The New York Times

June 24, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Iran's Chinese Lessons


HONG KONG — The remarkable developments in Iran are cause for reflection in Asian countries both on past events and future stability. China has cause to think about these issues, so it is not surprising that 20 years after Tiananmen the media is being told to minimize Iran protest coverage.

For the Chinese leadership, the problems of the regime in Tehran demonstrate two principles. First, the critical importance of avoiding open splits among the ruling elite. Such a split in China, between hard-liners around Deng Xiaoping and those around Zhao Ziyang accepting the need for gradual political change, helped create the crisis that led to the bloodbath. In Iran the elite has likewise allowed itself to be divided, both by policies and personal power plays. For China, that shows the critical importance of the Communist Party as an institution which ultimately over-rides factionalism. The Iranian system lacks an equivalent party structure.

Second, the dangers of admitting that any form of democratic choice is necessary or desirable. Iran’s limited democracy may have been shown to be a sham, but the unmasking of the pretence has left the whole system in disarray. Democracy inevitably leads to personal power struggles becoming public issues. It is as incompatible with China’s concept of leadership by one party as it is with the Iranian theocratic concept of ultimate power residing in the supreme leader and the rule of Islamic jurists.

The comparison with Tiananmen leads to another question being asked in Asia. Assuming that Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hold onto power, can they restore the appearance of legitimacy of the system via the rapid economic growth and national advancement achieved by China after Tiananmen Square?

On the face of it, that looks improbable. Deng Xiaoping was always an outward-looking economic reformer as well as a political oppressor. Ahmadinejad is not. He has halted or reversed Mohammad Khatami’s tentative efforts toward a market economy and privatization of state enterprises. It is hard to imagine Ahmadinejad as anything other than a crude populist with scant understanding of economic issues. But Iran’s current leaders may well determine that economic and social liberalization — as in the case of China — can save the revolution, or at least their place in it. We have seen what China has done in the name of Communism. What somersaults might the mullahs and their military backers perform in the name of Islam?

Another event with parallels to today’s Tehran was the democratic uprising in the South Korean city of Kwangju in 1980, which followed a coup by General Chun Doo-hwan in the aftermath of the assassination of President Park Chung-hee. Though the uprising was brutally suppressed by the military, its legacy had a huge impact on the development of the democratic movement during the 1980s and its triumph in the early 1990s. But South Korean democrats had the advantage of a rapidly developing, internationally engaged industrial economy and friendly pressure from the nation’s main ally, the United States. Iran has none of those.

However, Iran does have news via the Internet, albeit restricted. It has a population which is mostly literate. It has memories, albeit of people now in their late 40s and 50s, of a revolution against the shah in which leftists and assorted secularists played as much a part as the clerics who eventually seized power. Iranians know how poorly their country has fared, despite its oil wealth, compared with Turkey. Moreover, Iran has a huge and mostly prosperous expatriate community with the potential to play as a large a role in national recovery and re-orientation as the overseas Chinese played in China.

Whatever happens next in Iran, there will be no return to the status quo. The countries of East Asia may feel remote from Iran, but the the region rightly senses that, just as it felt the waves from the Islamic Revolution in 1979, so too will it feel the ripples of what is happening in Tehran today.