How the Soviets Squashed Dissidents

Before Beijing There Was Moscow

Since the Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng made his risky escape from house arrest and took temporary refuge in the U.S. embassy, Beijing has offered the world a fresh look at how it handles dissidence. At the same time, the incident brings to mind an authoritarian regime from the past, the Soviet Union. And although the Soviet Union should provide a cautionary tale for Chinese authorities, there have been signs over the past few weeks that the Kremlin of old has become a template for apparatchiks in Beijing. At the heart of the matter is a dilemma: Is it better to exile or hold onto troublesome citizens?

Over the past few years, China has dealt with dissidents by placing them under extrajudicial house arrest. Though the authorities do exert some control over who can enter and legally live in China -- it is nearly certain that if Chen takes up an offer of studying in the United States, he will never be allowed to return -- citizens can, in principle, leave. It was not so in the Soviet Union. The country effectively closed its borders to its own people, turning its vast empire into a prison from which one had to be a party member in excellent standing to exit, even temporarily.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese are not so ideologically motivated in their suppression of political resistance. For the Soviets, accepting that such malcontents could be found in their communist paradise undermined their whole worldview -- so sending them abroad was a way of putting them out of mind and making sure they did not contaminate others with their, as it was known, "antisocial" mindset. China's response has come from a baser place, one of defensiveness about its role as world leader. But its approach is also marked by more self-confidence. For the most part, it has not pushed people out of the country. Although many Chinese activists fled after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China seems to deal with its dissidents by containing and censuring them -- often brutally.

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