Interview with Taha Elasway, Arabi21, December 4, 2022
Arabic text available at https://arabi21.com/story/1478361/
How would you explain the sudden rise of mass protests in China and Iran?
Most of the world tends to think of China and Iran in terms of their heavy-handed rulers, paying scant attention to ordinary citizens who seem anonymous until their fury ignites rebellions that spread with stunning speed and staying power. In fact, both societies have long histories of popular revolution that are deeply woven into the nationalist consciousness where they provide ready fuel for mass protests against any regime that pushes its people beyond their limits. It should be no surprise that Chinese and Iranians show bravery in the face of overwhelming force and that they quickly create resilient networks of common action across vast distances and social divides. For more than a century, each generation has summoned revolutionary traditions to challenge—and even to topple—oppressive regimes that seemed unassailable.
Ironically, today’s tyrants were former rebels themselves. Once in power, they sought to subdue the very social forces they rode to the top. In Tehran and Beijing, authoritarian elites lost touch with their own people. Indifferent to public opinion, they underestimated growing resentment and assumed that mere compliance was a sign of support. They created elaborate systems of surveillance that suppressed information they didn’t want to hear. Insulated by ignorance, they refused to budge on policies that imposed hardship and indignity on a desperate but voiceless population. Inevitably, the Communist Party and the Ayatollahs prepared the ground for precisely the revolutionary movements they hoped to avoid.
Looking to the future, what are the prospects for self-correction?
Neither government seems likely to learn the need for concessions to the protesters, but the chances are slightly stronger in Beijing than in Tehran. China’s leadership is pragmatic and uninterested in ideological purity. The Communist Party contains rival factions and networks with ties to many social sectors that can press for policy adjustments. This gives China’s elite some capacity for rational adaptation in times of social crises. They might see a strategic retreat on unpopular lockdowns as an acceptable alternative to constant social turmoil, especially if it bolsters the economy and thwarts demands for political reform.
In contrast, Iran’s rulers face much greater handicaps. The Ayatollahs are prisoners of their own religious extremism—unable to bargain away commitments to divine law that, in their view, require unquestioned obedience. The army and security forces have become semi-autonomous powers with extensive economic influence. Even if a group of pragmatic clerics were willing to discuss reforms, the armed forces might block their effort. In addition, Iranian protesters are split among many groups with different agendas—women, youth, urban professionals, workers, bazaar merchants, ethnic and linguistic minorities. Satisfying all of these interests simultaneously is nearly impossible short of dismantling the entire edifice of the Islamic Republic. That is a recipe for endless rebellions and repressions that could cripple the country indefinitely.