Iran’s Chinese Lessons, and China’s Iran Lessons

As events continue to unfold in Tehran, observers continue to draw comparisons between the situation there and Tiananmen Square in 1989. In a commentary in the New York Times, Philip Bowring points out some lessons from the protests that Beijing is likely taking to heart:

For the Chinese leadership, the problems of the regime in Tehran demonstrate two principles. First, the critical importance of avoiding open splits among the ruling elite. Such a split in China, between hard-liners around Deng Xiaoping and those around Zhao Ziyang accepting the need for gradual political change, helped create the crisis that led to the bloodbath. In Iran the elite has likewise allowed itself to be divided, both by policies and personal power plays. For China, that shows the critical importance of the Communist Party as an institution which ultimately over-rides factionalism. The Iranian system lacks an equivalent party structure.

Second, the dangers of admitting that any form of democratic choice is necessary or desirable. Iran’s limited democracy may have been shown to be a sham, but the unmasking of the pretence has left the whole system in disarray. Democracy inevitably leads to personal power struggles becoming public issues. It is as incompatible with China’s concept of leadership by one party as it is with the Iranian theocratic concept of ultimate power residing in the supreme leader and the rule of Islamic jurists.

The comparison with Tiananmen leads to another question being asked in Asia. Assuming that Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hold onto power, can they restore the appearance of legitimacy of the system via the rapid economic growth and national advancement achieved by China after Tiananmen Square?

On Useless Tree, Sam Crane is continuing his series on Teheran and Tiananmen. Both Andrei Codrescu on NPR and Dan Rather argue that the two situations, and the period of time in which they occurred, are actually very different. And, belatedly, we link to a post from Andrew Leonard in Salon in which he wrote (on June 19th): “And so, the tweets from Tehran are breaking my heart. Because who can doubt that Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have the same iron resolve to maintain power as Deng Xiaoping did in 1989?”

In the Atlantic, James Fallow looks at Chinese media coverage of Iran and writes about why Chinese citizens are not paying more attention to events there:

One part of the narrative — a massed populace standing up against state power — is obviously anathema to Chinese authorities. And many of the other themes are also less immediate and compelling to ordinary people in China than they would be in North America, Europe, or parts of the Islamic world.
To most Westerners, everything about this story matters. It involves a people’s struggle to make their voices heard; it follows other “color revolutions” in former Soviet territories and indeed popular movements for democracy and rule of law in Asia and Latin America from the 1980s onwards; it potentially marks a crucial moment in the evolution of modern Islamic society; it can have war-and-peace implications for US foreign policy and Israeli actions; and so on. Ordinary members of the Western viewing audience feel a connection to these themes. I assert that they seem more distant to ordinary people in China — even if the themes were featured on the news. People’s own problems, and their business problems, and the country’s problems, are enough to worry about.

The Australian reports that “China limits coverage to Iran’s anti-Western rants,” (see, for example, this China Media Project post) while Evan Osnos writes off Chinese media coverage and instead looks at reactions from Chinese bloggers:

There is an engaged, relatively mainstream population that is thinking seriously about what Iran’s experience says about China. Several bloggers, for instance, are using the unrest in Iran as a way to benchmark China’s movement toward democracy. Wu Jiaxiang, an intellectual and former researcher in the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee wrote the other day:

For over ten years, Iran’s presidential elections have had turnout exceeding seventy percent, so much so that the closing hours had to be delayed until midnight. What does that show? It means that indifference towards democracy comes from the lack of democracy. There is no excuse for non-democracy.

Mao Anlin, another blogger, goes one step further:

Even Iran, such a religious country, has had so many years of elections. Candidates can squabble, the results can be questioned, the legislature can talk, and Khamenei can keep right on working. We [in China] insist on appointing every single candidate in advance, even for the chief of Macau. This is more than a little lagging behind Iran.

June 24, 2009 7:35 AM
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