Cultures of Dissent in China and Russia are Levitt Fellow's Topic

Cristina Garafola '11
Cristina Garafola '11
Political ideology goes a long way in determining how a state deals with a crisis. Authoritarian regimes, historically, have been the least tolerant of dissent, but authoritarian reactions to dissent have been diverse, ranging from openness and tolerance to censorship and violence. Levitt Fellow Cristina Garafola ’11 is especially interested in the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia, and will spend the summer conducting research with Associate Professor of Government Sharon Rivera, examining case studies to learn more about the cultures of dissent and the governments’ responses in China and Russia.

Garafola’s project is titled “Crisis and Control: Changing State Capacity of Post-Communist States” but, as she explained, “it’s just a working title.” Garafola’s actual research deals less with state-building and more with how the countries handle political dissent. The underlying belief behind her research is that states have some ideology that leads to how they manage some sort of crisis, and Garafola is exploring how that ideology manifests itself in authoritarian responses to dissent.

Both China and Russia were classified by Freedom House in 2005 as countries that are not free. China has been a one-party state since 1949 and is still run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Russia made steps toward liberalization but saw a consolidation of political power under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, who is the current Prime Minister. Garafola explained that the two nations are similar in their recent histories of semi-authoritarian rule, yet take different approaches to handling dissent. The big question, according to Garafola, is how the countries decide what constitutes dangerous dissent.

The bulk of Garafola’s research is of four case studies—two in China and two in Russia. In both countries, one case study represents government toleration of dissent and one represents an authoritarian crack-down. In China, Garafola is looking into the publication of Charter 08 as an instance of the government’s intolerance of dissent. Charter 08 is a manifesto modeled after a similar document from the Czech Republic that promotes democratization and political reform in China and was signed by several hundred Chinese intellectuals. Charter 08 was originally organized and published online, but China tried to smother the movement after the charter’s publication by jailing the charter’s main organizer, Liu Xiaobo. Other activists have been under increasing persecution and bloggers and signers of the petition have been taken from their homes to be interrogated. In this situation, which is still unfolding today, the government has shown unremitting control.

In contrast, China has chosen to tolerate the dissent and criticism from Han Han, a Shanghai blogger who could potentially be the most-read blogger in the entire world. Han Han’s posts are critical of the government, but China has chosen to ignore the blog and Han Han has avoided personal prosecution. Garafola’s research seeks to expose whether there is an inherent difference between Han Han’s blog and Charter 08 that elicited such different responses.

There are similar patterns of inconsistency in Russia. One of the wealthiest men in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was recently imprisoned and is currently being held in Siberia on charges of fraud. Khodorkovsky’s trial has been clouded, and many third-party activists believe his arrest and imprisonment were politically-motivated, because Khodorkovsky was an outspoken opponent of Putin.

The Russian response to a recent protest among motorists has been much more relaxed. An increase in traffic that has far outpaced infrastructure growth has resulted in clogged highways and traffic jams in Russian cities. Motorists have been outspoken against the government’s lack of response to these new problems, but the outcries against the incompetency have not been met with the backlash that might be expected.

Garafola’s interest in her project is deep-seeded. She is a world politics major with a focus in Asia, and spent part of this past academic year studying abroad in China. She first became interested in examining the framework and context behind policy-making when she took Comparative Politics with Professor Rivera, and has since interned at the Asia Bureau of the State Department in Washington, D.C. She believes that there is a definite utility in studying where the governments in China and Russia are going, and she sees this research project as being a precursor to her senior research program, which will be comparative studies on authoritarianism and elite politics in China.

Cristina Garafola '11 is a gradaute of Sparta (N.J.) High School.
Back to Top