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Witnessing China’s socialist triumph and Russia’s capitalist disaster

JOHN ROSS gives a moving first-hand account of the destruction of the Soviet system he saw in 1990s Moscow and the advances he has seen in Beijing in the last decade

IN JUNE I was one of the recipients of China’s top award for foreign writers on that country, officially described as: “The Special Book Award of China, sponsored by the National Press and Publication Administration of the People’s Republic of China, is the highest national award given to those who have made outstanding contributions in introducing contemporary China and promoting Chinese publications and related cultural products overseas.”

This award has been given to 188 people from 62 countries since its establishment in 2005. It was presented by Li Shulei, a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

But, receiving this award, I couldn’t help thinking of the contrast between the extraordinary achievements of socialist China and another event I witnessed 30 years previously.

Then, Ken Livingstone and I were the last foreigners to attend a session of the Russian parliament before it was illegally suppressed and shelled by tanks by Boris Yeltsin. Western governments and media, showing their customary “concern for democracy,” cheered Yeltsin’s attack.

This coup destroyed the last attempt to prevent full-blown capitalism from being unleashed in Russia. My thoughts were therefore focused on the extraordinarily different fates I had witnessed during the intervening 30 years — success in socialist China and national disaster, culminating today in the Ukraine war, created by capitalism in Russia.

My being a witness to these events, and their interrelation with China, came about in the following way. From 1992 I lived in Moscow to attempt to persuade Russia to adopt a China-type path of economic reform — instead of the shock therapy virtually unanimously advocated by Western governments and media. The most systematic article I wrote at that time, originally published in Russian, had the self-explanatory title: “Why the economic reform succeeded in China and will fail in Russia and Eastern Europe.”

In Russia this conclusion attracted attention. My analysis, laying out practical proposals flowing from such a perspective, was distributed to every member of the Russian parliament by order of its speaker. Consequently, I established links with the parliament’s leadership.

I therefore knew Yeltsin’s coup was coming several days before it was launched — the parliament’s leaders were warned that Yeltsin was in contact with military units around Moscow to launch it. Obviously, as a foreigner, I had to do whatever could be done for international solidarity against the coming coup. I contacted journalists in the West and Livingstone, who was at that time an MP.

Livingstone, with his usual decisiveness, also got on a plane to Moscow. When he was introduced to the parliament he was loudly cheered, becoming the last person to bring international solidarity before the coup.

Yeltsin’s coup was accompanied by the heaviest street fighting in Moscow since the October 1917 revolution with 147 people killed on official figures — possibly more.  

In the years surrounding this coup, I witnessed disaster unfolding in Russia — the most terrible things I have ever witnessed with my own eyes. Russian pensioners so desperate from poverty that they stood in the freezing snow of a Moscow winter for hours trying to sell a single cigarette — not even a pack.

Thousands of people on the streets trying to sell homemade pies, old shoes, and household belongings. Life expectancy collapsed. To make it still more morally disgusting this was the generation who had defeated Nazism — ensuring their dignified retirement should have been one of the state’s highest priorities.

Simultaneously I heard, more than once, the new Russian rich explain that it would have been better if Hitler had won the war because capitalism would have been introduced earlier. That if pensioners had difficulty adapting to the new “market economy” it was better if they died. The openly acknowledged hero of these “liberals” was Pinochet.

Those leading this catastrophe, a literal massacre of the Russian population, were hailed by the Western media as “reformers” in the same way that Yeltsin, after ordering tanks to shell the parliament, was deemed a “democrat.”

I had always known from personal experience and reading the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of capitalism, but to personally see it on such a scale gave it a totally sharper emotional charge. Those who covered up this catastrophe deserved the utmost contempt not only in human but in mere intellectual terms.

While this social catastrophe was unfolding, fed by the largest peacetime economic collapse in a major economy since at least the industrial revolution, Nato was tightening its grip around Russia — a path I accurately warned my Russian friends would result. This led directly to the Ukraine war.

Today, in very difficult circumstances, the same forces in Russia who fought against national and social catastrophe see today’s fight as one against US aggression. One of my best Russian friends frames the question as “whether we are going to live in a country or in a US gas station.”

Throughout that period, I had no direct contact with China. Accurate predictions of the totally different trends of China’s economic success and Russia’s catastrophe were based on Marxist economics, which, unlike Western analysis, proved entirely capable of foreseeing the results.

In 2009 I was invited to work at a Chinese university and since 2013 I have been senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. It was there that I did the work leading to the Special Book Award.

In China, with my own eyes, I saw the total contrast between the success of China’s socialism and Russia’s capitalist disaster. In Russia, tens of millions were plunged into poverty, in China 850 million people were lifted out of internationally defined poverty — over 70 per cent of those lifted from such poverty globally. The economic basis of this was China’s 9 per cent annual average growth rate since 1991 — compared to capitalist Russia’s 0.9 per cent.

In terms of human development and dignity what such trends mean was expressed by one of my young Chinese friends in words whose directness could only come from personal experience. She said for young people it meant “how incredibly lucky to be a Chinese person in this era.”

For a century before the Chinese revolution, her country was a place where foreign armies trampled, where between 50 million and 100 million people died due to direct and indirect effects of foreign intervention, which by 1949 was almost the world’s poorest country, a state whose fate was being determined by others, not by its own people.

In contrast, in only just over 70 years, a single lifetime, that socialist country had become today’s China — on the verge of becoming a high-income economy by international criteria, with by far the fastest rise in living standards of any state, and a country which now decides its own fate. These were the human realities I showed resulted from the “theoretical” issues analysed in my books.

Before the USSR’s collapse I saw a slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow” — supposedly declaring that there was no difference between US capitalism and the USSR. Now it has been replaced by “neither Washington nor Beijing.”

I have seen the practical reality of such views. Apparently, socialists should be indifferent between pensioners so poor they stand in the snow for hours to sell a single cigarette in Russia and 850 million people lifted from poverty in China.

That has nothing to do with socialism. It is out of contact with any human reality.

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