Breaking Out of the LockUp: Can Russia and China Survive?
Is it possible that the superpowers are no longer able to hold themselves together? Is President Putin is losing his grip on power? When all your friends and allies keep ending up dead or discredited, few want to join your party. Similarly, we can ask whether President Xi also losing his grip on power. His friends and allies are also disappearing or, like Hu Jintao, becoming publicly discredited. Neither is running a club others want to join. Both have the same core problem. They cannot deliver on the promises they made, and trust in their leadership has eroded. This may be an existential development. We should consider a world where both Xi and Putin are no longer in power and where Russia and China may break into smaller component parts. Events today could herald the collapse of both nations into smaller states. The US is not immune to the same pressures. Look at the January 6th events. Look at Brexit. Separatism is everywhere, and now in China and Russia too.
So, what sparks defiance? As ever, inflation always stokes the fire of dissatisfaction. But that’s just salt in the wound. The wound is the loss of belief and the loss of trust. This is an existential moment for both nations in which the key question is whether the citizens trust the leader and the nation to deliver a better future. This breakdown of trust in authority and the establishment has been underway for years. I wrote about this in both The Leadership Lab and The Infinite Leader. Russia and China are simply the next in a long line of trust failures following everybody from the Catholic church, to VW, to the BBC, to politicians involved in Panama Papers money laundering, to Johnson and Johnson selling cancer-causing baby powder. China and Russia are not just having another leadership failure. They may be in an existential moment in their history. The question is, what is the severity of the breakdown in trust?
In China, people are protesting two very different lockdowns. One is the COVID lockdown. This has united every single citizen. The universal nature of that lockdown suffering is unusual. Typically protests in China are limited to narrow special interest groups like students or certain types of factory workers. COVID has touched everyone in the country, whether they got it or not. It’s raised the awareness of what it means to be locked in. But, it is not just COVID that is driving this protest. If that were the case, the people would only be chanting, “Let Us Out”. But they are chanting “Down with Xi”. That’s because people feel the constraints of China’s other lockdown – the digital lockdown. Xi cut off access to the global internet by constructing the Great Digital Wall of China, which is sometimes called The Great Firewall. Citizens cannot access the advances in the rest of the world or the information about what is happening in the world except in things that qualify as entertainment, like sports. Xi does not seem to have appreciated how sport would emerge as a unifying factor in the protests against him. As the Chinese watched the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, they realized that the lockdown is over everywhere but China. China has thus had to censor the coverage so citizens don’t see people living without COVID restrictions. The worst part of the story is that the draconian restrictions have actually resulted in a dramatic increase in COVID cases and to non-COVID deaths. The people who burned to death in Urumqi because all the exits were padlocked shut are a testament to the problem. That event brought the two lockdowns together. You can be locked into your home and unable to get out, but if you try and protest this, you discover that you are already locked into a digital prison where the authorities can arrest or destroy you for complaining about it.
The Zero-COVID policy is not working. Or, is it? Perhaps the purpose of the COVID lockdown was not to contain the virus but to contain the building social unrest. If that is the case, then we cannot be surprised to see social unrest explode as the COVID lockdown unwinds. That would be a good reason not to ease up on the restrictions. Could it be that Xi has been disguising the military as domestic healthcare workers simply by issuing new uniforms? Could it be that Xi’s threat to deploy the military to Taiwan is just an easy means of continuing his grip on the military as a whole? Or, could it be that the military is the easiest way to provide full employment? Is it possible that his total control over the military apparatus won’t protect him from the simple truth? The Chinese public outnumbers the police and the military, whether they are in military uniform or anti-COVID suits.
More importantly, the number of Chinese mobile phones outnumbers the police and the military. The Chinese social credit system works well when it comes to occasional infractions by known troublemakers. What happens when everybody, including Grandma, starts to forward protest videos? You can’t arrest them all. Remember that the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests happened almost 20 years before the iPhone launched, which was only introduced in 2007. The Chinese police are now searching phones for any sign of protest. But, they underestimate the innovativeness of the Chinese public. People in China know how to build smartphones from scratch. Every major city has all the equipment and the young people with the know-how needed to do it. These can’t be traced or attributed to anybody. My guess is that those underground phone factories are working overtime even as the protests at the Foxconn factories drag operations there to a halt. The smartphone is yet another new unifying factor in the protests.
All these unifying factors are converging at the very moment that the Chinese have registered that China is simply not competitive anymore. Xi can launch reusable rockets into space and show off hypersonic missiles, but it cannot deliver on the promise that everybody had counted on – “we will make you rich before you get old”. There is nothing so destabilizing to an individual as the loss of their core belief system. There is nothing so destabilizing to society either. If Xi can’t deliver a higher standard of living, a better life, a more successful China, then everybody asks, “Why are you in charge”? Xi also made a terrible tactical mistake in frogmarching Hu Jintao off the stage at the recent party plenum. The Chinese still revere the old. To be so disrespectful of a grand old man also unified the nation.
There is one final unifying factor in China. I mentioned her above. Grandma. The mothers and Grandmothers in China are Xi’s most difficult protestors. The police can justify beating up and incarcerating a young male person because they are a lawbreaker. But, if the police have to start arresting Grandmothers, my guess is the Grandmothers will win that standoff. No younger police or military officer will be able to hit an elderly woman. This will end up as a Rosa Parks-style stand-off where older women may just stand there and say nothing with a look of “don’t even think about it, kid” on their faces. Given the One Child Policy, my guess is that Grandma will not be very happy if her son or Grandson disappears. Note that there are 260m people in China over the age of 60. As the NYTs point out, they are becoming ever more influential.
Russia is also having problems with its version of lockdown. Putin’s version of a lockdown is philosophical rather than physical. It’s “you are either with me or against me” on steroids. You are either locked into his inner circle, or you are dead to him. Literally. But, if he keeps assassinating how own team, soon there is no team left. Meanwhile, he too, is having a problem with mothers and Grandmothers. They too, are unhappy about their dead or missing children. After Putin announced conscription, many young men fled the country. The FSB says that 9.7m people left Russia from July to September, “an increase of 1.2m yoy and nearly double the total in the previous quarter”. That’s a lot of kids who won’t be coming home for Christmas with Grandma. These folks will be locked out. Returning to Russia is an impossibility while Putin remains in power.
Now hints are being dropped that women will be conscripted into compulsory service too. Russian army Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, the commander-in-chief of Russian ground forces from 2008 to 2010, recently said, “If women are called up, then there are many places where they can be used”… “first of all, they [could be] doctors. The second is the communication centers in the rear. Also, rear units, for example, food, clothing, repair, laundries and workshops. This is their main place in wartime.” If Russian mothers and Grandmothers were already agitated, then the idea that their daughters will be reeled into the war machine is sure to mobilize them. As Bloomberg put it, “Kremlin Faces Rising Ire from Wives, Mothers of Mobilized Troops”. As in China, it will be almost impossible to challenge these older women, let alone arrest or incarcerate them for opposing the government. This is why Putin felt the need to put on a sham display of sympathy with Russian mothers. He held a televised event with Russian mothers, but the PR effort backfired when it was revealed that these women were all members of his inner circle. We can expect to hear much more from Russian mothers protesting their children being locked into a Russian warzone or locked out of the country.
So, how will these lockdowns end? Is there a possibility that both China and Russia could lose control simultaneously? The President of Airbus was quoted saying that the breakup of China was “unthinkable”, which means we’d better think about it. Cepa recently posted an interesting article that said, “For all its imperial trappings, the Soviet Union was structured as a federation of ethnically defined units, with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic at the core. That, in and of itself, was a problem: ethno-federal states with a single dominant unit often become unbalanced, creating powerful incentives for the leaders of other units to head for the exit, and incentives for the leaders of the core unit to let them go.” Clearly the US seems to think that these people can be enticed to work for the American side. The Deputy Director of the CIA, David Marlowe, announced that the agency is “open for business” and hiring Russians. The “CIA is looking for Russians who are "disgusted" with the war in Ukraine. This is the modern version of the poem that’s engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty (see below): “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.* The Americans want to get a lock on the dissatisfied and the dissenters in advance of either Russia or China breaking up. Psyops will increasingly be in play now. Note the Chinese rumor mill is already attributing their sudden protests to this.
All this raises a lot of questions. What is the probability that both Putin and Xi get displaced and replaced? What is the probability that both, or either, Russia and China actually break up into smaller pieces as people fight against being locked up in virtual digital prisons, in the prison of involuntary conscription or in the home in lock-down, which has become the new prison? Autarkies are in anxiety for good reasons.
* The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
November 2, 1883
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Do you really believe that the US is less authoritarian than China or Russia? Between the political and election fraud as well as a non stop barrage of media propaganda we live in a similar totalitarian status. We may not have a scorecard yet but we all know that it is coming in one way or another.
Fantastic Pippa and a well-aimed kick in the teeth to the shambolic immigration policy of your mother country by quoting that Kipling-esque verse by Emma Lazarus. I wholly concur with your probable outcome. This collapse in trust is a natural consequence of the growing irrelevance of size for its own sake and it is a global phenomenon driven by technology. The logic of the nation state and the overlarge corporation along with the corruption that aggregated power centres always engender has been superceded. The next 50 years will see that play out with all its anarchic, messy and brutal consequences. Very well written.