THE stereotypes of political life almost always cast young leaders as harbingers of change and old leaders as promoters of continuity. Yet when one looks at the Soviet Union and China, the casting director must have broken the traditional mold. Russia under the 56-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev is changing slowly and hesitantly. China under the 82-year-old Deng Xiaoping is changing rapidly and courageously. Of course, the new Soviet leader has been in office only a year and a half and his powers are still limited. Yet, aside from the personalities and visions of the two leaders, there are underlying fundamental factors that favor deep reforms in China and make such reforms in the USSR especially difficult. The population of the Soviet Union is made up of more than 100 nationalities, of which the Russians account for only 51 percent. This heterogeneous population is ruled by a strong centralized authority in Moscow that keeps in check the centrifugal forces of this multinational state. A radical reform that must be connected with the decentralization of decisionmaking is in this situation potentially dangerous, in that it encourages the autonomous aspirations and separatist tendencies of the non-Russians.
China, by contrast, is ethnically a homogeneous nation, where national minorities account for only 4 percent of the population. In the USSR, the dominant Russian nationalism argues against a reform, while Chinese nationalist feelings are consistent with reforms.
The USSR is an imperial power that rules an empire in Eastern Europe. This empire is composed of five nations with a population of more than 100 million people. The Soviet East European empire is inherently unstable and tries again and again to resist Soviet domination. A liberalizing, radical reform in the Soviet Union would carry over the probability of this liberalization into Eastern Europe, and eventually create the danger of pressures for greater independence.
The Soviet Union is a superpower with global aspirations and an aggressive spirit of expansion. The primary preoccupations of its leaders are with the state of Soviet military power - strategic, regional, and conventional. Soviet militaristic needs do not favor a radical reform. China is a great regional power which does not show global aspirations or aggressive appetites. Of all the areas of Chinese modernization now undertaken by its leaders, the military is in last place. China is in the process of demobilizing 1 million of its soldiers and officers.
In the international arena the USSR has no powerful friends whatever. Russia is engaged in bitter conflicts with the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. There are no signs of these conflicts abating. While preoccupied with domestic failures, it is challenged by a newly assertive US and may be entering a new phase of a costly arms race. Russia's foreign policy resources are overextended; its wars in Afghanistan and Angola are as hopeless as a bottomless pit. Russia feels insecure and under attack. On the other hand, China has no powerful enemies except the Soviet Union. Its concerns about Soviet aggressions overlap with US concerns, and are being handled in a hardheaded way by US power. Its relations with the US, Japan, and Western Europe are friendly, profitable, and improving. Its fear of the USSR, preoccupied with domestic failures and strongly opposed by the US, has radically declined. Now, it is rather the Soviets who are in the long run more afraid of a potentially powerful, modernized China. The atmosphere of conflict and war prevailing in the USSR can hardly help reform efforts. The atmosphere of peace and friendly international relations are extremely conducive to the Chinese confidence in engaging in comprehensive reforms.
The differences in some of their patterns of sociopolitical development on the difficult path toward fundamental reforms again favor China over Russia. Of these, probably the most important has to do with the dominant work ethics in both countries. In Russia the most vexing problem for its rulers seems to be the long-lasting, precipitous decline of the desire to work and the responsibility for one's work. Among the people, a popular maxim is ``We pretend to work - and they pretend to pay us.'' In China, Maoist rule has not destroyed the traditional and correct image of the Chinese as hardworking people. This is especially true with regard to the peasantry. Stalin brutalized and destroyed the Russian peasantry. In Maoist China, the peasantry was regarded as the central class of the society. It was coerced into collective farms and communes but not brutalized and destroyed. The spirit of the Chinese peasant to work hard and to innovate (if this will bring tangible rewards for him and his family) has been preserved intact. The reprivatization of agriculture under Deng Xiaoping made China the largest grain producer in the world and a net exporter of food; ironically, some of it is being exported to the Soviets.
Politically, the most powerful stimulus for the fundamental Chinese reforms came inadvertently from Chairman Mao himself. In the last 10 years of his life (1966-76), he engaged in an effort so destructive to all strata of Chinese society, from the bottom up, and to all dimensions of Chinese life, that he produced an extremely powerful backlash. He converted many of his old comrades who survived the tortures and ignominies of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from Utopian dreams and terroristic practices to rationality and pragmatism. The most notable survivor of the nightmarish decade was Mao's comrade from the early days of the Chinese Revolution, and before his arrest in 1971, the general secretary of the Communist Party - Deng Xiaoping. His leadership over the basic reforms ensured the continuity of the regime and brought ideological legitimacy to the efforts of reconstructing China.
In the USSR the closest equivalent of China's disastrous decade occurred 15 years before Stalin's death, between 1929 and 1938, and ended with Stalin's Great Purge, in which millions died. It differed from the Chinese Cultural Revolution in many respects. Stalin's purge was not directed against modernization but rather to the creation of an absolute personal dictatorship of Stalin. With the exception of a few close friends of Stalin, no leading or even upper-middle-level personality of the revolutionary period outlived Stalin. The new generation of high officeholders with whom Stalin replaced the old Bolsheviks did not want to continue the Stalinist system of personal dictatorship and mass terror. These elements of the Soviet system were abandoned after Stalin's death. Yet they were brought up under the Stalinist economic system and committed to it. All the post-Stalin reforms basically preserved intact the Stalinist economic system up to the present.
Finally, the tradition of Russia and China as old nations differs significantly and might be influencing the differing needs of their present development. Traditions of nations contain usually so many contradictory elements that one can find there whatever one is searching for. And yet, every major nation reflects some mixture of dominant traits that distinguish it from other nations. Russia's tradition includes cultural insecurity and the situation where the state swallows the society. Russia is in Europe but is not of Europe; it is in Asia but not of Asia. It has always envied the West but had difficulties in adapting to and from the West. In Russia all the modern changes were imposed by the state of the society, and were very difficult to adopt by the society. Some of the dominant traits of the Chinese were supreme confidence in their superiority to other cultures, their ability to adapt to change organically, to borrow from others without feeling inferior. The Chinese often display, as their overseas communities can attest, an ability to take calculated risks, to be very pragmatic and venturesome.
In Russia the Stalinist system survives in part because it reinforces the tendencies shaped by Russian history and national character. (One can clearly imagine how the fate of the USSR would have been different if Armenia or Georgia were the ruling nations of the union.) In China, Maoist utopianism went against the grain of historically formed Chinese predispositions, and partly because of this, did not survive the dictator's death.
For the USSR the question is how far the young leader will move in the direction of basic reforms once his power is consolidated and his alliances formed. For China the question is how much of the dynamism of change will be preserved once the old leader dies. The most populous country in the world is in the throes of an astounding transformation; it is enmeshed in slow and cautious improvements that lack a realistic vision of where it should go and how it should accomplish its aspiration of greatness.
Seweryn Bialer is a professor of political science and director of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University.