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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Grew, While Russia Developed

There must have been few thoughts that gave Deng Xiaoping more moral satisfaction in the last days of his life than the knowledge that the reforms he initiated have drastically changed the balance of power between Russia and China.

The two countries were for half a century the leading lights of world communism but, until Deng came to power, China was always the weaker and the poorer, patronized and bullied by its Soviet neighbor.

Deng's economic reforms, begun in 1978, fundamentally altered that relationship. While both countries have dropped the basics of a communist economy, it is now Russia that is poor and weak, and China whose economy is growing at 10 percent a year.

Many in Russia have raised the idea that this country would have done better to follow Deng's model of transition which, the theory goes, maintained the political dominance of the Communist Party while giving relatively free rein to market reform.

Russia on the other hand opened the doors to political pluralism, but back-pedaled on reform. The argument is a difficult one because, despite the fact that they shared the ideology of communism, the two countries had different problems to deal with.

Most importantly, Russia's hands were tied by its simultaneously managing the transition from communism to capitalism and witnessing the disintegration of its empire, two historic transformations that operated with contradictory logic.

It was the great achievement of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin that they allowed the elements of the Soviet empire to go their ways without provoking war.

But in so doing they shattered the political base of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, making it all but impossible to maintain the monopoly of political power that allowed Deng to micromanage the process of reform in China.

Russia was forced to build up the whole apparatus of a new state, deal with the collapse of the internal Soviet market, avoid wars with its new neighbors and reform its own economy -- all at the same time. At this stage of the process, at least, it is probably true that Russia's transition to capitalism has been marred by the chaotic uncertainty of the democratic process.

But while corruption is rife in Russia, it is no less so in China, and at least here there are the beginnings of a civil society that might eventually keep it in check. Russia has embraced the principle if not yet the reality of a law-based society, China has not. Despite the remarkable success of Deng's reforms, there are grounds for hoping Russia has made some of the right choices. Pluralism is still likely, over the long term, to make more economic sense than authoritarianism.