Connecting Tiananmen and Tehran
How do China’s past instances of civil unrest compare with Iran’s current situation?
- It would be naïve to posit or hope for a linear relationship between Beijing's degree of integration into the world economy and its level of respect for dissidents.
- It is critical for opposition movements to be seen as organic in their emergence and evolution if they are to succeed.
- When a country is largely isolated from the world, blows to its legitimacy do not necessarily carry an economic price tag — consider, for example, Eritrea, Burma and North Korea.
Now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks set to serve a second term as Iran’s president, how can the United States best support the Iranian opposition?
Two commonly discussed options would be counterproductive. Pursuing regime change in or conducting military strikes against Iran would inflame Iranian sentiment, thereby playing into Ahmadinejad’s hands.
Intervening in Iran’s domestic politics would be similarly misguided. It is critical for opposition movements to be seen as organic in their emergence and evolution if they are to succeed, whether in ousting the ruling elites or simply making them more attuned to public opinion.
American foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran could benefit from considering China’s post-1989 experience. China elicited widespread condemnation when it crushed an uprising at Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. Already a pariah in the aftermath of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, that crackdown isolated it further.
Today, however, it is a pillar of the world economy. In the interregnum, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) co-opted middle class support for its rule by sustaining high rates of growth. It accomplished that latter feat by integrating into the world economy: lowering trade and investment barriers gradually, joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 and negotiating flurries of economic deals with developed and developing countries alike.
Some basic figures suggest how embedded China has become in the world economy:
- In 1989, China’s combined exports and imports equaled 4% of its GDP, and its combined FDI outflows and inflows equaled 1%. By 2008, those proportions had reached, respectively, 10% and 3.5%.
- In 1989, foreign-funded companies accounted for less than 10% of Chinese exports. By 2006, they accounted for nearly 60%.
China’s economic clout gives it significant influence in the current debates over instituting financial regulations, reforming economic institutions and so forth. That same status, however, makes its treatment of political dissidents the object of far greater scrutiny.
Its record on that front admittedly remains poor. It would be naïve to posit or hope for a linear relationship between Beijing’s degree of integration into the world economy and its level of respect for dissidents. The CCP continues to silence prominent dissenters and has become increasingly sophisticated in cramping Chinese “cyberocracy.” It also retains overwhelming control over China’s media organs.
However resourceful it might be in stifling opposition voices, however, it cannot repeat Tiananmen. When a country is largely isolated from the world, blows to its legitimacy do not necessarily carry an economic price tag — consider, for example, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Burma and North Korea.
However, when a country is as integrated as China is, squelching protests has an immediate effect on how it is perceived. It is telling that Hu Jintao left the highly anticipated G8 summit early to deal with the escalating clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Xinjiang.
There are, of course, limitations to mapping Beijing post-1989 onto Iran post-June 2009. It is not clear whether Iran will take the initiative to integrate itself into the world economy, or whether it would be able to achieve a Chinese-style run of robust economic growth if it did. Furthermore, whereas China sought to engage the United States after Tiananmen, Iran has become more bellicose in the aftermath of its electoral tumult.
However, the key insight from Beijing’s experience — that a country that is more integrated into the world economy has to pay more attention to its human-rights record — is very relevant.
Now is an opportune time for the United States to re-engage with Iran — firmly, of course, and recognizing that Ahmadinejad’s “victory” remains fiercely disputed — because he is going to be operating from a weaker position than he was four years ago.
In particular, the tensions that have emerged in the clerical establishment will make his authority less certain. He will have a harder time deflecting attention from Iran’s 20% unemployment rate and 25% inflation rate if the United States takes the initiative to address the U.S.-Iranian relationship and supports or facilitates Iran’s participation in international fora.
Such actions should not be seen as conferring legitimacy upon Iran’s crackdown, but rather, as laying the groundwork for a long-term strategy that will make it increasingly costly for its leadership to repeat that specter over time.
Speaking recently at a Carnegie Endowment panel, Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour recalled a conversation that he had had with a senior-level Iranian official a few months earlier. That official conceded that “if Iran can’t make nice with a U.S. president named Barack Hussein Obama, who’s preaching mutual respect on a weekly basis and sending us Nowruz greetings, it’s pretty clear the problem lies in Tehran, not Washington.”
The thought of engaging Iran right now is understandably unpalatable. That option, however, entails the greatest long-term hope for the country’s opposition.
Isolating it would simply allow its ruling elites to suppress opposition forces more harshly and decisively.