Demonstrations work. Ideologically driven authoritarian government are hard nuts to crack. Fear of the consequences of losing power ensures ruthlessness. Yet once a crack appears the whole shell cam splinter with a speed which may surprise. Two such potential candidates for cracking have appeared in recent weeks as popular anger against one aspect or another of ideology or policy has becomes so widespread as to force concession which may prove the thin end of a large wedge.
One is China. Xi Jinping must be wondering how, so soon after being crowned by the Communist Party “emperor” for another five term Xi has been forced to agree a retreat from his absolutist Covid 19 stance which has protected citizens from disease to an extent which has become unendurable to many, and ensured that it is the economy which has been “lying flat”.
By the standards of demonstrations in other parts of the world, those in China have been quite small and low key. But they had become so widespread geographically and underpinned by clever evasion of Beijing’s seemingly all-embracing censorship of information flow that something had to give if the situation was not to get out of hand very quickly. Even Beijing found it hard to disguise the fact that the planet’s most watched sporting event, the football World Cup was taking place in a maskless environment and scant sign of Covid fear or even cases. Even before that, Xi himself had to be seen maskless at the G20 meeting in Bali. Of course, easing has been as much due to the damage the restrictions were doing to the economy as to open dissent.
It remains to be seen how far or fast the easing will go as fears over a winter case surge and the vulnerability of millions of old people who have not been adequately vaccinated. Explaining to a public that Covid is actually less dangerous now that the Omicron variant is dominant may not be easy given three years of scare stories. The argument that easing is possible because of the change in the virus may not be entirely convincing especially if there is a huge surge in cases because of resistance to vaccination and the economy continues to struggle in the face of the property bubble overhang and weak export demand.
But events have opened up cracks. Most of all in the infallibility of Xi Jinping who continued to insist on Zero Covid for so long and in the face of both public health science and foreign example. First of all, there must be grumbling in the party itself and among those provincial and lower level leaders who have has the administrative and financial burden of enforcing the Zero goal.
By the same token it opens a gap in respect for the authority of the Party in general. History may have been repeatedly re-written to wipe the Great leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution off the slate, but memories linger at the family level. Nor can the party hide the fact that the dismal demographic situation, now grudgingly admitted, is the direct result of another of the all-wise party’s violent impositions on society – the One Child policy.
That is not to imply that the Party is in danger. To begin with, the One Child policy and continuing low birth rate in the new urban China have meant that the proportion of the population in the 15-29 age group most likely to join protests and demand change at the top has been getting smaller and smaller and is now only about 20%. The party is quite used to 180 degree turns and either denying the past or explaining change as a consequence of a change of facts – as with the Omicron. However, leaders themselves may not emerge unscathed from such changes of course. Indeed, that that be even more so in the case of one who has assumed so much personal power and surrounded himself with a aged and all-male Politburo Standing Committee. The danger for the world of course is that the one sure way to divert internal threats and economic disappointments is adventurism abroad — though Putin’s travails in Ukraine and the ganging-up against China by Asian neighbours as a result of wolf warrior behaviour make that difficult.
A more likely candidate for radical political change is that other recent locus of demonstrations, Iran. The persistence of these despite the high toll in lives has, it seems, driven a wedge into the Islamic Republic’s system of priestly rule backed by the formidable power and money of state institutions, notably the Revolutionary Guard which is more radical in its Shia Islam ideology than most of the clerics who became president such as Ayatollahs Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani. The Guard, and its feared militia the basij, is technically part of the armed forces but a power base of its own and especially devoted to anti-US and anti-Israel activity. The demonstrations spread nationwide and their broad support was underscored by the failure of the Iran football team to sing the national anthem at the World Cup. The anthem is the third since the Islamic Republic came into being in 1979 and replaced the imperial anthem of the Shah. The demonstrations took place against a background of economic pain caused in part by western-led sanctions and long simmering disagreements between hard-liners headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (now 83) and the Revolutionary Guard on one hand and more pragmatic forces within the ruling elite who favour compromises to end sanctions though reviving the nuclear deal with the West, Chin and Russia. Meanwhile in the country at large, the secular nationalism is merely hibernating.
The immediate driver of demands for change has been hostility to the religious police and its enforcement of dress laws for women, including use of the hijab. Iran women, at least in the major cities, have long chafed against dress codes but the hijab has special political significance in Iran because it was banned in 1936 under the Shah in an attempt to modernise the country and raise the status of women. Iran has a larger percentage of its population in the 15-29 age bracket than China but it has fallen sharply during the generation brought up since the revolution so the demographic impetus for change is far less than in 1979. For the ayatollahs and the Guard, nationalism and religious zeal came together in resisting, at huge human cost, the Iraqi invasion and is to some degree kept alive by the deep rooted hostility of the US stemming from its humiliation during the 1979 hostage crisis, its links to Saudi Arabia and by its support for Israeli expansionist and racist agenda. The younger President Bush never responded to efforts under President Khatami to improve relations and US efforts under Obama were reversed by Trump.
However, Iranians are also well enough aware of their conditions elsewhere for many to want to take big risks to force change. They know too of the mostly prosperous lives led by the 3-4 million in Iranian communities overseas, mostly originating from refugees from the revolution. Now, demonstrations may have succeeded in raising the possibility that the religious police is being taken off the street and the hijab law may be amended as rejection of its spreads. As yet there is no certainty but a wedge of change has been driven into the body politic where some degree of freedom of opinion has always existed – other than on religious symbols.
For the broader Islamic world, a successful, snowballing anti-hijab movement in Iran could be followed by countries such as Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia (particularly after the fall of Suharto) where hijab wearing was not the norm until these societies came under the influence of more radical Islam. The Iranian example roughly coincided with a flood of money and messages from oil rich Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states also promoting outward shows of religion based on their religious models. Return to the secular nationalism of the age of the likes of Sukarno and Nasser or the local traditionalist mixes of ethnicity and religion see in the Malaysia of Tunku Abdul Rahman or today in the Sultanate of Jogjakarta remains a possibility as people tire of petty restrictions and symbols imposed by all-male ideologues or made the norm in schools and government offices. From that perspective Xi and Khamenei are look-alikes and Communist Party documents and Islamic clerical fatwahs are much the same.