The current wave of popular revolts sweeping the Arab world began with Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution.” At first people thought it was an isolated incident, but to everyone’s surprise the revolts have spread further than anyone predicted.
The changes have been dramatic. Last week, just after Egypt’s US-friendly president Hosni Mubarak stepped down and as Iran was expecting Egyptian Muslims to establish an Islamic state, 10,000 people took to the streets around Iran to call for the downfall of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This series of revolts is looking more and more like a sequel to last century’s worldwide “third wave of democracy,” rather than a replay of an Islamic revolution.
Yet, Islamic fundamentalism is quite influential in Egypt and so Tehran, Washington and Beijing have all been watching developments closely.
Tehran hopes this will be a victory for Muslims against pro-Western puppets and that it will open the door for a revival of traditional religion over politics.
Washington first called for Mubarak to institute reforms, but then decided to distance itself and support democratic reform in various Middle East countries. This is a shift from the principle of respecting a country’s sovereign choice and not talking too much about democracy and human rights it has been following since US President Barack Obama took office.
The US and Iran have conflicting expectations, but no matter who wins, it is certain that the geopolitical lines are going to be redrawn. If the struggle between the Western and Islamic paths goes on, it will bring more clashes, pain and turmoil in the Arab world.
Although Washington and Tehran have been taken by surprise by the events and have not yet had time to intervene directly, they are already vying for the right to call the agenda. Each of them, based on its own global view and values, wants to shore up its strategic position, decide the issues and guide the course of developments.
Beijing has over the years also been investing heavily on overseas propaganda — expanding the network of Confucius Institutes, promoting the Chinese development model, making its voice heard at international forums and defining its core interests. Chinese politicians and academics think it is quite normal for China, as one of the “G2” superpowers, to have a greater say in world affairs.
However, just as Iran and the US are vying to take the lead in deciding which way civilization goes, China has been censoring the news and has stayed silent. Strangely, Beijing seems to be lost for words and its model and Confucian values it is so proud of are playing no part in the struggle to determine the direction these revolutions will take.
Just before the revolutions, Tunisia and Egypt were experiencing high economic growth. Even with the onset of the global financial crisis, Tunisia achieved GDP growths of 6.3 percent, 4.9 percent and 2.4 percent from 2007 to 2009. Egypt’s growth rate was above 7 percent for the three years up to 2008, and 4.7 percent and 5.1 percent in 2009 and last year respectively.
It is surprising to see revolutions in countries whose economies have been performing so well. It certainly doesn’t fit with late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) idea that economic development is the key.
Such a situation is, however, not without precedent. Iran’s 1979 revolution broke out as the country was making even greater achievements. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi initiated a process of all-out modernization, with impressive results. Iran’s GDP rose by an average of 16 to 17 percent per year between 1965 and 1978, as average per capita annual income surged from US$165 to US$2,250. Even the growth generated by China’s reforms cannot match that.
Iran’s reforms also included abolishing the aristocracy, freeing landless peasants from enslavement by landowners, liberating women and building public housing projects. The shah even shared his own farmland — a quarter of all farmland in the country — with peasants. At the time, he was admired around the world as a great reformer.
However, rapid economic growth also widened the gap between the rich and poor and the city and countryside and was accompanied by widespread corruption. Disdainful of popular anger, the shah attempted to suppress this social unrest by autocratic means.
The circumstances preceding the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and China today and Iran in the past are not very different. The failures of Mubarak and the shah could presage the failure of the Chinese model. That would explain why Beijing was among the most ardent supporters of Mubarak’s regime and why it has lost its right to have a say at this key moment in history.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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