Rising Powers: Unequal Powers, Authoritarian Powers, Unstable Powers?

Taken together, Russia and China account for 41% of the total territory of the BRICs, and for 51% of their total population and 63% of their GDP/PPP. On Goldman Sachs projections China will be the world's largest economy by 2050, and Russia its sixth largest; per head of population, on the same projections, Russia will have the world's fourth largest GDP/head and China its twelfth largest.

A striking feature of the two countries is not just the rate but also the strikingly inegalitarian nature of their development - notwithstanding a shared (post)communist legacy. Indeed on most conventional measures, these two countries are now among the most unequal in the world. According to Russian official statistics, the Gini coefficient had risen to .42 by 2010; the best estimates of Chinese Gini coefficients indicate a very similar rise from .26 in 1983 - just after the introduction of the contract responsibility system - to .45 in 2006, the last year available. On World Bank figures, Gini coefficients were already higher in Russia than in the UK, and higher in China than in the United States. Reflecting these developments, China had moved up to second place in Forbes' list of the world's billionaires by 2011, with Russia in third place.

One of the oldest findings of political science is that there is an association between economic inequality and political instability. As Aristotle pointed out in his Politics, 'when men are equal they are contented'; he drew attention to the people of Tarentum, who, 'by sharing the use of their own property with the poor, [gained] their good will'. Accordingly, 'democracy appears to be safer and less liable to revolution than oligarchy'. Concerns of this kind have been apparent in many later writers, including John Stuart Mill, who provided in his Representative Government for additional votes for those who exercised 'superior [managerial] functions' on the reasonable assumption that the poor would otherwise use their electoral preponderance to put through 'class legislation'.

We seek in this project to examine the following propositions:

  1. that these two BRIC countries are becoming increasingly unequal;
  2. that within them, political power and economic advantage are increasingly closely associated
  3. that their political systems have increasingly been employed to ensure that no effective challenge can be mounted to that combination of government position and economic advantage, either by 'ballot box' or other avenues;
  4. and that set against a broader comparative perspective, an increasingly unequal society in which government is effectively immune from conventional challenge is likely to become increasingly repressive, or unstable, or both (with considerable implications for the international community as a whole).

We propose to draw our evidence from national and international statistics, the academic literature that has appeared in both countries as well as the West, a series of interviews with policy specialists and relevant government officials, two dozen focus groups that will focus on issues of social justice and politics as perceived by ordinary citizens, and a detailed empirical analysis of the management of the largest companies in both countries in order to establish their connections with senior state officials. A final part of the analysis will employ crossnational evidence (including both aggregate and individual-level data such as the World Values Survey) to test a series of hypotheses relating to the association between inequality and political instability, setting both countries within a context that will include (for instance) the countries that have been affected by the 'Arab Spring'.

For further information on this research project and its outputs, please contact: 


Prof Ian McAllister
Australian National University


Aug 2012 to Aug 2015


ESRC (£456,812)