Sunday, May 8, 2005

In his state-of-the-union address the other day, Vladimir Putin, as befits an old KGB hand, waxed nostalgic. “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he declared. “For the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

Well, why don’t they come home? If there’s one thing Russia could use, it’s more Russians. The country is midway through its transition from “superpower” to ghost town. Russian men already have a lower life expectancy than Bangladeshis — not because Bangladesh is brimming with actuarial advantages but because, if he had four legs and hung from a tree in a rain forest, the Russian male would be on the endangered species list. By midcentury, vast empty Russia will have a smaller population than tiny Yemen. The decline in male longevity is unprecedented for a (relatively) advanced nation not at war. Russia has extraordinary high rates of drug-fueled AIDS, Hepatitis C, heart disease and TB, all mere symptoms of an entire people unable to pull themselves out of a spiral of self-destruction. If you seek communism’s monument, look around the health clinics of post-Soviet Russia.

Immediately after his retirement, the now forgotten Canadian swinger Pierre Trudeau took his sons to Siberia because that was “where the future is being built.” Any future being built in the outlying parts of Russia belongs to Muslims and Chinese in need of lebensraum, and drug cartels and terrorist networks eager to take advantage of remote areas in a state lacking reliable manpower to police its borders.

Moscow couldn’t hold on to Eastern Europe. They couldn’t hold on to Central Asia. Why would they fare any better with the Russian “Federation”? Heard of a place called Bashkortostan? It’s the current Stan of the Week — a formerly autonomous Russian Muslim republic whose direct elections were abolished by Mr. Putin as part of his recent centralization of power. The capital of Ufa has been wracked by protests from something called the People’s Front of Bashkortistan.

Be honest, if you’re Vlad, that’s the last thing you need right now. After all, it’s his court the Bashkorti are bashing — if indeed “Bashkorti” is what you call the people of Bashkortistan. Whoops, I see they’re called “Bashkir,” and no doubt they’ll be downing a lot of kir at their independence bash. If you’re an “energy-rich formerly autonomous Muslim republic,” what’s the point of going down the express garbage chute of history with Russia? If the Bashkir have a future, it’s not with Moscow.

The Chinese must look at Russia’s diseased kleptocracy and think, “There but for the grace of Whoever… .” So far, Beijing’s strategy of economic liberalization without political liberalization is working out a lot better than the Moscow model. Instead of all this guff about the blessings of liberty, Deng Xiao-ping cut to the chase and announced: “To get rich is glorious.” And, for city dwellers whose income increased fourteenfold in the two decades after Deng told ‘em to go for it, things have worked out swell.

I would say the Chinese are doing it the right way round: historically, economic liberty has preceded political liberty. At this point, the Politburo would rise up as one and say, whoa, man, hold up, who said anything about political liberty? But realistically how much longer can they hold it at bay? Do you remember SARS? Big disease a couple of years ago. It started in rural China, leaping from livestock to people, because farm animals are highly valued and often sleep in the house.

When a totalitarian regime has a crisis on its hands, its first reaction is to lie about it. So that’s what the People’s Republic did — denying there was a problem for the first three months, thereafter downplaying its extent, and only coming clean — or marginally less unclean — about the scale of the disease after it had wiggled free of China’s borders and infected and killed people all around the world, including a great many in my home town of Toronto.

The World Health Organization, unduly deferential to dictatorships as U.N. agencies always are, issued various travel advisories for China. But what about within China? SARS spread to the cities because some rural dweller came up to town for the day. Before you knew it, SARS reached Hong Kong, where the infected lobby, elevators and other public areas brought the international clientele of the Metropole Hotel into contact with the disease.

That’s a metaphor for the present-day People’s Republic. China can make your radio. But it can’t make a plausible press release to read on that radio. Are the internal contradictions of commie-capitalism sustainable that much longer?

With SARS, the booming modern coastal cities were infected by a vast rural hinterland where the pig sleeps in the front room. Given the ever-widening income gap between these areas, how much longer can they co-exist in the same state?

Calling it all “China” sounds nice and homogenous, but the space so designated on the map is a China that never previously existed in any functioning way; as a centralized nation state, it’s as artificial as the more obvious apellatory crocks such as the “Soviet Union” or “Yugoslavia.”

Many European lefties are pinning their hopes on the emergence of a grand new Chinese superpower. But China will not advance to the First World with its present borders intact.

The stability fetishists having assured us nothing can ever change in the Middle East now make the same confident guarantees for the rest of the planet. In a magnificently loopy column in the Guardian newspaper of Britain about Prime Minister Tony Blair the “war criminal,” Richard Gott says instead of siding with “the evil empire” (America), Britain should have joined “a coalition of the unwilling that would include the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese.”

America could yet implode, I suppose: Nothing is impossible. But the structural defects of the European Union, Russia and China are all far more advanced.

If you were betting on only one happy ending, I would take China.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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