The harsh words of a Russian dissident? A human rights activist? A member of the opposition? No. Try Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He may be Russia’s head of state, but he often sounds more like the critic in chief.
But Medvedev isn’t the only leader of an authoritarian system who happens to be openly critical of it. In China, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has come to play a very similar role. Unlike Medvedev, Wen is not officially his country’s senior most leader — that honor is accorded Chinese President Hu Jintao — but Wen is the No. 2, and he is a surprisingly critical voice for someone so high in China’s communist orbit. In recent years, Wen has become one of the only senior voices in the Chinese Communist Party to extol the virtues of political reform. He has described China’s political system as overly centralized and argued that the people have the right to criticize and monitor their government. In January, “Grandpa Wen” — as people affectionately call him — chose the backdrop of the national petition bureau to encourage people to bring their grievances to the government and criticize that government when it fails. It was the first time a Chinese prime minister had visited the bureau.
Typically, the rulers of authoritarian countries sing a very different song. Strongmen such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez believe their regimes can do virtually no wrong. Far from encouraging criticism or accepting blame, anyone who speaks ill of their policies is castigated as a traitor and enemy of the state. So, how can we explain Medvedev and Wen going off the authoritarian script?
It may be that they truly harbor dissenting opinions. Or it could be a question of timing. Wen is approaching the end of his tenure atop China’s political system next year. Medvedev may be pushed aside by Vladimir Putin, if he chooses to return for a third term as president. With the end nigh, they may see this as their last best chance to move the policy needle a few degrees, routing out some weaknesses and making their respective political systems more resilient.
Or there may be another explanation: an innovation in the communication strategy of authoritarians. Both Medvedev and Wen are relatively unique, in that they represent half of a ruling tandem. The division of labor between themselves and other, more senior figure (Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, respectively) allows them to play their own version of good cop, bad cop. Gregory Shvedov, an analyst and editor of the Russian journal Caucasian Knot, explained it to me like this: “You can see the whole tactics of Medvedev-Putin as a very interesting communication approach where Medvedev is addressing minorities and Putin is addressing majorities. Medvedev is talking specifically about the problems. It’s a very wise division. They are talking to different sides of society—those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are supporting the political rule and those who are protesting them.”
Whether satisfied or disgruntled, Russians and Chinese can look up at the pinnacle of the regime and say, “Well, at least, one of them gets it.” Because dictators understand that it’s important for people to feel represented, even if they’re not.