What looked like the steady and inevitable advance of dictatorial regimes around the globe suddenly doesn’t seem so inexorable anymore. Four of the “Big Five” planetary despots—China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and America’s wannabe despot, Donald Trump (the fifth is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un)—are suddenly on the defensive. Each one of these autocrats has recently been stunned by a triggering event, the eventual outcome of which is uncertain but nevertheless revealing of their inherent weaknesses and threatening their long-term survivability.
Xi’s mishandling of Covid-19 has suddenly come back to bite him. What began as protests against his draconian Covid lockdown policy, now into its third year, has spread from factory to university and from Shanghai in the east to Urumqi in the far west. Because ideas spread like wildfire in the social media age, the idea of freedom and democracy has emerged from what began as a protest against a specific government policy to questioning the very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist dictatorship and Xi’s presidency. The inevitable brutal crackdown by Xi’s thugs may stifle the protests, but the resistance germ is not likely to be forgotten. Xi is in a tough spot. If he relaxes the lockdown policy, many more people will contract Covid in a country where the domestically-produced vaccines are not very effective and where the vaccination rate is low. Anger is spreading faster than Covid, and Xi has no vaccine for that.
What began almost three months ago as an anti-government protest by Iran’s Kurdish minority against the death of young Mahsa Amini for not adequately covering her hair with a hijab quickly morphed into a demand for regime change prompted by women who could no longer tolerate their second-class status. Government suppression has been ruthless, but the protesters remain undeterred. The deaths of more than 500 protesters, including 40 children, have only incited more protests and greater demands for freedom and democracy.
Vladimir Putin’s horrific aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s numerous war crimes against the civilian population have thus far ignited only sporadic protests inside Russia. However, the more body bags that are returned to families who have lost loved ones to Putin’s butchery, the more likely it is that the Russian people will clamor for not only an end to his Ukrainian adventure, but also for an end to Putin. Moreover, the example of Ukraine’s heroic resistance to a dictator is inspiring people in China and Iran to question their own despotic regimes.
It is a sad commentary on the state of the Republican Party and the evangelical movement that the only reason they appear to be moving away, albeit ever so meekly, from Donald Trump is because his most ardent MAGA candidate/election deniers got stomped in the midterm elections. Neither his cruelty, his incompetence, his lack of a moral core, nor his reprehensible behavior was sufficient to warrant his denunciation by his adherents. Nevertheless, we should applaud any reason for his loss of support. It is ironic that while the American MAGAverse yearns for autocracy, the Chinese, Iranians and a growing number of Russians yearn for democracy.
This all may be premature, but my sense is that something is happening now that is encouraging for the forces of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. In an age when controlling people-to-people communication is increasingly difficult for repressive regimes (China cut off World Cup broadcasts because people could see tens of thousands of mask-less spectators crammed into stadiums), the days of tyrants may be limited. The center of gravity appears to be moving toward democracy.
December 2, 2022