Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.
It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)
As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.
What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.
I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.
I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.
I think the New York Times phrased this “apology” exactly right.
Apology: In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.
Personally, I’m quite sure that Lee Hsien Loong achieved his post entirely on the basis of merit, and that the fact that his father, Lee Kuan Yew, was the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, dominated its politics for 40 years, and still carries the title “Minister Mentor” has nothing to do with it. Further, I don’t think the above item in the NY Times has anything to do with the fact that in Singapore, organizations that publish unflattering things about people who happen to be related to the Prime Minister, and who often themselves happen to hold important offices in government, tend to get sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And I think that to suggest that this system represents a privatized sophisticated commercial-law version of the types of oppression of free expression that exist in, say, Communist dictatorships would be completely inaccurate and quite probably libelous under Singapore law.
Whilst recently leafing through the back issues of the now sadly defunct the eXile, I stumbled across this opinion piece by Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned Russian National Bolshevik party and all-round odd-ball, and was particularly struck by this passage:
What should I say? They have forgotten what mighty force are the people. They think they can manipulate our political system and our lives. A small group of comrades from St. Petersburg, untalented and unconvincing small men, following the luck of one of their own. They think they are our masters. But they have been picked up by the most hated figure in Russian history, by Boris Yeltsin. It was no miracle whatsoever. They were just picked up, not arriving at the top of Russian society by the force of mind and talent, no.
Is this true? To what degree does Russia’s current generation of leaders owe their positions to Boris Yeltsin, “the most hated figure in Russian history”? Has the Putin era been a continuation of the Yeltsin era but with higher-priced oil? Is the narrative offered by writers like Michael McFaul of a “democratic rollback” under Putin as compared to Yeltsin simply wrong?
Boris Yeltsin came to power in the wake of the failed August coup of 1991. Whilst Russia’s economic performance during the nineties was lamentable, the degree to which Yeltsin could have done anything to prevent this considering the inevitable turmoil of the post-Soviet space is debatable, although the general consensus is that what was done in the way of economic policy was an utter failure. What we may be much more sure of is Yeltsin’s record as a democrat, and what we see is that it was dubious in the extreme. From the secret dealings involved in the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the assumption of unconstitutional powers to push through economic reform, to the use of military force to destroy both his opponents in the Russian White House and in Chechnya, to his alleged rigging of the 1996 election, to his final act of anointing his successor, there was little sign of any deep commitment to democracy. For each of Putin’s acts of autocracy there appears to have been an equivalent, if less effective or decisive act by Yeltsin. The main difference between Yeltsin and Putin seems to have been the relative efficiency and effectiveness of the latter, who also benefited from ruling over a country where expectations had become very low indeed. Far from ‘rollback’ of democracy, what we have seen is entrenchment of autocracy.
The line on the Xinjiang disturbances from the Chinese government, whilst initially dabbling with a condemnation of terrorism, has coalesced around the narrative of ‘foreign forces’ interfering with China and the ‘three evils’ of ‘separatism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, just as it did after last year’s riots in Tibet. Just as with last year’s events ‘evidence’ has been produced showing how the entire thing was organised by the World Uyghur Congress, of which Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur businesswoman, is the head. The evidence produced so far would seem to point to the WUC having communicated with people in Xinjiang before the initial demonstrations and encouraged them. Whilst I’m sure this will convince a lot of people in China, at least to the extent that the government can convince people of anything, there is an obvious difference between ‘demonstrations’ and ‘violent riots leading to the deaths of innocent people’ , more to the point, large scale demonstrations (such as in 1997) have taken place without any foreign involvement whatsoever.
In fact, there’s good reason to doubt that exiled movements can have that much of an impact on circumstances within a dictatorship. Whilst the Tibetan devotees of lamaist Buddhism continue to follow and obey the current Dalai Lama, he owes much of his influence (as did Khomeini pre-1979) on his position as a religious leader. In contrast, the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests are nowadays either unknown or largely reviled within China. When ethnic-Uyghur 1989 student leader and “China’s second most wanted” Wu’er Kaixi (for some reason he prefers to use his Uighur name as transcribed in Chinese characters) attempted to return to the mainland last year he was refused entry. Some might ascribe this to the desire to avoid giving him a public platform or to avoid an open breach with Taiwan where he has now taken up citizenship, but given the way such trials take place in secret another explanation presents itself – that he is more useful to the Chinese authorities where he is.
It is exceedingly easy for a dictatorial government to smear a person as being a foreign puppet when their first move on being pushed into exile is to go directly to a country which is a hated enemy and rely on funding from either the government of that country or from an NGO (such as the NED) which may or may not receive government funding, and provides grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists. The fact that these people did not choose to go into exile, that few countries would allow them entry, and that they had no resources to rely on in that country, are not communicated to public. Even those exiles who decide to avoid politics may still be useful in government propaganda. 1989 student leader Chai Ling now runs a software firm in the US with her husband, and has enjoyed a level of success not unexpected for someone who got into one of China’s top universities. Pro-government commenters nowadays emphasise her enrichment in the US and abandonment of the democracy movement.
Even where an anti-government movement gains traction inside a dictatorship, this is often little to do with the efforts of exiles. As Chinese exile Wan Runnan wrote about a visit to Poland after the fall of communism there:
“we asked Solidarity Union friends a stupid question: When the Polish military government began suppression, a number of dissidents went into exile overseas. What did these people do in the latter changes inside Poland? They replied without any pause: Nothing whatsoever. Then they sensed our embarrassment and consoled us: “Those exiles served some purpose because they gave us some fax machines and stuff.” . . . . I was aware of the effect of overseas democratic movement very early on. I met Dai Qing (戴晴) overseas and she said: “You do not have a place in the future change in China.” I replied: Yes. The change in China is like a chemical reaction with reagents and products. We are just the temperature, pressure and catalyst that bring about this chemical reaction and we do not have a position in the final product.”
Recent events in Xinjiang show the truth of this, whilst it is possible that the Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC were the driving force behind the demonstrations, all the evidence that we have shows that the initial demonstrations were carried out by university students organised by their lecturers. Whilst it is impossible for me to confirm this, a long-time Xinjiang resident friend of mine described the subsequent riots as being the work of “scumbags from outlying areas who move to Urumqi after being slung out of their towns and villages”. The fact that the demonstrations took place in Urumqi only would also point to the WUC not actually being the driving force of these demonstrations, subsequent demonstrations at other towns appear to have been in response to the crackdown, especially the closing of mosques. Should the Iranian government succeed in running Mousavi overseas a similar dynamic is likely to take over.
Matthew Yglesias had an uncharacteristically weird post yesterday on the #iranelections uprising as part of the old “end of history” thesis:
The geographical scope in which Shi’a Islamism and velayat-e faqih could possibly become the dominant form of government is obviously pretty limited because there aren’t that many Shia Muslims in the world. But despite that limit the Islamic Revolution represented the only real example I think you could come up with of a true ideological alternative to liberal democracy in the world. And part of what we’ve seen over the past several weeks is the collapse of that alternative.
I don’t understand where China is supposed to sit in this narrative. Clearly, the Chinese model of a dominant ruling party which essentially professionalizes the business of government and hands it over to a self-selecting and to some extent meritocratic elite, while dramatically restricting the ability of the populace to participate in politics and limiting freedom of expression and assembly in order to ensure stability, is an “alternative” to the liberal democratic model. And it is, so far, a quite successful alternative.
What Yglesias might be saying is that the Chinese model is not an “ideological alternative” because the actual structure of the regime is not determined by a clearly articulated ideology. The supposed ideology the regime embraces, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist stuff, is (on this view) not actually believed by anyone, while the real rationale that structures the political system is only explicitly stated in analyses by foreign observers, not by the regime itself. But I think this view, if it is the view Yglesias takes, is wrong. The philosophy that undergirds the structure of the Chinese regime is part of a millennia-old Confucian tradition in much the same way that liberal democracy partakes of the millennia-old Greek tradition. This philosophy has absorbed Marxism in much the mushy and indeterminate way that Buddhism was folded into a Confucian tradition, after temporarily becoming the official state ideology in the Tang dynasty.
The Chinese philosophy of governance is hard to understand and encapsulate for Westerners in large measure because the Confucian tradition of writing and argument is quite dissimilar from the Western tradition, and doesn’t involve as much rigid logical elaboration, so we often can’t figure out what they’re saying. But the underlying precepts are quite consistent and come up over and over when one gets into political arguments. One might argue that because it’s so deeply embedded in Chinese or East Asian culture, this model of governance is not exportable (beyond East Asia, anyway) and thus doesn’t represent an “ideological alternative”. But I think this isn’t quite true, either. There are elements of the Chinese approach to governance that can be embraced by many countries. I’ve heard Ethiopians say that their government seems to be trying to reshape its structure into a Chinese-style single-party mandarinate, under the influence of Chinese success. And, of course, liberal democracy is deeply imbricated in a Western European cultural inheritance and has for this reason been very difficult for many non-European countries to embrace.
In fact, the Iranian political model might be described as a variant of the Chinese one, with the mullahs and the Guardian Council as the moral/ideological “parallel structure”, instead of the Communist Party. (Remember that the Iranian revolution was a late-70s anti-colonialist revolution with plenty of Marxist participation.) The weakness of the Iranian system is probably that because of its fundamentalist religious character, it is proving less adaptable to consumerist capitalism, feminism, and other forms of social change than the Communist Chinese system. Then again, the Iranian problem might simply be that Iran suffers from a resource curse, while China doesn’t.
But the main point is that I think the Chinese ideological challenge to liberal democracy is pretty strong. Let’s take an example. Broadly speaking, Western liberal democracy takes the view that individuals are the best judges of their own interests, and that a society that leaves them to pursue those interests will mostly arrive at greater wealth and happiness for everyone. Confucian political systems take the view that individuals, left to themselves, will engage in destructive feuds and be seduced by charlatans into ruinous schemes, and that every society needs a well-educated class of wise men who have a solemn responsibility to protect harmony and the general welfare. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which of these views seems more plausible relevant?
That’s a pretty strong ideological challenge, no?
Reihan Salam argues the US should impose sanctions on Iran and refuse negotiations, rather than negotiating with a post-#iranelections Ahmadinejad regime if it is in US interests (as Daniel Larison suggests), because:
I agree with Larison that the Iranian regime values survival above all else, and I even agree that a policy of not interfering with Iran’s internal affairs makes a nuclear deal (faintly) possible. I happen to think that there is a better achievable outcome, a la post-1994 South Africa.
The shortest explanation of why this is wrong is that the apartheid regime was bitterly opposed by the great majority of the people it ruled, whom it oppressed and excluded from power by virtue of their skin color. Its collapse was inevitable. 5 million white people could not indefinitely continue to rule over 20 million black people and 5 million colored ones. The Islamic Republican system, however, is not bitterly opposed by the majority of people over whom it rules, and there is no clear reason why a hybrid theocratic-democratic government should not persist indefinitely in a country where only a minority of citizens are clearly secularist. All of the candidates for President in Iran support the Islamic Republican system.
There are numerous other crucial reasons why South Africa sanctions made sense and Iran sanctions don’t. Briefly:
1. The decision-making elite in South Africa were a Western-oriented international business class; punishing them by cutting off access to the West was an effective targeted sanction.
2. Oil is a lot more important than gold and diamonds. Especially to China.
3. The external “others” for South African whites were black Africa and Communism. Sanctions imposed by the white capitalist West were like an intervention by family — very convincing. The external “other” for Iran is the US and Europe. The US sanctioning Iran is like the USSR sanctioning apartheid South Africa — not very convincing.
4. It is not clear what the US would demand as a condition to lift the sanctions. What do we want here? A rerun of the elections, with foreign monitors? How does that work, exactly? A non-Islamic regime? Foolhardy to make such a demand.
5. The US had no pressing business in southern Africa, and could afford to engage in a foreign policy based on principles. The Middle East is a powderkeg and we have a lot of other important goals there.
The upshot is that further US sanctions on Iran and a refusal to negotiate over nuclear weapons won’t force a South African-style transition to democracy. That is not going to be the way things play out.
Hamid Dabashi makes an interesting point in the NYT today (via Andrew Sullivan natch): that the Iranian students seem less like revolutionaries than like civil rights protestors. But I think much the same could have been said of the crowds that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Dabashi:
To me this was a post-ideological generation, evidently cured of the most traumatic memories of its parental generation, from the C.I.A.-sponsored coup of 1953 to the Islamic revolution of 1979. The dominant political parameters of third world socialism, anticolonial nationalism, and militant Islamism that divided my generation of Iranians seem to me to have lost all validity in this generation. I see the moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime….If I am correct in this reading, we should not expect an imminent collapse of the regime. These young Iranians are not out in the streets seeking to topple the regime for they lack any military wherewithal to do so, and they are alien to any militant ideology that may push them in that direction. It seems to me that these brave young men and women have picked up their hand-held cameras to shoot those shaky shots, looking in their streets and alleys for their Martin Luther King.
It seems, from a distance, to be true that the Iranian protestors are motivated not by revolutionary ardor but by a demand for normalcy. But that was also precisely the case with the crowds, young and old, who tore down the Berlin Wall and swept away the Soviet Bloc regimes in ’89, and later with the nonviolent revolutions in Serbia and Ukraine. They, too, were post-ideological; what they wanted was to live in a “normal” country, where normalcy was defined as a liberal democracy with a mixed economy and guarantees of individual rights.
The problem was that the states they lived in, as they were then structured, could not accommodate the demand for normalcy. It was the abnormality of the state that made them into revolutionaries. The question is whether the Iranian state can find a way to reform itself to accommodate its people’s needs, or whether it will continue to make revolutionaries of anyone who desires a normal society.