Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures

section of chinese and russian flags

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

Project details

Discipline: Political Science
Funded Period: 26 August 2012 – 25 August 2015
Rising powers: China, Russia


The ‘BRICs’ were invented by economist Jim O’Neill as a way of pointing to the emergence of powerful new players in the world economy. In the first instance there were four of them: Brazil, Russia, India and China. They became the ‘BRICS’ when South Africa was added in 2010. However we label them, these are large and growing economies that will increasingly challenge the established dominance of the West.

But just as their economies have grown, so too the BRICS have become more unequal. China, for instance, has the world’s second-largest number of billionaires, according to the annual survey that is carried out by Forbes magazine; Russia has its third-largest number. And incomes are distributed rather unequally, compared with other countries and with the enforced egalitarianism of the recent past.

It is one of the oldest findings of political science that economic inequality of this kind is likely to be associated with political instability. Aristotle, for instance, pointed out in his Politics more than two thousand years ago that ‘when men are equal they are contented’. Will the same be true of the BRICS? As differentials widen, will their authoritarian leaderships be challenged? Or will they anticipate such pressures by a greater emphasis on redistribution and personal austerity?

A group of scholars at the University of Glasgow (Stephen White, Jane Duckett and Neil Munro) has been examining these issues as part of the ESRC’s ‘Rising Powers’ programme, working with coinvestigators in Australia (Ian McAllister of the ANU) and Russia (Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Mikhail Korostikov of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences). As well as ‘hard’ data on incomes and living standards, a special effort has been made to capture the actor’s frame of reference: through national surveys, focus groups, and elite interviews.

The picture that emerges from evidence of this kind is a complex one. Differences have certainly been widening, we were told in the Russian Presidential Administration earlier this summer. And they are already at a level that threatens to hold back economic growth. But there is no ‘ministry of equality’ that might take an overall view of these matters. And there is limited faith in traditional forms of redistribution, such as a more progressive income tax. In the longer term, they hope in government, rising levels of education will improve levels of upward mobility. But will a discontented society be able to wait so long?

Project team

Principal Investigator

Professor Stephen White, University of Glasgow

Other members of the core team

Professor Jane Duckett, University of Glasgow, Co-Investigator
Professor Ian McAllister, Australian National University, Co-Investigator
Dr Neil Munro, University of Glasgow, Co-Investigator
Tania Biletskaya, University of Glasgow, Research Assistant


Special section ‘Authoritarian Powers: Russia and China Compared’ in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 69, 2017:

European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference, Glasgow, September 2014

The project organised several panels on the theme ‘Rising Powers: Social Inequality and Political Instability?’, including the following presentations:

Full details on the conference section are available on the project website and on the ECPR website.

Co-Investigator Dr Neil Munro discusses the project 'Rising Powers: Unequal Powers, Authoritarian Powers, Unstable Powers?'.