Why the Dragon Will Outrun the Bear: Ever since He Travelled to the Soviet Union and China as a Young Man Nearly 20 Years Ago, Nicholas Watt Has Asked Himself Which of the Two Communist Giants Was Right. Now He Thinks He Has the Answer. Both Have Embraced Capitalism, but Only One Will Flourish
Watt, Nicholas, New Statesman (1996)
In 1986, as a brash 18-year-old, I wrote to Mikhail Gorbachev. I asked the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party to discuss world affairs with me during a brief stopover in Moscow as I made my way home from China that summer. I received no reply.
A month and a half later, on a stifling August evening after an eight-hour flight on a shaky Aeroflot Tupolov from Beijing, I was summoned to the foyer of my Moscow hotel. "Good evening, Mr Vyot," a stern woman from Intourist said to me in the faded splendour of the fin de siecle Hotel National near Red Square, where Lenin had stayed in 1918. "You wrote to the general secretary, who is unfortunately unable to meet you because he is on holiday. But he has instructed us to arrange a series of meetings for you."
Outside the hotel was my own black, chauffeur-driven car. Over the next two days, it whisked me to a series of meetings that gave me a taste of the growing divisions in Russia. I met enthusiastic promoters of Gorbachev's glasnost and diehard party officials convinced the Soviet Union's main aim throughout history had been to promote world peace.
The National is now one of Moscow's swishest hotels and these days students are no doubt shooed away. Colourful adverts for fancy consumer goods have replaced posters of Lenin and Marx. And the question that puzzled me on my teenage tour of the two communist giants, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, remains. Which one was right? Russia, which was then beginning to allow people to think but utterly failing to reform its creaking economy? Or China, which ended any hopes of political freedom on a summer's evening in Tiananmen Square in 1989, months before communism collapsed in Europe, but which has embraced the free market with zeal?
Neither, is the obvious answer. China's burgeoning middle class appears to be comfortable, but is governed by an elite that places a single bullet in the back of the head for relatively minor offences and which is so obsessed with secrecy that it cannot face up to a disastrous Aids epidemic. In Russia, people may be free to speak out and to vote for a president, even though he has blood on his hands. But they live in the shadow of a deeply corrupt elite that makes the Sicilian mafia look like charity workers.
However, sitting on the fence will not do, because, like it or not, there is a clear winner. To say that China has got it right is a little glib, when the country has such a grim human rights record and tolerates serious corruption among its business elite while executing small-time crooks. …