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Perspective: The autocrats’ dilemma

Regimes play a dangerous game when they forget that millions of outraged people can move the world under their feet

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Protesters hold candles as they march in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.

Protesters hold candles as they march in Beijing on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Protesters angered by strict anti-virus measures called for China’s powerful leadership to resign, an unprecedented rebuke as authorities in at least eight cities struggled to suppress demonstrations Sunday that represent a rare direct challenge to the ruling Communist Party.

Ng Han Guan, Associated Press

The churn of the U.S. news cycle and coverage of the World Cup has largely obscured that the mass demonstrations are still ongoing. These uprisings will probably not result in regime change in the near term, but they are certainly setting the stage for future change. Indeed, autocrats always find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: how far can they go in exerting control over the population before even those prepared to be loyal begin to revolt?

The latest wave of unrest in Iran is, if anything, overdue. You’d have to go back to the so-called Green Revolution of 2009 to find the last demonstrations of this scale. They began in Tehran in June 2009 after the election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and they spread across the country, seemingly without organization. They finally petered out amid increasing government brutality in February 2010, just 10 months before the Arab Spring uprisings began. 

Almost 13 years later, the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement is even larger and more widespread than the Green Revolution was. Sparked by the death in September of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who was assaulted by Iran’s morality police for improper hijab, the protests have spread far beyond young adults and include younger teens, workers such as truck drivers, and even the elderly. Some organizations are reporting the regime has killed hundreds of Iranian citizens thus far, and still the protests have not substantially died down.

The world saw the Iranian soccer team refuse to sing its national anthem at the World Cup match against England, then saw the players’ families threatened, causing them to sing at the next match. 

And, oh, the bravery of the Iranian women! They have cut their hair in solidarity with the protesters and are refusing to be intimidated about wearing the hijab. One young Iranian woman in Tehran explained the new attitude:

“People try to ignore the hijab law when they can where they can. As far as I’ve seen it’s on the rise and as many as four out of 10 women on main streets don’t have their heads covered. Many friends have said that it is extremely stressful, but they try to keep doing it. The forces are ignoring it mainly because they can’t afford to go after everyone. Some more courageous ones even pass the forces without a hijab [in the central square].”


In this photo taken by an individual not employed by The Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, Iranians protests the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, Oct. 1, 2022. In a report published by The Iranian student news agency, Nezamoddin Mousavi, an Iranian lawmaker said Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, that Iran’s government was ‘‘paying attention to the people’s real demands,’’ a day after another key official announced that the country’s religious police force had been closed following months of deadly anti-government protests.

Middle East Images, Associated Press

The Iranian autocrats are sitting very uncomfortably right on the horns of that dilemma. If they crack down too hard, even those who otherwise could be counted on to remain silent will rise against them. (There were reports over the weekend that the morality police would be disbanded, although that has not been confirmed.)

If they don’t crack down hard enough, however, they will lose power and that loss will be swift and unforgiving — as it was for the regime of the shah in 1979. And so women dare the regime to cross the line; to the extent the regime holds back, a new bargain is struck between the rulers and the ruled.

A similar dynamic is playing out in China. One wonders if modern autocrats have themselves seen the footage of Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, when protesters blocked the Changan road with trucks and buses to stop the tanks from coming into central Beijing. Thirty-three years ago in China, it was young adults, workers, children and the elderly who united. Now, yet again, new coalitions of protesters are forming against the “zero-COVID” stance, which some are protesting as inhumane. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in major cities, PCR tests are required every two to three days to be allowed to move in public, even for buying groceries. If there is a positive test, then the individual can be sent to a quarantine facility.

If there is no room in such facilities, then the individual’s entire “residential community” is put under lockdown for 14 days, which can be rolled forward if others in the building subsequently test positive. This can be an entire apartment building, with hundreds of units, and the exits can be padlocked. Authorities are supposed to bring food for the people in the building, but there are stories of insufficient food and starvation. In a recent case in Xinjiang, firefighters were not allowed near an apartment building in lockdown, and people perished in the flames.

Given that the Chinese people can see that the rest of the world is no longer locked down — especially obvious at the World Cup — pushback was inevitable. Experts believe the protests are unprecedented in this century in terms of how widespread they are and how intense they have become. The videos are shocking. What struck me is that the protesters’ anthem is the Chinese national anthem, which begins, “Stand up, all ye who refuse to be slaves!” 

The government in China thus also finds itself on the horns of that autocrats’ dilemma. There are new reports that major cities are starting to ease their restrictions. But it now appears that protests are not just about COVID-19; the protesters have progressed to holding up blank pieces of paper to push back against censorship.

Leaders must never forget that hundreds of millions of “powerless” people can move the earth under the feed of the elite and powerful. And those that placed their faith in technology to make control of the masses a simple matter now have a lot to reconsider.

In the end, “life finds a way” and always will.

Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.