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China Likes Medvedev, "Controllable Democracy"

11:46 AM, Mar 3, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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Affirmation of Vladimir Putin's accomplishments as president was a constant theme of recent Chinese press coverage of Russia. Yesterday, as Russians went to the polls to elect a new president, Xinhua celebrated with a lengthy piece titled "Putin's report card." It credits the Russian leader not only with his country's improved economic performance and growing international clout, but also with instituting a "controllable democracy" that has brought order and stability to a land once teetering on the brink of anarchy.

This is a familiar narrative. Beijing has long favored combining economic reform with continued political authoritarianism. After the 1989 military crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping, the "architect of modern China," justified the suppression as a necessary means of restoring stability in order to further economic progress. It is a line of argument that has been repeated by successive Chinese leaders.

In Putin's Russia, Beijing sees its policies being vindicated. Indeed, last Wednesday a Xinhua report carried the proud heading "On Russia's campaign trail the Chinese experience is held in high esteem; The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping becomes a manual for governing."

Chinese media have gushed over Russia's economic prosperity, evidenced by rising incomes and punctuated by the presence of Gucci, Armani, and Prada stores in Moscow. "The Putin generation" is portrayed as self-confident, sophisticated, and awash in material comfort. More importantly, it is a generation that values stability.

Unsurprisingly, the lion's share of Chinese press coverage of the Russian presidential election was given to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor. Medvedev's refusal to debate his three opponents was attributed to his being a "dedicated public servant" who had too hectic a schedule attending to his many responsibilities as first deputy prime minister. Special play was given also to Medvedev's assertion that what Russia needs most is "strong presidential power."

The claimed success of strong presidential power is examined in a February 29 Liberation Daily report titled "A perspective on Russia's presidential government." It points to the political disintegration under Boris Yeltsin as confirmation that a weak presidency leads to a weakened nation, and that Putin's move to centralize authority is what turned Russia around. The article also faults Yeltsin for relying on radical democrats to advance his political agenda and credits Putin for skillfully guiding the "middle-of-the road" United Russia to become the majority party in the State Duma.

Russia's current political structure, the article further notes, is one where the transfer of power hinges on a "system of nomination" in which the incumbent designates a preferred successor whose electability rests upon the legacy of his predecessor. This, it is claimed, is needed to ensure policy continuity and political stability. The practice is described as being unique to Russia's "special kind of democratic system."