Three Eurasians ride the Moscow Metro

An opinion piece by Ting Xu (US/Hong Kong), Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (India) and Martin Heipertz (Germany)…

… written during the summer 2019, while India and the EU, respectively, tried to digest democracy and Hong Kong went into turmoil.

Dramatis personae

Southern Eurasia: Abhijit

Eastern Eurasia: Ting

Western Eurasia: Martin


A carriage of the famous Moscow Metro


The Moscow Metro. What a treat. I expected it to be splendid, but not that splendid. Even imperial, isn’t it?

Guys, it’s really nice to meet you in Moscow. Imagine, we in fact unite Eurasia in this train. Makes you almost forget all the instability and geopolitical risk that we should be discussing. How do you see things at your end, Ting, a Chinese American living in Hong Kong?


This Moscow Metro station is beautiful! I think I will save this ticket for a bookmark later.

You know, Martin, our world is filled with contradictions. I see growing prosperity and poverty at the same time. Stock markets keep on dancing around record highs, but 1 in every 4 countries see the incomes of their bottom 40% fall.

We live in a world where traditional believes are being challenged and new ideas are struggling to mature: Women have started to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, while journalists are being silenced at the same time; elections have finally been held in Myanmar, yet ethnic cleansing continued; old dynasties fell in places like South Africa, while 60% of Australians feel disillusioned in democracy; we have not come to any conclusion between Washington consensus vs Beijing consensus; nationalism in the West is on the rise while many in the rest are fighting for their voices.

Maybe this is creative destruction, channeled by amazing technologies? But there is no clear direction. For example, artificial intelligence can help fulfill one’s preference while at the same time manipulate one’s social environment; e-commerce is helping many small businesses to reach remote consumers, while also disrupting taxation, spreading counterfeits and bringing down traditional businesses; Facebook helped bring together people’s desire during the Arab Spring while also channeling fraud into democratic elections.


Look – Moscow seems to have bucked the trend of global integration and it’s still so nice here. Makes me nostalgic. You know sitting here and listening to these guys, I feel they do have a valid point of view. After all when we went out to see their industries, all we saw was relics of the last industrial age which are declining and commodities extraction, they really haven’t matured into the information age.

I really feel we could get along better if we accepted the fact that Russia belongs in the 1980s with the weltanschaung of the 1980s and an economy of the 1980s, while the West has moved on to the 2020s. I think the real secret to getting along is that we find a way of reconciling 1980s sensibilities with 2020 sensibilities. The question is really one of trust.


Remember Immanuel Kant? His idea that, once every country is run as a democracy, eternal peace would reign? I think Kant’s vision was not far away from what you look for, Abhijit, and, in fact, thias was the neoliberal plan of assuring Western and, for that matter, American security through the global spread of democracy and free trade rather than through hard power, a plan which was prevalent at the turn of the millennium. But that plan has considerably failed, if you ask me.


America’s notion of free trade cannot spread naturally across boarders when other countries do not abide by all the terms. With factories falling and towns closing in the middle of the country, more Americans understand global free trade as unfree and unfair.

What do you think Abhijit? Is globalization bringing us lasting prosperity and empowerment? Now as we watch Britain leaving the EU, US and China heading into trade conflicts and Egypt going from Mubarak to Morsi to Sisi, more questions than certainties are apparent for the nature and future of democracy. Be it Trump, Xi or Modi, people around the world are looking for strong men, I guess we live in interesting times.


Well, Rome and Carthage were both democracies and Rome destroyed Carthage. So much for Kant. In India, we had some of the earliest democracies, where unlike Athens and Rome women could also vote. In fact the whole of north India comprised these 12 democracies called the Mahajapadas. Guess what happened to them? They got destroyed by the monarchies around them because, like Germany in the 1930s, they destroyed themselves from within. We have to realise that the greatest threat in democracies frequently comes from within and that democracies also have interests that can be irreconcilable. We also have to realise that good intentions can cause severe harm in societies which are not anthropologically ready for democracy. Why does democracy work in India but not in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh, even though we were the same people? Why did Germany and Japan succeed post regime-change and why not Afghanistan and Libya? I prefer Yuval Harari’s acknowledgement of these realities over Immanuel Kant’s excessively dreamy ideology. In many ways I think hard anthropological data will prove Kant as misguided as Rousseau’s noble savage.


Have you guys watched Game of Thrones? George R.R. Martin puts it interestingly: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends … It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.“

It was not the fundamental belief in democracy that united Americans against the British back during the war of independence, it was the distaste and burden of foreign taxation. Democracy was considered the best way forward to manage independence. Much more often the hungry desperate commoners came together to bring down authoritarian powers in history than well-fed idealists who were searching for a fairer world. I feel prosperity brings material and spiritual desires, but more people want to choose with their feet than with their fists.

The umbrella movement in Hong Kong started with sympathizers BBQing on the street for demonstrators, ended with taxi drivers and office workers cursing their existence because of unbearable traffic jams: people have too much else to lose in this prosperous city.


Call me an old-fashioned realist, but I like to look at economic and military strength, first of all. No worries at that end, if you’re American. Military technology and capabilities are far superior to any other actor, and any serious geopolitical trouble spots are oceans apart. The US has gained autarchy in terms of energy supply and relies much less on open economy and trade than its partners. I don’t like the way Trump is behaving on the global scene, but I can see why he is able to do it. Let’s put China aside, for a moment, and look at Russia. Abhijit, how can an economy of the size of Spain come across as the most prominent military player after the US and China? Why are the Russians doing this, what is their strategy, will they be able to sustain that effort? It’s really a mystery to me.


What we need to understand is that Russia is like a very big North-Korea going through a similar process. Till 1979 North Korea was the successful Korea, and the South was the basket case. It’s per-capita income was the 2nd highest in Asia after Japan. In the 1980s, when the digital revolution started and progressed to the information revolution in the 1990s, that requires a strong state to go weak because while industrialisation requires a strong state the Information Age requires a weak one. The North Koreans refused. So when Taiwan and South Korea started democratisation, the North Koreans doubled down and they have now become a deindustrialised state. This is exactly what happened to Russia except it was able to sustain itself on commodities. However, it rues the loss of influence and freedom of action it once had. Moreover, given their WW2 history, they have a natural suspicion towards big power blocs coming to their borders. So it’s a toxic mix of gripe, deindustrialisation and a genuine threat perception. And its response is classic North Korean… it can’t be constructive, but it can be destructive and destabilise (except in Syria, where I believe it’s intervention was correct and constructive even if ideologically opposed to the West).


I do not think all Americans feel secure with the autarchy in other corners of the globe. In fact, the current trade war is centered on not only rules of businesses, but also security technology. Traditional strength of military capabilities can be significantly disrupted in the future if technological asymmetry widens. I feel that is where the race is between China and the US. This is also how people like Bannon see it. And Europe will have to catch up, won’t it, Martin?

The thing is, I sense a deep realization in the West that China is not going to turn into one of them, and in China that ideological gap widens with the West as economic gap narrows. People are starting to call this the “new cold war”, but it is not entirely clear to me which camp everyone lies in, and how many camps are here.


Don’t yell at me, but on this one I agree with Bannon. It’s all about the US and China, and Europe will have to live up to remain an ally to the US. We really have to get our act together, by which I mean rapid forward integration into federal state structures not only on monetary policy but also on security, defence and foreign policy. And this, of course, the democratic way.


Guys, we need to hop off the train! This is Lubyanka. That’s where it ends.

Ting and Martin

O, come on, Lubyanka, that sounds horrible. We go for the mall, not the prison. Don’t confuse the reader…

Ting, Abhijit and myself in Moscow

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