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The Mutual Fears of Russia and China

This week I am in San Francisco, California for some meetings and speaking engagements on Russia-related issues. Among the people I have had the pleasure of meeting during this trip is Mr. John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation, an NGO dedicated toward improving dialogue between the United States and China, and helping to secure sentence reductions and early releases for dissidents and political prisoners. Mr. Kamm has a fascinating personal story of his unorthodox conversion from the president of Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce into a human rights advocate for Chinese political prisoners, and possesses a keen geopolitical insight into international relations. During our discussions, I was particularly struck by one story that John related to me – a 2005 meeting between Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao in which the Russian president directly warned his counterpart of the “threat” of color revolutions. No one knows to what extent President Putin discussed color revolutions with Chinese officials, but the meeting was shortly followed by a number of measures seemingly directed at preventing a grassroots anti-authoritarian uprising.

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A 2005 article in Foreign Policy by an anonymous graduate student at USC, writing under the pseudonym “Yongding,” detailed this counter-revolution offensive by the People’s Republic, which included a crackdown on NGOs, stricter press freedom laws, tighter monitoring of the internet, and a concentrated effort on behalf of the state to study color revolutions and how to prevent them. Yongding writes that “Beijing believes that international organizations, especially advocacy NGOs, have acted as Washington’s ‘black hands’ behind the recent regime changes in Central Asia.” He also cites an article by the Communist Party Propaganda Department’s biweekly journal which reported that NGOs with international ties seek to “brainwash” people and train political oppositions. When asked recently why Beijing had halted plans to let foreign newspapers print in China, the press regulator Shi Zongyuan is reported to have answeredWhen I think of color revolutions, I feel afraid.” But who is training who? It is easy to let our imaginations run wild thinking about what happened during the Putin-Jintao meetings, (which may have been the world’s first anti-democracy seminar on the best practices of repression) but I think such drama goes too far. What we are witnessing in these parallel developments in China, Russia and far beyond, even including the United States, is the so-called “securitizing” of domestic politics – how terrorism, immigration, economic competition and other public security issues are instrumentalized by political leaders to justify reductions in civil liberties and increases in state power. In regards to Russia, this phenomenon is examined in depth in a new book entitled “Securitising Russia: The Domestic Politics of Vladimir Putin” by Edwin Bacon, Bettina Renz and Julian Cooper, which explains how the influence of the security services has grown immensely under Putin’s watch. I would furthermore argue that the Kremlin capitalized on the terror tragedy at Beslan to orchestrate an aggressive expansion of the FSB into nearly every public sphere, capitalizing upon the predominant culture of fear and paranoia. (The obvious corollary in the United States following 9/11 is the abomination of rule of law at Guatanamo). This heavy emphasis on “the foreign threat,” experienced both in China and in Russia to explain natural domestic political movements, is alive and well today. Look no further than the new interview with FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev published this week in Argumenty i Fakty in which he says that foreign spies are “hatching plans aimed at dismembering Russia,” and spoke at length about the “danger of foreign NGOs being used to finance activities to undermine Russia.” Patrushev said the CIA and MI6 were actively relying on the special services of Poland, Georgia and the Baltics to spy on Russia in an attempt to create “an instrument for having a hidden influence over political processes,” while also making reference to the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. It is very disturbing to see the head of Russia’s security service preemptively laying the groundwork for further crackdowns on the political opposition during the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Such pronouncements do not bode well for optimists and pro-Putin advocates in the West who were hoping that confidence in the president’s popularity would allow the state to loosen its grip (and thereby prove its critics wrong) by winning an election the old-fashioned way – now it seems that things could potentially get ugly. China and Russia’s mutual concerns over civil society movements is also showing signs of growing into a coordinated set of activities in the international sphere – most recently illustrated by their use of the “authoritarian veto” to protect the military junta in Myanmar in its brutal suppression of the Saffron Revolution. The backlash against civil society movements and democracy assistance programs is becoming more formalized and incorporated into state ideology. Many will recall Vladimir Putin’s bold and in many ways compelling speech on the emergence of a “New Multipolar World” – but can such a vision for international relations really stand on the foundations of such antiquated isolationism? The political leadership of China and Russia certainly hope so, and issued a statement from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which said that “the right of every people to its own path of development must be fully guaranteed” pursuant to the principle of “non-intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states.” As an indication of how much things have changed for China and Russia since the color revolutions, let’s a look back on a joint statement from Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin from 2003: “Russia and China stand for a multipolar, just and democratic world order based on the commonly recognized principles of international law.” It seems that their joint commitments have undergone a slight revision. The implications of these developments require no exaggeration from me, and all those concerned with the promotion of human rights and rule of law internationally should follow this situation very closely. I plan to explore the “securitizing” issue more in depth in future posts to this blog, and I urge all those interested to learn more about the work of the Dui Hua Foundation.