The United States is challenged by one country with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads and another that may soon have the world’s largest GDP. Adding to their material power, their presidents claim to be best friends. But what lies behind their military and economic assets? How does their subject live? What is the quality of life for Russians and Chinese? Some answers may be found in measures of their intangible achievements.  

One leading indicator is the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI.) It assesses three factors that enhance human choice — health.  education, and income. Switzerland and Norway scored highest on the HDI in 2022; Russia ranked 52nd and China 79th; down from earlier highs, the USA fell to 21st.   

What about political rights and civil liberties? The nonpartisan Freedom House reports that Russia and China, year after year, are “not free” — like other communist or post-communist states, from North Korea to Cuba. 

The Global Innovation Index (World Intellectual Property Organization) placed Russia 47th in the world in 2022 — far behind many countries with lower GDP per capita; China, however, ranked 11th — the only middle-income country in the top 30.  

All the numbers cited here reflect conditions as countries first confronted Covid-19 and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,  They are probably in the correct ballparks but need to be adjusted to changes in the real world and improvements in scientific methodology. 

Helping to explain all these results is the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International. In 2022. on a scale from 100 to zero, Denmark and Finland ranked as most honest with scores of 90 and 87; the United States placed just ahead of Taiwan at 68; China, at 45, placed just below Romania and one above Cuba; Putin’s partner Belarus at 39 ranked higher than pre-war Ukraine at 33, which tied with Mongolia and El Salvador. Russia was closer to the bottom at 28, tied with Mali and Paraguay, the lowest in Latin America except for Putin’s amigos in Venezuela at 14.  

Reinforcing this negative picture for Russia and China is the distribution of Nobel prizes. Russian writers (including one Belarusian) have won six in literature — all but one condemned by the Kremlin. Soviets or Russians won four prizes in peace, with one banned from accepting it in 1958 and another — Mikhail Gorbachev — the 1990 winner — later becoming persona non grata in the Kremlin; while the other two, in 2021 and 2022, also ostracized by Moscow. Russians, some working abroad, won 11 prizes in physics or chemistry, and two, one working abroad, in economics.  

One Chinese scientist received a Nobel in folk medicine; another Chinese citizen, in jail, won the peace prize; two won in literature–one living abroad and another, often banned, whose pen name is “Don’t Speak.” Some other Chinese-born scientists won Nobels in physics and chemistry while working abroad. The future of science, according to Russian and Chinese fiction of recent decades, will amplify totalitarian controls to levels deeper and broader than those in Brave New World (a book itself foreshadowed, as was George Orwell’s 1984, by the Russian dissident writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.) 

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Four of Europe’s smallest countries — Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands — have each won more than twice as many Nobel prizes as China and nearly as many as Russia. Indeed, Sweden won 33 compared to Russia’s total of 32 — even counting all those laureates denounced by the Kremlin. The United States, with 406 prizes, won more than a dozen times the Russian total; the UK, Germany, and France, won from four times to twice as many as Russia. 

These factors are both cause and effect of other variables. Finland is the least fragile state in the world; Yemen, the most fragile. Of 177 states, Russia is far more fragile than most of Europe — 78 places from the bottom; while China is just above the halfway mark. The USA is more fragile than most Western countries at 138; the least fragile — the most stable — is Finland at 177.  

Finland and Denmark are not just the least corrupt, but also top the Happiness Index, which asks people to evaluate their quality of life on a scale from 1 to 10. Here the USA ranks 16th; China, 71st; and Russia, 76th. Least happy, no surprise, is Afghanistan, which may have become even more miserable since the last survey in 2021. 

How do these measures of intangibles match up with material wealth? As of 2021, China ranked 73rd in per capita income in the world at $17,000 — pretty close to its happiness rank of 71st. Russia ranked 54th in per capita income at $28,000 but 76th in happiness. Even before the war and heavy sanctions, Putin’s subjects were malcontent, perhaps in part because much of that ostensible $28,000 went to oligarchs. 

In most wealthy countries, per capita incomes were close to happiness scores. The USA was 10th in GDP and 16th in happiness. Ireland experienced a larger gap: 3rd in income but 13th in happiness. Finland and Denmark were tops in happiness but 22nd and 13th in income.  

The Nordic countries perform best overall, but the West’s two major challengers do poorly in the cultivation of human and humane values. Except for China, the numbers for most comrades are weak in GDP as well as human development — see Belarus, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and Venezuela.  

There is significant public discontent in China and Russia, though it’s not always easy to assess how much, and whether those peoples would like a change of regime. But we do know that ordinary people are unable to change the ruling elites and their policies, and can thus conclude that this somber picture will persist; this is bad for its victims and not good for the West.  

Walter Clemens is an Associate, at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, at Boston University. He wrote ‘Can Russia Change?’. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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