Revolution: Will Asia Be Next?
Many analysts have noted that China has some of the characteristics that have led to uprisings across the Middle East in recent weeks: a stultified political culture; endemic corruption and ruling elite cronyism; growing economic inequality; and rising expectations, particularly among educated urban youth who are struggling to realize them. The ruling regime faces increasingly difficult public policy trade-offs in the chase to maintain sufficient economic growth to preserve legitimacy without resorting to naked nationalism or coercion.
The perception is growing—fed by an increasing number of arrests and harsh treatment of dissidents, lawyers and other activists—that the party-state is intensifying coercion to deal with dissenting voices it perceives as threatening to its rule. But it’s doing so in a wired world: urban areas of China have a high level of Internet and mobile connectivity, and China is an increasingly wired economy with a citizenry that’s able to publicize local events on a national level at a speed previously unimagined. The increasing willingness—and ability—of Chinese citizens to publicly spoof and mock their leaders demonstrates a palpable diminution of fear. It’s something that should alarm those leaders.
By Kelley Currie
While the extreme overreaction to the so-called Jasmine Revolution Sunday ‘strolls’ is not the behaviour of a confident government, Beijing still has a number of things working in its favour. Economic growth continues to hide all manner of ills and gives the regime a substantial cushion. In addition, opinion surveys continue to show that the Chinese people are remarkably positive about the future of the country and their own outlook. Because the central authorities have been very effective in channelling popular discontent toward local authorities, the Chinese people largely don’t connect their quotidian grievances about corruption, lawlessness and inequity with the existential nature of the national political system. Rotation of top leaders also serves as a safety valve from personalization of autocracy.
While censorship in China is grating, it’s also extremely sophisticated—constantly walking the line to control the flow of information in a way that protects the party-state’s interests without provoking the ire of the general public. The half life of Chinese leadership legitimacy has been decreasing since Mao, but China’s robust economy and relatively savvy authoritarianism mean that it isn’t eroding fast enough to vault China into the category of states that are presently ripe for revolution.
By Kelley Currie, Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia
Could the Jasmine Revolutions sweeping the Middle East change North Korea? It is possible. Libya’s revolution is more applicable to North Korea than those in Egypt and Tunisia. Col. Gaddafi was much harsher than his other counterparts and censorship in Libya was more pervasive than in other countries where revolutions have sprung up. He may not be quite as brutal as Kim Jong-il, but his willingness to crush any political dissent wasn’t far behind. So the fact that, despite this, information got around and pro-democracy ideas took hold, is encouraging for those hoping for an end to Kim. It’s also noteworthy how parts of the Libyan military rapidly turned on the regime, despite the lack of any detectable level of dissent beforehand.
With North Korea, this raises the hope that a revolution could succeed without Kim having first to lose support across the board with Pyongyang’s elite. A revolt by some of the population and some military units refusing to follow orders might be enough for major parts of the North Korean military to ditch Kim. Finally, it’s hard not to notice some comparisons between Gaddafi and his son, Mubarak and his son, and Kim Jong-il and his recently anointed heir. Transitions to feckless children don’t inspire either the broad population or the generals, apparently.
By Christian Whiton
Working against the possibility of a revolution in North Korea is the control over information Kim Jong-il still possesses. While North Korea has become more porous to information over the last decade, it doesn’t yet have the relative external exposure to ideas and facts that even the most closed parts of the Middle East have. This separation from the benefits of free societies can delay revolution.
Also, economic factors like high food prices were part of the original catalyst to Middle East revolutions. Privation is far worse in North Korea, but the population has been abused for so long, and suffered so much, that continued or elevated hardship may not have the shock effect it did in the Middle East. Still, as has been demonstrated by Beijing’s obvious concern that Jasmine Revolutions may spread, none of the remaining dictators of East Asia should breathe too easy. Democratic governments ought to work to pressure these dictatorships.
By Christian Whiton. He was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration and was deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea. He is a principal at DC International Advisory.
As one of the world’s least developed countries, and home to an exceptionally brutal military regime, Burma often seems like a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Once the ‘rice bowl of Asia’ and the country with the region’s highest literacy rate, Burma is now a socio-economic basket-case with a crumbling infrastructure, hollowed out educational facilities, and a grim public health system. The Burmese military junta rules with an iron fist, while plundering the country’s abundant natural resources to create a ‘state within the state’ that doles out generous benefits and services to itself while the rest of Burma’s population struggles under its predations. Nearly a dozen ethnic nationalities have taken up arms against the central government at some point over the past 20 years, with most now engaged in uneasy ceasefire arrangements that could fall apart at any time. After holding fraudulent elections in November 2010, the regime is currently engaged in a farcical transition to self-styled ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ that consists largely of the generals switching from military to civilian garb. The democratic opposition is led by the charismatic Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s national hero, whose National League for Democracy won the country’s last credible elections in 1990. She has maintained a broad popular following despite spending most of the past 15 years under house arrest. By Kelley Currie
Suu Kyi has often noted that fear is the main factor that keeps people from throwing off dictatorship, and the Burmese people have good reason to be afraid of their leaders. The democratic opposition has launched several peaceful protest movements, but the regime has shown no hesitation to fire live rounds at unarmed civilians—including the highly respected Buddhist monks who led the 2007 mass protests. Despite nearly two decades of Western financial and moral support (including broad-ranging sanctions), Suu Kyi sits today atop a weak and fractious democratic movement, large parts of which have been driven underground. Mobile phones are relatively rare; Internet connectivity is low and tightly controlled; and media censorship is of the extreme Soviet variety where publications must obtain pre-publication approval from the authorities. Burma’s xenophobic military regime—led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe—is deeply paranoid about pollution from outside influences, but enjoys vital external support from neighbouring Asian powers including China, India and Thailand. This support, together with the junta’s crushing brutality and indifference to the plight of the Burmese people, has sustained an unloved, illegitimate regime that nobody will miss when it’s gone. By Kelley Currie, a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia.
Kazakhstan shares several salient characteristics with many Arab states. The current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has ruled since the Soviet era and shows no sign of giving up power any time soon. Nearly all media is controlled by the state, and 100 percent of current members of parliament are in Nazarbayev's party. State control over the country's enormous oil and natural gas wealth has engendered a corrupt elite that live lavishly while much of the country is still poor and underdeveloped. A growing middle class, however, is getting exposed to the outside world and Western education and could as a result be developing aspirations of a more open political system. Nazarbayev's rhetoric places Kazakhstan among European states, while its political system is obviously more restrictive, perhaps creating expectations of liberalization that he will be unable or unwilling to fulfill. By Joshua Kucera.
While Kazakhstan is still poor and undeveloped, it’s getting visibly better, and doesn’t suffer from the stagnation that Arab states do. A genuine middle class has developed, and Kazakhstan's economy is the envy of its fellow Central Asian states. It’s even the destination for migrant workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Opinion polls regularly show overwhelming support for Nazarbayev: a US-conducted poll in 2010 showed that 91 percent of Kazakhstan’s citizens approve of his rule. For now, economic success has resulted in political indifference. Even the country's geography conspires against revolution: the newly built capital, Astana, is nearly 1000 miles from the biggest city and opposition centre, Almaty. Should unrest start to brew, all the government would have to do would be to suspend flights and trains to Astana, and so it would be prohibitively difficult to get there to protest.
By Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is a regular contributor to U.S. News and World Report, Slate and EurasiaNet.
Uzbekistan's political system is repressive even by Central Asian standards. And, like Egyptians with the Arab world, people in Uzbekistan consider their country to be the centre of Central Asia, but a place that has fallen in stature because of its repressive environment. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, has (like Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev) ruled since the Soviet era, and allows virtually no political dissent. Unlike in Kazakhstan, its economy has failed to grow, leaving Uzbekistanis—except for a tiny elite—with few economic prospects. Discontent over poor living conditions boiled over in 2005, when in the eastern city of Andijan public protests were violently broken up by government security forces, killing unknown hundreds.
But the situation has gotten no better since then. Food prices are high (as in Kazakhstan) forcing families to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on sustenance, frequently a trigger for anti-government protests. And state-controlled media in Uzbekistan has barely covered the recent events in the Middle East (and when it has, it has portrayed them negatively, as creating the potential for radical Islamists to come to power). Clearly, the government in Tashkent believes that the Arab world could be an inspiration to its own people to rise up.
By Joshua Kucera
The violent crackdown in Andijan demonstrated that the government won’t tolerate serious demonstrations, and so most ordinary Uzbekistan citizens will consider it too risky to join large protests. Karimov also has increasingly sidelined the small community of democracy and human rights activists, and evicted the international organizations that used to support them, so the organizational capacity of would-be anti-government agitators is limited.
Many young men work as migrant labourers in Kazakhstan or Russia, giving the government a release valve for a potentially restive population. And to whatever extent the Internet and social media helped organizers for the protests in the Middle East, the government of Uzbekistan has shown that it’s willing and able to heavily restrict internet access—and it could do so even more heavily in a crisis situation.
By Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is a regular contributor to U.S. News and World Report, Slate and EurasiaNet.
In Iran, three separate strands of opposition to the Iranian regime are active. The first is the so-called Green Movement, a clergy-led reformist group that emerged in the late 1990s, twice elected Mohammad Khatami as president with an overwhelming majority—even among members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and then led strong protests in 2009, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The second is a pragmatic, business-class force, whose leader is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which wants better relations with the West and an end to economic sanctions. And the third is a secular, overtly anti-clerical group, mostly middle class, that rejects the very idea of an Islamic republic. Reinvigorated now by the Arab revolt, from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to the Gulf states and Iraq, these forces are trying to make their impact felt in the streets once again. Were they to be joined by labour unions, such as oil and transport workers, and by the merchant class that controls Iran’s urban bazaars, they conceivably could bring down the regime or, at the very least, force Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to throw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overboard. By Robert Dreyfuss
In Iran, three separate strands of opposition to the Iranian regime are active. The first is the so-called Green Movement, a clergy-led reformist group that emerged in the late 1990s, twice elected Mohammad Khatami as president with an overwhelming majority—even among members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and then led strong protests in 2009, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The second is a pragmatic, business-class force, whose leader is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which wants better relations with the West and an end to economic sanctions. And the third is a secular, overtly anti-clerical group, mostly middle class, that rejects the very idea of an Islamic republic. Reinvigorated now by the Arab revolt, from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to the Gulf states and Iraq, these forces are trying to make their impact felt in the streets once again. Were they to be joined by labour unions, such as oil and transport workers, and by the merchant class that controls Iran’s urban bazaars, they conceivably could bring down the regime or, at the very least, force Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to throw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad overboard. By Robert Dreyfuss, an independent, investigative journalist in the Washington, D.C, area. He writes frequently for The Nation, Rolling Stone, and other publications. His blog, The Dreyfuss Report, appears at TheNation.com.
The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have ignited suggestions of something similar taking place in Pakistan. The strength of this idea was evident in a web-based poll conducted by a newspaper recently on the likelihood of Pakistan following in Egypt’s footsteps: nearly two-thirds said it was likely. Despite the official claims that poverty has been cut, it has actually increased over the last decade, and is now impacting the middle classes. Combined with population growth and increased food prices, citizens are finding life difficult. Against this backdrop, the country has also experienced a resurgence of the struggle between orthodox-conservative elements and those subscribing to liberal notions of Pakistan’s Islamic identity. Though not a new phenomenon, the struggle appears to have taken on a more sinister turn in the last year, exemplified by the assassinations of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who both supported amending the blasphemy law. These divisions aren’t restricted to broad issues of Islamic identity—they also encompass debates on the appropriate structures for an Islamic state, the rights of citizens (including women and religious minorities), and the appropriate policy towards the West. By Samina Yasmeen
However, the constellation of forces and ideas in the country would still make it difficult to realize revolution, at least among the elite classes who read English daily newspapers. Although the common problems experienced by many Pakistanis could have formed the basis for a united front against the government (or others who have held power in Pakistan), the debates on the nature of Pakistan’s identity make it difficult for a coherent movement to form that could follow the Middle Eastern model. This isn’t to completely rule out such a possibility, but the obstacles are greater than the possibilities. By Samina Yasmeen, Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies and lectures in Political Science and International Relations in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia in Perth.