The Soviet physicist and Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov arrives at Paris's Orly airport under the watchful eye of frontier police.
The Soviet physicist and Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov arrives at Paris's Orly airport under the watchful eye of frontier police December 9, 1988.
Courtesy Reuters

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.

But the reaction to Chen among China's leadership, and the willingness to see him disappear after first dithering about whether he could stay or leave, displayed a new level of touchiness, on par with the Soviets. It came through in an editorial published by the government-run newspaper Global Times: "The West and its supporters in China always need a tool to work against China's current political system." According to The New York Times, although the Chinese authorities negotiating over Chen eventually accepted the idea that he would leave, they would not countenance the insult of the United States actually granting him asylum.

Beijing's reluctance speaks to the insecurity shared by all authoritarian regimes. As in the Soviet Union, when one man's views were perceived as so dangerous to the country's leaders that they needed to be squashed by the full power of the state, it actually serves as a sign of that state's weakness. Such insecurity was on full display in China when the professor and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago. The authorities tried to censor news of the prize; Liu was imprisoned. He was not thrown out of the country, but he was denounced as a "criminal" whose award was "a blasphemy against the peace prize." Authorities harassed his wife, too.

The Chinese response to Liu was identical to the Soviet Union's reaction to Andrei Sakharov's receiving the prize in 1975. (The Kremlin even used the same word, "blasphemy," to describe it.) Since the late 1960s, the nuclear physicist-turned-dissident had been a thorn in the regime's side. In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the communist leadership, feeling isolated and embattled, exiled Sakharov to the closed city of Gorky, under constant watch and cut off from all contact with the West. Ironically, the move revealed Sakharov's power and only pointed to how frantic Soviet leaders had become. Here is Andrei Gromyko, then the minister of foreign affairs, at the politburo meeting that sealed Sakharov's fate: "The question of Sakharov has ceased to be purely a domestic question. He finds an enormous number of responses abroad. All this anti-Soviet scum, all this rabble revolves around Sakharov. It is impossible to ignore this situation much longer."

Sakharov was perhaps too dangerous to be sent abroad, where he might have become a formidable center of opposition, but exile out of the Soviet Union had, by that point, become the preferred way of dealing with dissidents. Sometimes this took the form of straight expulsion, although the Soviets were often reluctant to appear as if they were rewarding their opponents with a free pass to the West. Even when the Soviet Union allowed thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate out of the country, it was under the pretense that they were going to their natural homeland, Israel, and not just escaping the communist paradise. By the late 1970s, nearly 90 percent of these Soviet Jews on their way to Israel would discard their visas once they had reached their European transit point, in Vienna, and instead opt for the United States.

Like the pretense that Chen is going to the West to study and not to gain asylum, a visa to Israel offered an easy way out for the Soviets, even for non-Jews who had absolutely no connection to the Jewish homeland. The dissident poet Joseph Brodsky, for example, was offered a visa for Israel out of the blue in 1972 without having requested one. By the 1980s, with increasing numbers of disgruntled groups of Soviet citizens, this Israeli exile solution sometimes made for absurd situations. Take the case of the family of 15 Siberian Pentecostal Christians who spent nearly five years living in the basement of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Finally, in 1983, in the first sign of reawakened diplomacy between the two superpowers, U.S. President Ronald Reagan argued on their behalf to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, and promised not to take credit if the asylum seekers were allowed safe passage out of the country. They were, but they were given visas to Israel (which they, too, abandoned in Vienna).

In the Soviet Union, whether subjected to expulsion or harassment, the dissidents never went away -- even in the difficult days of the early 1980s, when both methods were used vigorously and Sakharov was in his distant internal exile. As long as these activists existed, they were a constant reminder of the regime's defects. And their persecution only heightened awareness of Soviet depravation.

The Chinese should look to that fallen empire with foreboding. China certainly has a more sustainable economic system, but as long as there are dissidents willing to go the lengths of Chen to protest, there will be unrelenting pressure to open Chinese society. And as the Soviet Union surely demonstrated, there is no opening up a little, and there is no combination of throwing out just a few troublemakers and locking up others that will silence the problem. The only real resolution is fundamental political change.

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  • GAL BECKERMAN is the author of When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.
  • More By Gal Beckerman