[Viewpoint] The ideals of the Arab Spring

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[Viewpoint] The ideals of the Arab Spring

The Irish and the would-be Irish celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last week throughout the world - except in Shanghai.

Are there Irishmen in Shanghai? Of course! Just as there are Irishmen in Seoul, many of them with Korean blood - notional rather than birthright Irishmen.

But the Korean Irish got to march in a parade honoring the blessed saint. The Chinese Irish did not. Their march was canceled after Chinese authorities got the jitters.

This is the fallout of the Arab Spring that has roiled the Middle East. Dictators on the other side of the world, it turns out, are so rattled that they cannot even countenance 2,000 happy Irishmen marching together.

Oh, the Chinese are clever. Watching events across North Africa, they have noticed that in Tunisia and Egypt, the Army was not unleashed against the pro-democracy protesters, and that in Libya and Bahrain, military force was called out.

The result: two victories for democracy (Tunisia and Egypt) and two for bloody repression, if not civil war (Libya and Bahrain).

Both China’s government and its liberal reformers, mostly based outside China, noticed this phenomenon. Both remembered 1989, when only military force dispersed the Tiananmen Square protests. And both came to the same conclusion - only gentle means will liberalize China.

Gentle means. Using Internet social media, the reformers invited Chinese to “stroll” in parks and on avenues on Sunday afternoons. “No shouting or slogans, just walking and smiling,” read one post. “We invite every participant to stroll, watch or even pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear.”

And sure enough, the authorities are shaking with the fear that always underlies totalitarian rule. The rulers prate bombastically about “social harmony” (China) or “stability” (Egypt) or “proletarian solidarity” (the former Soviet Union), but at the bottom the totalitarians know that they rule without the people’s consent, and so they fear the people, fear that one day the people will stand up and say, “Who the hell are you to rule us?”

To forestall this day, the dictators try to shift their fear, to make the people afraid. Such was the history of Stalin’s Russia, of Hitler’s Germany, of Mao’s China, of South Korea’s Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo-hwan, of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. Fearful people must obey, until the mystique of fear is lost and they refuse to obey.

The fearful - paranoid? - Chinese government is striking back by attempting to strike fear into foreigners in China.

The St. Patrick’s Day march sponsors were harassed into canceling their march. A popular McDonald’s in Beijing was closed down. Journalists were threatened with loss of their credentials - or worse - if they witness the “strolls” and interview or photograph strolling Chinese.

In news reports, an anonymous diplomat said: “We’ve noticed that a somewhat larger number of our cultural and educational programs around China are being postponed or canceled, but we have not been notified by Chinese authorities of any specific reason.”

No mass protests have yet occurred in China. But the English cliche “nip it in the bud” apparently has a counterpart in Chinese. Why let demonstrations start? They will be harder to stamp out later.

Three summary observations:

“Strolling” really can destabilize a regime. Some 25 years ago in East Germany, a few Christians began gathering to pray for peace in the Leipzig Nikolaikirche. The regime recognized the threat, but how can you crack the skulls of worshipers praying for peace?

The gatherings grew. Soldiers from the security police were ordered to infiltrate these meetings, sometimes occupying two-thirds of the seats in the massive sanctuary. Eventually, so many people gathered that there was no room for them in the church, so they stood in the square outside, holding candles to show that they were unarmed.

Soon enough, the regime became demoralized. The Berlin Wall was breached in 1989 without a shot being fired. Communism evaporated. The Cold War ended.

The Chinese authorities are right to fear the strollers.

Second observation:

Some years ago American intellectual circles were divided among adherents of Francis Fukuyama, who held that “The End of History” vindicated liberal democracy as the only viable political system; and those of Samuel Huntington, who forecast a “Clash of Civilizations” - Western, Chinese, Muslim and others.

After the terrorist attacks of 10 years ago and since, it has been fashionable to say that Huntington was right, and Fukuyama was merely a Cold War triumphalist. After all, did not Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew elucidate distinctive “Asian values” that grew not from Western soil?

To give Lee some due, Western and Asian values are not congruent at every point. But events of the past two months have proved him and Huntington wrong on the main point, that humans have certain universal longings.

The protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya did not demand an Islamic state. They were calling for democracy. And if they did not understand “democracy” exactly the way Americans (and Koreans) understand it, they knew what they meant: government by the consent of the governed.

Finally, advice for Korea: Don’t buy the unnuanced idea that China is ascendant and America is in decline. Even if he defeats the rebels this week, would you bet on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s future? On the Kim dynasty’s future in North Korea? On the future of tyranny in China?

America may be broke; it may at times betray its own ideals. But these are the ideals of the Arab Spring and of the Chinese strollers. If China is unable to reform, bet on American ideals - even without American leadership - to rule the 21st century.

*The writer is a former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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