out by saying that I agree with Peter Hitchens on a great number of issues. In particular, Mr. Hitchens is one of the only (if not the only) major figures in UK media to write consistently about the perils and evils associated with the use of “recreational” narcotics.
But whilst I agree with many if not most of Mr. Hitchens’s views on the tragic decline and fall of social traditionalism/social conservatism, I disagree with his assessment of post-Cold War Russia vis-a-vis post-Cold War China precisely because I agree with him some thoroughly on social matters.
Russia in the 1990s was a country transformed from the extreme of state controlled public life to an opposite extreme where anarchy ruled the day. Russia in the 1990s was a cesspit of drugs, prostitution, pornography, extreme drunkenness, crumbling family life and abandoned children left at the mercy of orphanages that would have shamed the most underdeveloped third world nations. These features of extreme social decay are rightly decried by both Mr. Hitchens and myself when they occur in the west. Although the western world embraced sexual depravity, the normalisation of narcotics and the promotion of the breakdown of family life long before the fall of the USSR, there is a difference that one cannot ignore.
For decades, westerners have hypocritically brushed our problems under the rug as if to pretend that we can live in morally debased societies whilst still pretending otherwise. Whilst liberal elites have chipped away at the shibboleths of morality, even many self described conservatives and moderates have simply blinded themselves to reality, as if wishful thinking could somehow provide a genuine shelter from a society gone wrong. When contrasted with the west, in Russia in the 1990s, poverty was so rife that most people could not even afford a proverbial rug under which to sweep their shame.
China on the other hand developed along a very different path. China is to this day a country in which the taking of narcotics and the production and consumption of pornography are punished with severity. Whilst some prostitution can be found on the Mainland, it is frowned upon and remains a major social taboo. Whilst Russia’s 1990s economy degenerated into a snake pit of oligarchs, China has continued to embrace a broadly free market economic system and as such, the Chinese society of today is more recognisably free than it was prior to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up of 1978.
By contrast, whilst the Russia of today is not nearly as bad as the Russia of the 1990s, its economy is still something of a basket case that remains highly prone to a Dutch disease in the event of falling oil and/or gas prices. China on the other hand is the second largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and when measured in GDP in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), China is even ahead of the United States.
In Chinese society, industry, education, discipline and the rule of law are still the order of the day. Whilst Chinese history and culture dictate that its rule of law is very different to the traditional British conception of the rule of law that Mr. Hitchens rightly advocates bringing back to British streets, it is nevertheless comforting to realise that China has chosen order over anarchy even if its style of order would be out of place in a country like Britain for the same reason that wearing a south Pacific style grass skirt would be out of place during a Siberian winter.
But whilst China has never and almost certainly can never adopt the particular British characteristics that Mr. Hitchens and myself personally cherish, Russia has adopted the pan-western characteristics that both of us despise. Even today, it is quite easy to purchase narcotics and prostitutes in most major cities in Russia. Pornography is everywhere and mainstream television is as horrific as anything in Britain or America. It is true that Christianity has come back to public life since the fall of the USSR, but within walking distance of any church in Moscow are all the dens of depravity whose counterparts one could find in London, New York or Paris.
Of course, none of this means that any western country should punish Russia. Firstly, as a committed non-interventionist in the affairs of foreign states, I would personally be a hypocrite if I felt otherwise. Secondly, the west itself would be hypocritical if it punished Russia for adopting the very western vices that the western liberal establishment name as virtuous.
Finally therefore, one is confronted by a truth defined by Thucydides in his Melian Dialogue. China is stronger than most countries in the world in economic terms whilst Russia remains far weaker than the USSR ever was – this in spite of its post-Yeltsin reforms which themselves are one part genuine and one part Potemkin village. As such, Russia is easier for western governments to prod and provoke for the simple reason that western populations will not see the prices of televisions, phones, computers and shoes increase as a result of provoking Russia.
I respect the fact that Peter Hitchens is a critic of contemporary China, so much so that whilst I find most western derived criticisms of contemporary China to be juvenile and banal, his are stimulating, thoughtful and never prone to hyperbole. The point of this writing therefore is not to attempt and forge a point of agreement on China that will never be reached.
Rather, it is to shine light on the elephant in the room that whilst China retained its version of traditional social values, Russia plunged headlong into the world of drugs, prostitution and oblivion. This is hardly anything worthy of admiration although it certainly is not a justification for war or sanctions. Instead, it ought to provoke a broader reflection of the fact that whilst the “old” British values partly shaped a successful, safe and free country like Singapore, the post-1960s pan-western values helped to shape the tragedy that is modern Russia.