Images of Chinese President Xi Jinping sitting cozily with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony not only emphasized that a number of heads of state were not in attendance, but also highlighted the complex Sino-Russian relationship. Putin—certainly not the most gregarious or affable of world leaders—even equated Xi’s trip to a “visit to good friends.” And China’s official People’s Daily newspaper reports, “Mr. Putin cheerfully recalled the experience when he and Mr. Xi drank vodka together to celebrate his birthday last year. ‘I know that I have many friends in China,’ Putin said. ‘It is not surprising, because we have special relations with China, and I have special feelings for China.’”
Sino-Russian relations have not always been so cordial. Upon tossing out all of the bourgeoisie laws of the capitalist running dogs when founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong understandably looked north to the USSR for inspiration in shaping the PRC’s legal system. The influence remains today, for example in the use of a procuratorate (or “procuracy”) to prosecute cases and oversee other aspects of the legal system. Since Khrushchev’s process of de-Stalinization diminished Mao’s confidence in his neighbors to the north (and created concerns about possible de-Maoization at home), Sino-Russian relations have periodically waxed and waned. Today, China and Russia are the two largest members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China is Russia’s largest trading partner.
In late 2012 when Xi Jinping took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China—his more important title than “President”—questions understandably arose about what type of leader he would be. Xi’s first state visit was to Russia, and Xi has commented that he and Putin have similar personalities. It is too early in Xi’s tenure to say whether he will closely emulate Putin’s strong man persona. Nonetheless, it is looking increasingly unlikely that he will be China’s Gorbachev.