I’m not ready to forecast the passing of Xi Jinping although the odds are increasing as they are for Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei of Iran. It’s about the creeping demise of dictators.
The protests throughout China seem mostly related to the zero-tolerance COVID-19 lockdowns, but question some of the protesters and the issues appear to run deeper. The symbolic blank white papers held up by protesters are metaphors for how government regulators silence protesters with their simultaneous zero-tolerance for free expression.
One sign which is spreading among protesters is a specific historical callback to Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death.” One Shanghai journalist identified vaguely as Miranda, interviewed by New York Times reporter Li Yuan, said “I think all of these things have reached a tipping point. If you don’t do anything about it you could really explode.”
Zhang Wenmin, another investigative journalist, commented on Twitter (illegally by the way in China) that she was “moved to tears by the bravery of the protesters.” And, about hearing and seeing the plaintive cry of “Give me liberty or give me death,” she said: “Amazing.”
Universities in major cities have been shut down and students sent home early as a tactic for dispersing youthful protesters. The Times reported that “some older Chinese people said that the protesters made them feel more hopeful about the country’s future.”
Exactly 78.76 degrees of longitude west in Moscow, Vladimir Putin’s small world seems to be closing in on him. Who knows for sure of his status in this enigmatic, czarist empire that pretends to be an authentic republic. But the mass exodus of intellectuals, international corporations, and young people trying to avoid conscription is not a healthy sign, along with rumors that continue to circulate about Putin’s physical health. Then there’s an economy under duress and Putin’s increasingly fragile relationship with military leaders and his fraternity of prosperously rich oligarchs.
Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, is probably suffering from the same agitating insomnia as Moscow and Beijing. Tens of thousands are protesting over restrictive policies, women’s rights, freedoms and police brutality. Protesters do so knowing the consequences may mean torture and even death. (Note: The U.S. defeat of Iran in the World Cup has likely added to his agitation.)
Once these seeds of discontent with autocracy begin to germinate they can crack rulership like roots growing through the thickest of autocratic concrete.
Yet there is a cautionary warning that hovers over these valiant protesters. Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the digital media company Rappler, warns us in her new book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator” that social media networks have and will continue to threaten and weaken democracies as long as disinformation continues to spawn. Authoritarian dictators have become adept at weaponizing social media, spewing disinformation in ways that suffocate truth with lies and promote social chaos, division and hate.
Ressa knows. For exposing and highlighting former president Duterte as a violent, corrupt and brutal leader, she was indicted and remains under seven criminal charges in the Philippines for her reporting.
I have railed against the dark sides of social media on many occasions, yet social media can also be a trumpet for truth, or better yet, a gas that can permeate concrete walls and the thickest thickets of media censorship. It’s the kryptonite to all strongmen rulers with the potential to bring them to their knees.
The balance of power between authoritarian rule and democratic governance may depend on how successful nations can be in neutralizing the weaponization of disinformation and hate that stream with lightning speed through the ether of the internet. How to do this and honor free speech is the challenge.
Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine is democracy’s “stand your ground” moment of our times. For those whose commitment of support for Ukraine is weakening, we need to remember that for these heroic citizens in Ukraine, in China, and in Iran, this is their “Give me liberty or give me death” moment. If we believe in the fundamental essence of democracy and of the liberating essence of liberty, we must support these intrepid soldiers of freedom in their emancipation from authoritarian rule. We must not waver one scintilla, or succumb to indifference.
The creeping demise of dictators is the essential political development of our time. As the world’s historic exemplar of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we need to support these relentless citizen-soldiers of liberty. This is our defining moment as well. For us, the underlying motivation and physiology is quite simple. We share our forefathers’ DNA.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.