THE PARADOX OF the present is that despite many a requiem on its supposed demise, democracy is far from dead. Even in places where it is never said to have existed in the first place. Yes, the world is veering towards authoritarianism, even among the so-called free nations of the world. But, quite contrarily, countries never considered free—such as Iran and China—are showing us that the democratic impulse does not die easily.
The waves of protests sweeping across those two totally different despotisms demonstrate that the writing on the wall—or if you prefer—message on blank papers is loud and clear. No regime, however repressive and tyrannical, can afford to ignore the will, or even the feelings, of the people.
The social contract, implicit in any contemporary form of government, is founded on the principle that rulers have a responsibility towards the ruled. Even if such a social contract is not stamped with constitutional approval. Or the responsiveness of the regime to popular protest is reluctant or absent. Regardless of the type of government or state, gone are the days of pure autocracy or unadulterated totalitarianism. Ordinary citizens across the world consider themselves stakeholders of the state. When push comes to shove, they will make their views known, even take a stand.
True that Iran hasn’t quite abolished its morality police as prematurely touted by several media outlets. True also that an attorney general’s statement cannot be taken as the official declaration of state policy. But it definitely indicates that the regime is taking its protesters much more seriously than was previously thought. Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri’s remarks may have been taken out of context, but who can deny that the state authorities are reconsidering the role of the Gasht-e Ershad, the Islamic guidance patrol or morality police?
In a way, activists who want nothing less than a regime change might be happier if smaller concessions are not made because that would dilute the rage of the people or serve as a safety valve. The Islamic regime, on the other hand, does not wish to appear weak in the face of the cascading protests. The situation, to put it mildly, is confusing. What is going on in Iran? What will happen in the future? These are questions that both Iranians and interested outsiders must be grappling with. But as the protests enter their third month, those sympathetic to the cause do not want the momentum to drop.
In my last two columns, citing Salman Rushdie and Homi K Bhabha, I argued that change is noticed in medias res, when it has already been underway for a while. Its outcomes may appear sudden or dramatic, but that is only because we usually do not notice change until we are overtaken by it. To a cataclysmic 20th century habituated to world wars, revolutions, coups, and cartographic reorganisation on an unprecedented scale, the pace or manner of transformation in the 21st century might easily be misinterpreted, if not difficult to notice.
Let us face it: this is not a time of revolt, revolution, or abrupt transformation. Wars, whether in Syria or, at present in Ukraine, tend to drag on rather than abut in a swift and dramatic terminus. Similarly, changes within dictatorial regimes are also slow rather than sudden. Not just Iran, but China, where it is even harder to protest in public, is a case in point. China’s mechanisms of surveillance, control, and suppression of democratic expression are even more powerful and irresistible than Iran’s. Yet, an educated and tech-savvy younger generation mostly made up of single children, are not as afraid of their government as their grandparents might have been.
The Great Wall of China, which separated and protected a civilisation from hostile outsiders, has now become an internal and divisive barrier—call it the Great Chinese Firewall—between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the people of China. But there are ways around it. QR codes may confine people to their homes, disallowing access to public transport, supermarkets, or departure from their own buildings. But smart individuals will always be one step ahead to the gargantuan ideological state apparatus.
When the Wuhan virus broke free, allegedly from the confines of a lab, many people destroyed their cell phones or ditched their SIM cards to escape the draconian lockdowns. They became missing SIMs—or souls—at least for a while. Of course, if the sale of caskets and urns was anything to go by, then hundreds of thousands also perished, their loss unreported, known and mourned only by their loved ones.
When millions of citizens are displeased, their rulers, however powerful, lose their lustre. Somewhat like dictators in Gabriel García Márquez novels. It is one thing to hunt down a small band of conspirators against the government, but when the populace at large dislikes you, power becomes a poison pill
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We may not know what is happening in China, but something is certainly brewing. Rumours of coup attempts against President-for-life Xi Jinping, palace intrigues, or power struggles internal to the CCP surface reflect not so much the possibilities of revolution, but whispers of discontent, if not rumblings of discontent. Even if something is not quite rotten in the state of China, all is certainly not well.
It is the global Covid-19 pandemic bringing on China’s harsh and insensitive controls that has made the state unpopular. When millions of citizens are displeased, their rulers, however powerful, lose their lustre. Somewhat like dictators in Gabriel García Márquez novels. It is one thing to hunt down a small band of conspirators against the government, but when the populace at large dislikes you, power becomes a poison pill.
China’s “white-paper protests,” from such a standpoint, convey an eloquent and vocal message to the authorities. The blank paper speaks louder than a thousand words. Make no mistake: “Xi Jinping Thought,” the official ideology of China, is not popular. It never was. Instead of more freedom, in the name of protecting the hold of the CCP on the state and the false promise to make China the number one country in the world, Xi imposed a hardline administration within the country and the “wolf warrior” brand of diplomacy abroad. China may yet pay a higher-than-expected price for both. While it might not care about what the world thinks if it, it certainly cannot afford to ignore what its own people feel and experience on a daily basis.
China’s economy is slowing down, with predicted growth rates sharply down to 2-3 per cent. Partly due to the Covid-19 measures, but also as a consequence of its own success, industrial overcapacity, real estate bubbles, mounting debts and stressed assets, and over-extension of capacities abroad in the Belt and Road Initiative—there are a series of challenges to China’s drive for global hegemony. An ageing population and armed forces which, even if technologically well-equipped, are unwilling to die in distant lands for China’s power or pride, only add to the burdens of its imperial overreach. On top of this, the overweening ambition to capture and subdue Taiwan. All this makes China distrusted and disliked in the world and feared in its own neighbourhood.
But are its own citizens equally fearful of the regime? The white-paper protests are far from an insurrection or even an uprising. But they do constitute a protest movement. Perhaps, the most serious that the CCP has faced since Tiananmen Square. While there have been many protests in China in the past, most were localised, with specific demands, whether economic or environmental. This is the first broadbased expression of discontent over something which the Chinese used previously to sneer at as being merely “abstract.” Freedom. But for many Chinese, freedom is a very real thing today. Forced to test, then coerced to confinement—these are no longer merely “metaphysical.” And simple changes in the zero-Covid policy will not snuff out the anger against the state either.
The state’s capacity for surveillance and control is formidable; it can arrest protesters at night using face-recognition technology, even if they are masked. It can gather data from apartment buildings, not just from people on the street. It can run names and phone numbers through databases to cull out offenders. But what about the long-term consequences of such repression? A course correction is inevitable the moment Xi’s power weakens or collapses. The West and all those, such as Taiwan, who would like that outcome, will also play their hand, albeit behind the scenes.
If we look at these two hugely disparate despotisms, Iran and China, the conclusion is obvious. The will of the people may not triumph. But it cannot be ignored either. Lifting the veil or tearing down the Iron Curtain—these may not happen overnight. But there will be chinks even in the harshest firewall. Perhaps, that is the new meaning of democracy in our times.
About The Author
Makarand R Paranjape is professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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