Blessed be we, who live in exciting times. Not only are we participating in a global struggle against tyranny, but, if we look carefully enough, we can see the collapse of the conventional wisdom about the relationship between tyrannical rulers and their subjects. We’re in the midst of a great paradigm shift, which, as any decent Hegelian will tell you, involves both a transformation of the world and of the way we understand it. In such rare times, both pundits and policymakers need to constantly challenge their own assumptions about the way the world works, because those assumptions age, along with the world they once described.
Let’s start with a thoughtful article in the April 19 Asia Times
written by an Australian named Andrei Lankov. “For decades,” he rightly points out, “the commonly accepted truth…was that the North Koreans do not rebel.” And yet, on March 30, in the Kim il-sung stadium in Pyongyang, tens of thousands of North Korean soccer fans erupted in rage against the (Syrian) referee who had expelled a Korean defender in a World Cup qualifying match against Iran. The demonstrations pitted the spectators against the usual security forces of the police and army, and lasted for hours after the game (Iran won 2-0).
Lankov notes that nothing of the sort had happened in the Hermit Kingdom within human memory: “for the first time in some 50 years a large group of North Koreans, acting openly and in the presence of foreign journalists and camera crews, dared to challenge the representatives of authority…” Lankov believes that the demonstrations bespeak a significant erosion of the regime’s ability to repress its subjects. That erosion has sapped the will of the soldiers and police, who are now “often ready to look the other way, especially when there is an opportunity for a small bribe.”
Meanwhile, across the border in the People’s Republic of China, there have been several demonstrations in recent months, ranging from peasant protests (shades of Mao!) in the hinterland (when Communist-party officials were caught stealing money that was supposed to go to dispossessed land owners) to worker’s agitation in the big cities along the coast. Thomas Lifson, of American Thinker, suggests that the Chinese regime senses its own growing weakness. The regime has certainly intensified its repression of religious freedom, arresting the Catholic priest Zhao Kexun in Hebei Province, and continuing its mindless persecution of the Falun Gong. Luis Ramirez, the brilliant reporter of Voice of America, noted last fall that China was facing a most unexpected crisis: a shortage of qualified workers. And along with this manpower shortage, the brutal demographic consequences of the Communist-party’s strict rule of “one child per couple” are beginning to take hold: The population is aging, the number of people retiring is higher than those entering the workforce, and retirement pension funds are drying up. Moreover, corruption is pandemic, and the recent National People’s Congress provided the occasion for an anti-corruption campaign, with the usual showcase arrests and trials. But it is hard for a regime that claims sole authority to blame corruption on individual sinners.
Now come the monster anti-Japan riots, ostensibly in response to Japanese behavior during the Second World War, and Japanese failure to publish textbooks that recount the rape of Nanking and other horrors during the Japanese occupation. No one can seriously believe that the oligarchs in Beijing were responding to popular demand; as the great Chinese émigré dissident He Qinglian reminds us, “the Chinese Government has virtually eliminated its citizens’ right to publicly assemble, protest, or express any kind of political aspirations.” So one must ask why the regime is encouraging these mass protests. Surely not, as some commentators think, because China is enraged at the very thought of a Japanese permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council (U.N. reform is not just around the corner). The answer is almost certainly domestic. The oligarchs know that the Chinese people are angry, and they are providing them with an outlet that serves the regime’s purposes, as they have done several times in the recent past: May, 1999, after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, April, 2001, after the collision with a U.S. reconnaissance plane with a Chinese fighter, and March, 2003, against the liberation of Iraq.
The anti-Japan riots are of a piece with the foolish law, passed just last month, that officially approved the use of military force to annex Taiwan. That one was so outrageous that it antagonized the entire civilized world, and undoubtedly contributed to the Europeans’ about-face on lifting military sanctions against China. No doubt the oligarchs worried that the Chinese people might notice that the regime’s policies were a shambles, and that they might come to suspect that things could improve if only the people were free to choose their own leaders. Thus, one of the delicious paradoxes of our time: China threatens Taiwan with huge armies, but Taiwan threatens China with freedom, and may well win in the end.
As Janet Klinghoffer put it, “China is facing the same innovation roadblock the Soviets did.” The Soviet Union could never match Western technological innovations, because Soviet citizens were never given the freedom to do so. Klinghoffer quotes a U.S.-embassy report from Beijing that suggests the Chinese are facing the same bleak future: “Recently a Chinese scholar remarked…that the lack of intellectual freedom and the extraordinary waste of resources severely handicap Chinese science. Both problems are rooted in the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and in the socialist system…Nobody believes in Marxism, said the scholar, it is just a slogan…”
This is precisely the sort of thing we heard from Soviet citizens in the years leading up to the great implosion of the Soviet Empire. The Russians had brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, but the rigidity and corruption of the system prevented them from translating their brilliance into high-quality products. The same is going on in China, with the same political results: The people are angry, and want fundamental change.
The same process is even further advanced in Iran, where near-constant demonstrations, protests, and even armed attacks against the institutions of the Islamic republic have raged. Indeed, in a curious mirror image, the Iranian regime called out the troops to prevent mass demonstrations in major Iranian cities at the very same time the North Koreans were putting down the soccer riot in Pyongyang. Both countries have found that major athletic events are dangerous to dictatorship, because they provide a legitimate excuse for the assembly of large numbers of people. But Iranians no longer require excuses to show their hatred of the mullahcracy. In the first week of April, there were huge demonstrations in Mahaban, after celebrations of the election of Jalal Talabani as president of Iraq. People shouted slogans against the Islamic republic and Supreme Leader Khamenei. The regime had to declare martial law. In recent days there have been demonstrations and acts of sabot age in Khuzestan Province (a major oil-producing region). The big refinery in Abadan was placed under exceptional military guard, and pipelines are constantly monitored. The city of Ahwaz has seen repeated clashes between the locals and security forces.
The popular contempt for the regime is so blatant that the mullahs’ usual pretense that all is well, has been openly discarded, and replaced with mounting repression. Like the North Koreans and Chinese, the Iranian leaders’ greatest fear is that their own people will bring down the regime, and the mullahs have taken desperate action against the spread of ideas within the country. Bloggers have been arrested and tortured, along with editors and writers from the dead-tree press. Rajabali Mazroui, the head of the national union of journalists, was blocked at the airport when he was headed for a media conference in Denmark. His passport was confiscated and he can no longer travel. Mehdi Rahmanian, the managing editor of the Tehran daily newspaper Shargh has been charged with publishing falsehoods with the intent of corrupting public morality. Keyvian Samimi, the managing editor of the monthly magazine Nameh has been charged with insulting the government. And two student organizations, the Islamic Council of Medical Science of Bushehr, and an NGO called Aftab, have been disbanded.
But the Iranians are responding. On April 18, employees at the Isfahan courthouse demonstrated against the sexist policies of the regime, calling for equal rights for women. This was not the sort of “student” demonstration so readily dismissed by Western cynics, for several judges joined the protesters. Even more remarkable was a speech in parliament by a representative named Akbar Alami, in which he said that the Islamic republic was no longer legitimate, that 80 million Iranians are now effectively enslaved by a few hundred corrupt thieves, and that the regime now stands for terrorism and the denial of human rights to the country’s citizens.
It has long been assumed that a repressive regime could survive as long as it had the will to crush any opposition, and that clever tyrants could deflect hatred of their regime by conjuring up an external enemy. There is still a tendency, particularly among intellectuals, to assume that these principles apply to contemporary dictatorships like those in China, Iran, and North Korea. Yet recent events suggest that these three countries, which are united by common interests and which help one another with advanced military technology, from missiles to WMDs, are losing control despite their fierce determination to cling to power and eventually fight and win a great war against the West. All three have nearby examples of new democracies, and their peoples are asking, with increasing intensity, why they are not permitted to govern themselves.
Five hundred years ago Machiavelli insisted that tyranny is the most unstable form of government, and he warned that the most dangerous development for any tyrant was the contempt of his own people. That dramatic tipping point is now very close in China, Iran, and North Korea. All that is required to get there is a steady flow of the truth from outside their borders, guidance for those who undertake the struggle against the tyrants, and constant reminders–backed up with modest action–that we are with them.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.