It is also a truism that if there’s one thing China’s leadership does not want to do, it’s replicate the fall from power that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union experienced during the Gorbachev era.
So it’s worth noting that this week the Legatum Institute released their 2014 Prosperity rankings (full disclosure: I’ve sat on Legatum’s academic advisory board for a few years now). The top performers are no surprise — as with other ranking exercises, it’s the small European/Scandinavian/New Zealand-type countries that do well. A closer look at Legatum’s headline findings, however, reveals two big contrasting trends:
China has risen to sixth on the Economy sub-index, up one place this year. By contrast the country still languishes in 117th position on the Personal Freedom sub-index, down six places this year…Russia is the worst performing country in Europe this year, falling seven places on the Prosperity Index to 68th.
Digging into the rankings, one finds that the biggest reason Russia fell so much was its economic performance over the past year. This should be a giant red klaxon light, because most of Legatum’s data is coming from 2013 or earlier. Since Russia’s economy has taken an even sharper turn for the worse in 2014, my hunch is that Russia will do even worse in the 2015 rankings.
I bring this all up because there’s a lot of loose talk about a rising axis of authoritarianism and how China will follow Russia’s bellicose lead and challenge the U.S.-created order. This sort of data suggests the opposite, however. To be clear, China would very much like to revise aspects of the U.S.-led order in the Pacific Rim. Beijing might even want to erect some multilateral economic institutions that don’t include the United States.
What China decidedly does not want, however, is to go down Russia’s path of outright confrontation with the West. All Beijing has to do is look at Legatum’s prosperity rankings to see what that’s doing to Moscow over the medium run. And this matters because it acts as a serious constraint on Sino-American tensions going forward.
So if someone you know starts yammering on about a rising tide of authoritarianism, remember that not all authoritarians are created equally, and right now the differences matter a lot more than the similarities.