Transition Without a Destination
No. 2 2008 April/June
Alexander V. Lomanov

Doctor of History
Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences,
Moscow, Russia
Deputy Director for Scientific Work


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Comparative transitology had its heyday
in the 1990s, when intense discussions focused on the specificity
of a historically unprecedented sweeping transition to a market
economy and democracy from an economy based on state planning and a
totalitarian political system. It was fashionable then to compare
the success of gradual market transformations in the People’s
Republic of China and the failures of Russian reforms that had
started off in the spirit of Eastern European “shock

As the turn of the new century
approached, the problems of transition withdrew backstage in the
wake of an outpouring of numerous new problems. The situation with
the countries in transition became quite clear as well. Central and
Eastern European countries that closely followed economic
recommendations from the ‘Washington Consensus’ and attuned
themselves to Western partners in politics scored big successes,
while Russia, with its inconsistent reforms and nostalgia for past
glory, did not. At the same time, China continued to move along the
path it had chosen at the end of the 1970s, by opening its economy
broader and broader to the West.

Now the topic of transition is making a
comeback, although in a different aspect, as Western political
scientists with a conservative tint are showing a growing tendency
toward drawing a line between so-called ‘liberal’ and
‘authoritarian’ capitalism. Adherents of this theory claim that
China and Russia embody the latter tendency, which defies the
cornerstones of Western civilization.

So what actually happened? China’s
steady rise got a hitherto unforeseen addition in the form of
Russia’s rapid growth that was supported by an unprecedented hike
in world energy prices. The visibly increasing political and
economic potential of these two countries sent a reminder to
Western analysts that Beijing and Moscow insist on a sovereign
choice of paths for development and consider a subjugated status

Both powers renounced the Soviet-style
system of economic planning and put themselves on the path of a
market economy, while the same process in other post-Communist
states had an obvious and uncontestable external guide. The
prospect of joining European-Atlantic institutions was the main
lever of influence there, and integration into Western economies
implied the inevitable assimilation of democratic values and
compliance with military security standards.

Russia and China have vehemently
rejected this model of external “management by objectives.” They
have been quite successful in effectuating a “transition without a
destination” or, in other words, a type of transformation that does
not envision a merger with already existing organizations on terms
set forth by the latter. This phenomenon has put up a serious
challenge to contemporary political scientists, and although the
concept of the “end of history” – that underlay the developed
world’s politics after the Cold War – has already revealed its
flawed nature, no new concept capable of explaining the ongoing
processes has surfaced to date.


As the Communist camp in Europe
collapsed in 1989, Francis Fukuyama’s postulation about “the end of
history” – represented by an eventual victory of economic and
political liberalism in the minds of the people – looked quite

Fukuyama forecast, for instance, that
pro-democracy manifestations in China would inescapably grow into a
movement to change the political system. “Chinese competitiveness
and expansionism on the world scene have virtually disappeared,” he
claimed, adding that: “The new China far more resembles Gaullist
France than pre-World War I Germany.” As for the children of the
Chinese elite who studied abroad, they would not let China remain
the only Asian country untouched by the democratic process after
they returned home.

However, the Chinese Communist Party
clamped down on anti-government demonstrations on Tiananmen Square
in June 1989; but it learned a lesson from the bloody drama at the
same time. The rather ephemeral union of workers, peasants and
soldiers was replaced with a genuine and unbreakable bloc of the
political, business and intellectual elites, which gets plausible
benefits from the existing system and has a paramount interest in
preserving it.

Fukuyama dismissed as nonsensical the
supposition that once Russia shook off its Communist ideology, the
country would start developing right from the spot where it had
been left by the tsars before the Bolshevik revolution. He thought
it unimaginable that Moscow, which had grasped fashionable ideas in
the economy at the end of the 1980s and kept speaking about “common
human values,” might return to a foreign policy that the Europeans
had shelved as obsolete several decades prior to that.

Yet just a few fragments of the
broken-up empire moved “to the other side of history” after the
Soviet Union’s disintegration, as there was a chance for a full
merger with the West. As soon as Russia started emerging from the
disarray of the 1990s, one could see clearly that it would remain
for a long time – or maybe forever – on “this side” of the
threshold of the “common European home” (at least in the way that
it is being viewed today). The problem is more profound than the
huge difficulties with matching the criteria for accession to
Greater Europe and the huge resistance on the part of new recruits
who bear grudges against Moscow because of their socialist past.
Russia does not conceal its lack of willingness to integrate into
Europe. It is regaining confidence in its own strength and would
like to get back the positions lost during its geopolitical and
economic decay. Russia views itself as an independent political and
economic player. The West has obviously lost both tough levers of
influencing Moscow – above all, financing and loans – and soft
levers in the form of ideas and promulgated objectives.

Robert Kagan, a U.S. neo-conservative
ideologist, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006 that the
struggle between liberalism and autocracies, which began in the
18th century, is entering a new round, since the great autocratic
powers of Russia and China are rebuffing liberalization with
increasing strength. They have replaced the free world’s former
opponents – the petty Middle Eastern dictatorships, which were
targeted by the “Bush doctrine.”

In subsequent publications, Kagan
sought to prove that the struggle between liberalism and absolutism
along the line dividing tradition and modernity – like Islamic
fundamentalism and the West – is receding into the background,
while the battle of ideas between the great powers is moving center
stage. This is because the main threat comes from leaders in
Beijing and Moscow. They are confident that autocracy is better
than democracy, since strong state power creates chances for
stability and for the country to flourish. Kagan aired the
conviction that the U.S. must redouble its efforts to promote
democracy on a global scale to counter the global alliance of
autocracies that was being formed.

Israeli scholar Azar Gat voiced a
similar idea in the Foreign Affairs journal, where he pointed out
the rise of “authoritarian capitalist great powers.” “The end of
the end of history” lays the grounds for giving up the view of
Islamic fundamentalism as the most serious threat, since it does
not presuppose as much a viable alternative to liberal values as
the Chinese-Russian tandem does. A similar thesis underpins the
theoretic preamble of the Freedom House report Countries at the
Crossroads 2007, dedicated to the “ambitions and limits of the 21st
century authoritarian model.”

The conclusion that China and Russia
pose a greater danger than Al Qaida seems absurd, but the emergence
of this scheme is easy to explain. Today’s world has become too
complicated to understand, while identifying a worthy ideological
enemy allows the West to map out a new line for a global standoff,
a far simpler and more comprehensible one than the struggle with
the shapeless threat of international terrorism.

The West’s inability to integrate the
largest countries – Russia and China – became evident by the middle
of the current decade. A growing zeal to substantiate the new
ideological confrontation – the general contours of which might
replicate the systemic standoff of the 1940s through the 1980s –
has bluntly shown that the much-desired new world order has not
come into being.


The desire by both Russia and China to
have an impact on the world system has a duplicate nature. On the
one hand, the two countries want to conserve the old institutions
and to prevent their complete invalidation in order to maintain
their international influence. Both countries defend the
Westphalian understanding of state sovereignty and the UN’s leading
role in international affairs. On the other hand, they continue to
search for new mechanisms, which they would profit from, and give
up the ones that they do not find advantageous. This mostly
concerns Russia.

Moscow is building up the conviction
that the global situation does not meet its interests, does not
facilitate the strengthening of stability and requires changes
because of the risks of generating conflicts. China’s foreign
policy talk spins around assurances of respect for the existing
world order, since involvement in economic globalization has
brought significant dividends to Beijing. Chinese propaganda puts
special emphasis on two “unprecedented” phenomena mentioned at the
17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007:
“The world today is undergoing extensive and profound changes, and
contemporary China is going through a wide ranging and deep-going
transformation. This brings us unprecedented opportunities as well
as unprecedented challenges, with the former outweighing the

China is optimistic about assessing
general global tendencies – the influence of developing countries
is growing; the tendency toward multipolarity is irreversible; and
the global balance of forces promotes stability. This situation
prompts China to engage in a gradual democratic reform of the
status quo instead of challenging it. “This will give China the
international peaceful image of a responsible big country, not a
rebel,” says Dr Guan Li, deputy director of the International
Strategy Institute of the CPC Party School.

Discussions about China’s place in the
world evolve around the thesis that the country will ascend without
conflict to the ranks of global leaders. Zhao Qinghai, a researcher
at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, recalls that
historically, some big countries have used military methods in the
process of their rise in order to gain new markets and resources.
By challenging the effective international order, they inflicted
numerous woes on themselves and the world likewise. Today’s China
displays a readiness to take account of the errors made by

Dr Wang Jisi, an authoritative expert
on foreign policy from Beijing University’s School of International
Studies, suggests that as it senses its new strength, China is
easily overcoming the mentality of a vulnerable and weak state,
which had formed through “one hundred years of humiliation” and by
recollections of isolation in the initial phase of the Cold War.
China may outdo the U.S. and Japan, but it will have many more
problems in the field of sustained development, the researcher
says. To cushion these problems, Beijing will have to reject the
U.S. model of excessive consumption and adopt the Japanese style
built on economy, restraining demands, limitations on resources,
and preserving the environment.

Along with this, China will apply
efforts to avert the damaging impact that the “hegemony and policy
of force” – so baldly seen in aggressive actions by NATO and the
U.S. in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq – may wield as regards the
beneficial tendencies in the development of world order. Some
political experts indicate that China has no plans for gaining
successes through support of U.S. hegemony. Assistant Professor
Wang Yiwei, from the Center for American Studies at Fudan
University, believes that the world tolerates American domination,
but with increasing strain and this domination will not go on
endlessly. The rise of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) shows
“that the world is not a circle stringed on the Western axis.” The
economic weakening of the U.S., “which today eats up tomorrow’s
grains,” is becoming more and more noticeable. Wang Yiwei believes
that the Americans’ “preventive strikes and unilateralism anger
others. The U.S. has destroyed the traditional world order and this
turns anti-American sentiment into a global feature.”

However, these words of condemnation
are followed up with the conclusion that “China’s swelling power
should not destroy the current world order or challenge U.S.
hegemony.” Beijing must learn the ways to “avoid the risks that the
U.S. hegemony carries with it, limit off elements of uncertainty
that it (the hegemony) brings about, as well as adjust oneself to
the existing world system, living in it and seeking points of
contact in Sino-American relations.” China must neither help nor
counteract U.S. domination, proceeding from the assumption that “no
one will want to become a new pylon for the hegemony of the U.S.”
Cooperation and the setting up of new rules of the game in
conditions of globalization will produce a situation where “the
genuine interests and tensions come into balance and harmonious
American-Chinese relations take shape eventually.” Wang Yiwei
believes that “the real challenge is to tap a new order in the
world in the course of complex multilateral and bilateral games
amid the continuously decreasing hegemony of the U.S.”

China is still trying to identify the
best way to conduct itself in the international arena. Dr Zhu Feng
of Beijing University’s School of International Studies singles out
two concurrent tendencies in this search. The “activists” believe
that China must expand its international influence and thus create
extra opportunities for economic development and national revival.
In the opposing camp the “passivists” espouse Deng Xiaoping’s
strategy of “concealing the opportunities.” They call for “keeping
one’s head down” so that others will not get the impression of
‘expansionist policies’ under any circumstances.

These two opposing tendencies have
synthesized China’s intensifying attempts to build up the resource
of ‘soft power’ as an instrument to enhance its international
influence and to set up an external environment conducive to
internal development. Beijing has focused its efforts on the
promotion of attractive slogans of a “harmonious world” and “joint
flourishing,” as well as on forming the country’s favorable image
through the promotion of Chinese culture.

The accentuated peacefulness of this
rhetoric may look even more attractive for the West against the
background of tough and compelling statements coming from Russia.
China is making a gradual and smooth transition from “passivity” to
a new “activism” typical of a new great power, while Russia
withdrew from its post-Soviet geopolitical coma so sharply and
explosively that it frightened many foreign observers. Moscow’s
hectic activity has not brought any immediate results so far and
has complicated external conditions for the country’s development
in many cases. This is exactly what Beijing is trying to


Would it be worthwhile then for Russia
to follow China’s example and behave as quietly and modestly? This
is hardly possible due to considerable differences in the initial
positions of the two countries.

First, Moscow really has
something to lose in the sphere of external security. Beijing was
on the outskirts of global politics during the Cold War. It did not
sign any strategic agreements with the West based on the principles
of parity and equitability. The decay of the former bipolar system
of security did not deal a blow to China’s military or political
prestige. This is something you would not say about Russia, which
is experiencing continuously growing problems as it tries to
interact with the West on an equal footing.

Second, China does not suffer
from a Cold War loser complex, since it was an ally of the West in
the final phases of that conflict. In 1973, Mao Zedong made an
offer to Japan, the Western Europeans and the U.S. to set up an
alliance against the Soviet Union. This was an important
psychological event. China sided with the future winners until
1989, when the West introduced sanctions against China in the wake
of the Tiananmen Square events.

Third, the current state of
affairs brought the most advantages to the Chinese and no damage,
while the Russian political elite’s vision of the Soviet Union’s
disintegration as a universal tragedy has had an impact on its
foreign policy. Also, China did not lose any of its territory.
Moreover, Hong Kong and Macao reverted to Chinese rule in the
1990s. The re-delimitation of state borders with former Soviet
republics left Beijing with some territorial gains as

Fourth, Russia and China have
different forms of interrelations with the West. China is more
included in the world economy and trade as an assembly workshop for
multinational corporations, and the foreign markets where it sells
mass consumption products and purchases raw materials and
sophisticated equipment have a much greater importance for it. This
furnishes the Chinese elite with maneuvering skills within the
existing rules (in the World Trade Organization, in the first
place) and with enacting international norms against the protective
actions of its partners.

Low-priced – and thus competitive –
Chinese products run into restrictions on the markets of Western
countries concerned about the growing trade deficit as China does
not need so many Western goods at home. Its partners introduce
trade restrictions in response and Beijing gets nervous because of
this. Yet it does not have any other way out except for
negotiations, a search for mutual concessions and identification of
new markets in the Third World. As a result, this creates an
environment that is competitive and works toward compromises in
China’s relations with Europe and the U.S.

Russia sells energy resources and raw
materials and it does not have stimuli of that kind. It resolves
litigious issues on the basis of a balance of forces or by
political maneuvering. Since Moscow and the European Union are tied
together through a Soviet-era network of pipelines, they need each
other objectively – and they are developing a more and more overt
disliking for each other, fearing the pressures and blackmail that
both of them have up their sleeves. The problems of economic
relations are traditionally settled with the aid of big political
“dealings,” which laid the groundwork for real integration at the
end of the 1960s, but the miring of yet another “big deal,” which
would take cooperation in the energy sector to a new level – a swap
of energy assets that Moscow proposed to the EU in the middle of
this decade – has spoiled this atmosphere of relations.

One more reason why China is not so
upset with the West is that it did not live through the shock that
Russia experienced when naïve illusions regarding the “Western
model” and the “European Home” gave way to disenchantment and
repulsion. Meanwhile, as long as China’s economic might grows, its
political leaders are convinced that the national model of
development is successful. It is noteworthy in this light that the
Chinese Communist Party amended its Constitution at the 17th
Congress and removed a provision on the need to “assimilate and
exploit the achievements of all other cultures, including all the
advanced modes of operation and methods of management of developed
countries in the West that embody the laws governing modern
socialized production.” The fact unambiguously shows that the
Chinese need other nations’ experience increasingly

The Chinese party leadership has again
turned to the slogan of “emancipating the mind,” which Deng
Xiaoping used while launching reforms. This emancipation helped
China to get rid of the dogmas of Soviet-style economic planning in
the early 1980s. Now this slogan mostly targets those who long for
the old type of socialism, but Chinese experts point out its
alternative use, saying that it is time to shake off the shackles
of “superstitious worshipping of the West.”

China’s reorientation toward the West
was motivated by the pragmatic purposes of modernization. Now
Beijing realizes in an increasing way that the broad presence of
Western corporations in the country has failed to thrust it to the
technological level of advanced nations. The technological gap is
not getting narrower, as Western manufacturers are not interested
in this. To achieve a breakthrough, Beijing has set itself a task
of creating the country’s own innovative system.

Today’s Russia is often recommended
that it set sail toward a rapprochement with the West for the sake
of obtaining advanced technologies. It is believed that the
replication of the West’s innovative mechanism, which has not been
adjusted to function in conditions of political control, will
automatically make Russia switch to the track of democratic
development. The problem is that this does not matter for a country
living off its natural resources. As for the diversification of the
Russian economy and the rise of independent competitive industries
in it, this prospect barely matches the interests of Western

China’s experience shows that hope for
getting novel technologies can peg a country to the West, but only
temporarily. The willingness of China and Russia to be included in
global research and technology will scarcely give the U.S. and
Europe reliable levers of influencing the policy of the two
countries – first of all due to the reluctance of Western countries
to share their top-notch technology know-how with


Although one can refer equally to both
Russia and China as reviving great powers, Beijing puts much more
effort in displaying its fruitful right-mindedness to the world
community. When Hu Jintao was just beginning his tour of duty, two
remarkable attempts were made to explain the Chinese path. Both
aimed to break up the abundant Western stereotypes, and both ended
in a failure.

As part of the first attempt, Chinese
experts formulated the Peaceful Rise concept that described the
country’s gradual movement along the road to power without
aggression or colonial methods. The Chinese leadership thought at
some point in 2004 that this postulation might ward off the
‘Chinese threat theories’ and calm down the international
community. But in reality it only fuelled the concerns of
foreigners – they would pick out ‘rise’ and ignore the epithet
preceding it. Official Beijing dropped the slogan immediately and
reverted to Deng Xiaoping’s commandment for “peace and

In the same year, a book called The
Beijing Consensus by Joshua Cooper Ramo was published in London.
The author claimed in it that “[…] China’s rise is already
reshaping the international order by introducing a new physics of
development and power.” This is how the ‘Beijing Consensus’ takes
shape by mapping out the path for developing countries that want
“[…] to fit into the international order in a way that allows them
to be truly independent, to protect their way of life and political
choices in a world with a single massively powerful center of
gravity” – the U.S.

Ramo said that the ‘Beijing Consensus’
was to replace the highly discredited ‘Washington Consensus,’ the
recipes of which “[…] left a trail of destroyed economies and bad
feelings around the globe.” He described China’s approach to
development as boiling down to a desire to ensure a fair, peaceful
and high-quality growth and to combine the social and economic
transformation. The vague theorems of the Beijing Consensus
formulated by Ramo accentuate the value of innovations and are
aimed at “chaos management” through improvements in the quality of
life, attainment of stability and equality in the process of
development. They also presuppose the use of “[…] leverage to move
big, hegemonistic powers that may be tempted to tread on your

The Beijing Consensus has a marked
shortage of detailed elaboration and universalism. Innovations and
“chaos management” are possible only in stable countries with
efficient institutions of power. A still smaller number of parties
to international relations have the potential to deter the
onslaught on the part of “big, hegemonistic powers.” Nonetheless,
Ramo makes claims about “the intellectual charisma of the Beijing
Consensus,” whose novel ideas “[…] are rippling around the world,
enhancing China’s power even as they provide other nations with
ideas for their own development.” He also characterized the Beijing
Consensus as a source of hope for countries seeking to defend their
sovereignty and which are apprehensive of excessive dependence on
developed nations.

Ramo’s theory produced an enthusiastic
response in China, but the Chinese did not add it to their
arsenals. Chinese economic experts indicated that the flaws of the
neo-liberal reform model did not at all mean that the Beijing
Consensus – provided it really existed – might aspire to the role
of a new universal concept.

The story had a different side, too, as
the effort to formulate an alternative to the Washington Consensus
once again put the West on alert. For instance, U.S. political
scholar Joseph S. Nye wrote on this: “In parts of Asia, Africa and
Latin America, the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ on authoritarian
government plus a market economy has become more popular than the
previously dominant ‘Washington Consensus’ of market economics with
democratic government.” He drew the conclusion, however, that the
features making the Beijing Consensus attractive in authoritarian
and semi-authoritarian developing countries undermine China’s ‘soft
power’ in the West.

Joshua Ramo pinpointed this sensitive
issue in his new book Brand China (2007). “China’s greatest
strategic threat today is its national image,” he wrote. This is an
unusual situation for “this famously inward-looking nation.” A
reassuring image may help China avoid the costs inherent in the
solution of international conflicts and incite optimism in business
partners. On the contrary, a dissuading image complicates conflict
resolution and stands in the way of economic

However, Beijing “has let its ‘image
sovereignty’ slip out of its control.” Now the debates on the
problem unfold outside the country and without its participation.
Ramo gives credit to Den Xiaoping, who decided that China would
follow its authentic course, and thus there was no need to care
about what other countries would say or do, yet he remarks that
outlooks of this kind partly bred the current problems with the
image. Globalization has brought tremendous economic success to
China, but it has also created more and more problems with the
practice of ignoring what other countries think about

Ramo suggests that a new brand of the
‘Chinese Dream’ should be generated on the basis of new
opportunities and creative endeavors. He recommends enticing
foreigners with the prospect of a billion Chinese who have a chance
to form an individual identity and to decide on their own life
independently. As a starting point he takes the American Dream,
which meant liberty, no aristocracy and an opportunity to translate
all endeavors into life. “That 1920s intellectual adventurism is
something you’ll find today all across China,” Ramo

Dr Zhang Weiwei from Geneva
University’s Modern Asia Research Center admits the changes that
have taken place in the psychology of the Chinese during the years
of reform. “Every cell in a rank-and-file man has been braced, as
everyone wants to develop, to earn money, to materialize their
potential, and society is full of vibrant strength and
opportunities,” he writes. This does resemble the American Dream at
first sight, but its materialization proceeds in the conditions of
a one-party political system – and add to this the influences of
traditional Chinese culture that did not emphasize either
liberalism or individualism.


Western quarters become more irritated
with the realization that they do not have anything to motivate the
trajectory of liberal development for large countries that stay
outside Western alliances. China has a much tighter connection with
the liberal economic order than Russia, but Beijing rejects calls
to liberalize its internal political system in much harsher tones
than Moscow does.

Viewed at the level of slogans, both
countries are united by the willingness to become strong, affluent
and respected in the world community, yet the West considers their
resolve to attain all this by walking along their own paths as a
menace. Meanwhile, there is still no answer as to whether or not
“transition without a destination” can take Moscow and Beijing to a
political and economic success.

The prospects for giving shape to a
theoretically grounded and practically tested model of development
that would offer an alternative to the Western one are even more
obscure. Both opposing blocs had a standard universal model of a
social and economic system to be shown to the opponent during the
Cold War. Only the West has it now, while neither China nor Russia
have any plans for imposing half-baked precepts on the West in the
vein of the ‘Beijing Consensus’ or ‘sovereign democracy.’ Chinese
historical sages believed that “the principle is one but it has
many manifestations.” Hence today, too, political leaders in both
countries quite willingly discuss the diversity of ‘sovereign’ or
‘specifically national’ ways of moving toward the good old
“universal values of democracy.”

A formal Sino-Russian “anti-democratic
alliance” is a sheer myth. The creation of a direct opposite to
NATO or the European Union under the guidance of Moscow and Beijing
and on the grounds of shared “authoritarian values” will slash the
much-desired freedom of political maneuvering for both countries.
In addition, maintaining the viability of such a bloc – which the
Western “democratic coalition” will spare no effort to exhaust and
split – may turn into a highly costly adventure. And as for the
reserve of accumulated power and the ability to mobilize foreign
allies, China and Russia lose heavily to the Western

There is an impression that the attack
on “authoritarian capitalism” points not only at the swelling
potential of the two countries, but also at the West’s reclining
confidence in its own strength. An attempt to find an answer to the
question about the role that Moscow and Beijing play in
international development in the ideological sphere makes the
perception of events simpler and squeezes it into prefabricated
schemes. An examination of global problems in the
democracy/non-democracy format may create an illusion of
orderliness in the adversely directed processes. But the start of a
systemic confrontation, unable to solve any pressing problem in the
modern world, may be the price to pay for that seeming