Russia and China: Two Movies

by Ian Buruma Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945. 11.11.2014

NEW YORK – The times we live in are often most clearly reflected in the mirror of art. Much has been written about post-communism in Russia and China. But two recent films, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, made in China in 2013, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, made in Russia in 2014, reveal the social and political landscapes of these countries more precisely than anything I have seen in print.

Jia’s movie is episodic; four loosely linked stories about lone acts of extreme violence, mostly culled from contemporary newspaper stories. Leviathan is about a decent man whose life is ruined by the mayor of his town in collusion with the Russian Orthodox Church and a corrupt judiciary.

Both films are visually stunning, despite their stories’ bleakness. The dark skies over the northern Russian coast in Leviathan look ravishing, and Jia even manages to make the concrete and glass jungle of Shenzhen, the monster city between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, look gorgeous. The other thing both films share is a fascination with mythical stories, the Book of Job in Leviathan, and martial-arts fiction in A Touch of Sin.

Real estate plays a major part in both movies. In the first episode of A Touch of Sin, the local boss has become a private-plane-owning billionaire by stripping and selling all of his region’s collective assets. Everything in this new China – where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still rules, but the ideas of Karl Marx are as dead as they are in Russia – is for sale, even the trappings of its Maoist past. In one scene, we see prostitutes in a nightclub titillating overseas Chinese businessmen by parading up and down in sexy People’s Liberation Army uniforms.

The story of Leviathan focuses on the house built by a simple mechanic named Nikolay. He is robbed of his property by the corrupt mayor, who is paid by the Orthodox Church for the right to build a new church on Nikolay’s land. Nikolay is disposed of by having him framed for his wife’s murder and tried by a crooked court.

The importance of real estate in both films is no coincidence. Property, construction, and land are the common currencies of power in mafia societies – in China and Russia no less than in Sicily. One reason China has been transformed into a gigantic building site, with huge new cities emerging almost overnight, is that this drives a red-hot and highly corrupt economy, ruled by a Leninist party that has monetized political power by asset-stripping and construction.

It is irrelevant that President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, unlike the CCP, makes no claim to any form of Marxist ideology. The way both governments operate is quite similar: party bosses, tycoons, and corrupt bureaucrats divide the spoils, while promoting chauvinism and “traditional values” – whether those of the Orthodox Church or Confucianism. Judges are bought or intimidated to ensure that bosses remain above the law.

Putin’s party was elected in Russia, as was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime in Egypt. The CCP was not. But this, too, is largely irrelevant. What these governments share is the fusion of capitalist enterprise and political authoritarianism.

This political model is now seen as a serious rival to American-style liberal democracy, and perhaps it is. But during the Cold War, authoritarian capitalism, usually under military regimes, was anti-Communist and very much on America’s side. South Korea’s strongman, Park Chung-hee, current President Park Geun-hye’s father, was in many ways a pioneer of the type of society that we now see in China and Russia. So was Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet.

Because the dictatorships in America’s client states ended more or less when the Cold War did, and were replaced by liberal democracies, many were lulled into the comforting belief that liberal democracy and capitalism would naturally – even inevitably – come together everywhere. Political freedom is good for business, and vice versa.

This great twentieth century myth has now been shattered. Orbán claimed earlier this year that liberal democracy was no longer a viable model. He cited China and Russia as more successful countries, not for ideological reasons, but because he thinks that they are more competitive in today’s world.

There are reasons to doubt this, of course. The Russian economy is far too dependent on oil and other natural resources, and the legitimacy of China’s one-party system could collapse quickly in an economic crisis. The way that illiberal regimes use the law for their own ends will not inspire the confidence of investors, either – at least not in the long run.

And yet, for now, the societies depicted so acidly in Leviathan and A Touch of Sin continue to look good in the eyes of many people who are disillusioned with Europe’s economic stagnation and America’s political dysfunction. Western businessmen, artists, architects, and others who need large amounts of money for expensive projects enjoy working with authoritarian regimes that “get things done.” Illiberal thinkers on the far right and left admire strongmen who stand up to America.

A Touch of Sin has been shown to great acclaim all over the world, but not in China. Leviathan, by contrast, has been submitted as the official Russian entry for the Oscars.

Perhaps China’s rulers are less sure of themselves than Putin. Or perhaps Putin is just a bit cannier. His followers in Russia are unlikely to see, let alone be influenced by, an art film, and this sliver of Russian free expression might just persuade foreigners that there is still some liberalism left in Putin’s authoritarian democracy – at least until that, too, ends up as a shattered illusion.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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