Stains of Red: The Changing Face of Human Rights in Russia and China

By Duranti, Marco | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Stains of Red: The Changing Face of Human Rights in Russia and China


Duranti, Marco, Harvard International Review


MARCO DURANTI, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

This past September; as the world was still reeling from Boris Yeltsin's latest cabinet shake-up, President Clinton defended his decision to attend a Moscow summit by stressing the critical need for economic reform in Russia. Strikingly absent from the reasons he gave for attending the summit was the need for discussion of the human rights abuses in Russia that were brought to the president's attention by a variety of civil liberties and humanitarian organizations. These violations, however, went largely ignored.

Months earlier, as Clinton prepared for a state visit to the People's Republic of China, these organizations were joined by a plethora of groups from across the spectrum in an effort to make human rights issues a prerequisite for an expanded dialogue with the Chinese government. Yet for Clinton, the combined cry of ministers, congressmen, trade protectionists, and unions gave way to the ephemeral voice of the American people--the majority of whom, according to polls at the time, believed that Clinton should not criticize China publicly for its human rights policies. According to these same polls, only a minority supported linking US-China trade policy with Chinese human rights issues if that linkage would hurt US economic interests.

Is this tacit approval of Russia and Chinese human rights abuses justified? Are violations of civil liberties in Russia a thing of the past? Has there been increased freedom of speech and dissent in China? Or is it wrong to claim that Russia, by abandoning communism, and China, by distancing itself from rigid ideology, have also cleansed themselves of their legacies of oppression?

When considering the extent of human rights abuse in Russia and China, the Russian republic initially appears to be a greater supporter of civil liberties than the Chinese authoritarian state. But a comparison of criminal rights, freedom of press, and freedom of religion in the two countries reveals that Russia's record in these areas is actually similar to that of its doggedly socialist counterpart. Russia, indeed, may be regressing towards its Soviet past, while China may be making significant progress towards a more free society.

Historical Influence

The Chinese and Russian constitutions offer conflicting messages about the degree to which these governments support freedom of speech and dissent. For example, Article 41 of China's 1982 Constitution states, "Citizens of the People's Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary." In Article 1, on the other hand, it is ominously written that "sabotage of the socialist system by any organization or individual is prohibited." Likewise, Article 29 of Russia's 1993 Constitution states that "everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech," yet goes on to say rather ambiguous statements such as, "Propaganda or campaigning inciting social, racial, national or religious hatred and strife is impermissible."

Insight as why these contradictions exist, especially in these supposedly "democratic" countries can be found by examining their political cultures. Both China and Russia have well-known traditions of authoritarianism that discourage pluralism and non-violent dissent. Communist governments in China and in Russia before 1991 rejected the Western view that human rights are universal, maintaining that all rights were class-based and reflected the objective economic conditions of each society. What is most important, however, is how the current governments of China and Russia use these past cultural legacies such as these to infringe on freedom of speech and dissent in a modern context.

In China, traditional Confucianism reduces the role of the individual by promoting a hierarchical system of loyalties that emphasizes the idea of a society in harmony with its rulers. …

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