Russia Not France, But Neither Is It China

At St. Petersburg’s Channel 100, a government-financed TV outlet, chief reporter Alexandr Tupolev wears a T-shirt that features Ho Chi Minh saying, “Nothing is as precious as independence and liberty.” Yet he freely admits to our group of visiting journalism students that his channel never reports when police beat those whom they arrest. With a wink he says, “We’re the Putin channel.”

Such a frank confession of governmental control of the media would be unheard of today in China, Russia’s giant, autocratic neighbor to the south. Indeed, in China, the same public confession – especially to a group of Westerners – would get you fired, if not arrested.

This is just one of the many stark differences I’ve noticed between Russia and China in the past two weeks. And it’s a surprise, given that Russia harbored, educated and defended much of China’s communist leadership during the Cold War. But today these former allies differ sharply in everything from economic development to the quality of their bathrooms.

To be sure, these former communist dictatorships still share some things in common. Both are ambivalent about Western representative democracy, although each finds it important to maintain at least the facade that government represents its citizens. In both countries, government controls most media, especially television. Each also encourages self-censorship. Chinese and Russian leaders have both learned it’s too expensive to keep having to round everyone up all the time.

But the differences between China and Russia today outnumber the similarities. China has bulldozed most of its past and adopted Houston’s urban planning model. Its big cities are an endless high-rise sprawl bisected by eight-lane highways, which are gridlocked with shiny new cars 12 hours a day. The air in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu even shares the same color as Houston’s, circa 1960: an eye-stinging smokestack gray.

Not so in St. Petersburg, the former home of the tsars and Russia’s second largest city. Here, there are no soaring office towers. Period. Any high-rise development is residential and exiled to the outskirts of the city. The magnificent gold trim churches and ministries of the imperial past have been lovingly preserved.

Nor is St. Petersburg nearly as crowded as Beijing, Shanghai or even Xian, for that matter. The average street has few cars and most of the them are old. Russians travel mainly on buses, trolleys and trains. The subway is far more crowded than Nevsky Prospekt, the main drag through town. Another telling sign of low traffic volume is that there is little, if any smog, even during the heat of the day.

Like China, there are plenty of little shops, malls and restaurants in St. Petersburg, but many of them are almost empty. And the only restaurant where I’ve encountered a line – even on a Saturday night – is McDonald’s. It’s as if I’m witnessing Russia’s shrinking population in real time.

I’ve visited China often in the past five years and always find it difficult to have contact with the outside world. Access to Google and Facebook is blocked, although any educated person in China knows how to easily elude the censors. You can’t buy Western media such as The New York Times or The Economist on the street. It’s available to only a privileged few who have special permission.

I also found it hard at times to freely explore China. I was assigned a guide whether I wanted one or not. In part, this is cultural. One of the worse sins you can commit in Chinese culture is to treat a guest poorly. But part of this constant tending was political. In China, I always felt a relentless pressure to see the world as the ruling party does.

The pressure often began from the moment I landed. I remember one time in particular two years ago. No sooner had I stepped off a 14-hour flight than my university hosts began to harangue me over dumplings and tea. Isn’t it true, they pressed, that the American media had fabricated the Iranian uprising? Surely, the Americans must know the Iranian election was free and fair. My learned hosts took deep offense when I suggested their point of view might be influenced by China’s dependence on Iranian oil and construction contracts.

In contrast, I’ve yet to feel any pressure to agree with my Russian hosts, although we share sharp differences in how we see the world and the U.S., not to mention that the Russian regime is controlled by a handful of men who tolerate little interference from outsiders. Yet establishment figures such as newspaper editors and university professors feel free to criticize their own government, even to outsiders. In a lecture to my journalism students, St.Petersburg State University economist Nikita Maslennikov characterized local city officials as “reptiles” who feed off everyday people. Only the most influential professor, with strong party connections, could get away with saying such things publicly in China.

When anyone tells me that China is the next superpower, I always ask, “Have you seen the bathrooms?” Chinese toilets tend to require men and women alike to squat over a porcelain hole in the floor. And you can’t flush the toilet paper. It goes into a stinky trashcan beside the porcelain hole. This is true even at Qinghua University, the country’s most prestigious.

In Russia, however, I’ve yet to encounter a bathroom that didn’t have a western-style toilet and urinal – and was spotlessly clean, even in the smallest restaurant.

Russia today may not be France; but neither is it China.