Saturday, July 11, 2009

Nationalising Thought in Iran and China

Below is a eye-catching piece of web journalism by the The NYT's Lede Blog, put together by Robert Mackey It compares the Iranian and Chinese responses to and media management of two very different revolts. The main thrust is a focus on the changing nature of authoritarian regimes. There are two points that stick out.

The first is that Iran and China have traded complete control for limited freedom. The main way of doing this is to convert their captive minds to consuming ones. That being free to choose your partner, your brand of shoes etc led to people in the Balkans wanting to choose their national identity must worry Tehran and Beijing. Which is probably why nationalism and a strong sense of historical victimhood is strongly cultivated by both Iran and China. This is in a sense an attempt to control the past.

The second deals with how to control the present. The mass organisations that run the two ancient states have a keen sense of the propaganda war within. In both Iran and China the game is to nationalise thought - to control the processes by which information is moulded into shape and therefore define the contours of the debate. They are not falling into the trap of Soviets who tried to battle the west by saying they were the real democrats or trading human rights abuses.

Instead it is about creating a real time narrative to events and hence a beginning, middle and end to the news cycle. In Iran the Supreme Leader says the result is final, has a faux investigation and ends by declaring a few irregularities but the President is Ahmadinejad. The keep matters simple he authorises deadly force to be used against protestors. In Xin Jiang it is by painting the Han as victims of criminal minds spurred by a rebel terrorist group of Uyghurs. There are guided tours and media centres set up for visiting journalists. All dissidents will be struck hard. Nasty stuff but it is designed to make sure bad elements capitulate to the demands of state propaganda.

July 8, 2009, 6:48 pm
Managing Dissent in China and Iran

Just weeks after the disputed presidential election in Iran, outside observers find themselves in a somewhat familiar situation: trying to piece together a sense of what is happening in China’s Xinjiang Province in the aftermath of anti-government protests that turned violent. In China, as in Iran, state-controlled media has called the protesters “rioters” and the violence on the streets “terrorism” rather than characterizing it as a spontaneous reaction by demonstrators confronted by security forces.

As my colleague Michael Wines reported on Monday, getting a clear sense of what is happening on the streets of Urumqi is not made easier by the fact that China’s government, like Iran’s, has made a concerted effort to control information about the unrest by placing restrictions on the foreign press and limiting access to the Internet for government opponents. So once again we find ourselves reading reports from news outlets controlled by or sympathetic to the state, relying on what foreign reporters who have been given strictly limited access to the area can learn and following the Twitter feeds of bloggers who reflect on and translate some of what is being said inside the country.

Beyond the way they manage dissent, Communist China and the Islamic Republic of Iran are obviously very different countries, with very different cultures and systems of government. One person who has thought about the parallels that do exist between the way the two regimes try to control their populations is the journalist Steve Coll. In a discussion of Iran’s government with Dorothy Wickenden and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker two weeks ago, Mr. Coll argued that the Iranian regime had studied the way China’s government responded to the pro-democracy movement in 1989 and “tried to construct” what he called a “post-Tiananmen China model” system of control.

In the discussion, recorded for The New Yorker’s Web site two weeks ago, Mr. Hertzberg suggested that it is not clear “what kind of society and regime Iran really is.”

“It’s not a simple dictatorship,” he said “The models that we have to tell us what kind of a place Iran is from the past are not particularly useful.”

That led to this exchange between Ms. Wickenden and Mr. Coll:

Dorothy Wickenden: Many people have been reminded of Tiananmen Square as they’ve watched this, as it’s become more and more brutal. What lessons do you think the authorities in Iran have drawn from the Chinese government’s successful crackdown?

Steve Coll: That you have to be decisive and that you have to be unified at the state level and to manage your commands in the security forces very carefully, because the Chinese almost cracked up under the pressure of routing those students from Tiananmen. But I think Rick’s right: this is not China 1989, or Iran 1979… this is an unusual hybrid state with a lot of resilience in its authoritarian and security structures. [...]

It’s a weird pluralistic dictatorship because they’ve been trying to follow what they think of as the Chinese model post-Tiananmen, where you create enough space culturally — rock concerts: good; jobs and businesses and entrepreneurship: good; defiance of state edicts, state power to be responded to brutally. So in creating this weird pluralistic dictatorship, I don’t think anybody in the state, at the top or in the street, quite understood where the balance might have shifted in this attempt to sort of both accommodate and control, especially in reference to young people, and they’re the ones that the state has always feared, in this kind Chinese model way: let them blow off steam listening to their strange music, let the women in north Tehran show a little ankle on the street if that’s really what they want to do, but there are bright lines. Part of what’s going on here I think is a kind of testing on both sides of where those lines might have shifted, given the accommodations that the regime has sponsored and the pluralism it has sponsored.

On Wednesday The Guardian’s diplomatic editor Julian Borger reported that Iran’s feared Basij militia is under the direct control of Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — which suggests that Iran’s leadership is indeed exhibiting strong control of the security forces.

Mr. Coll’s description of the post-Tiananmen China model recalls a comment the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic made in the 1990s about the Yugoslav Communists - that their decision to grant people freedom to travel and buy consumer goods helped keep the population from resenting the regime and pressing for dramatic political change. While the harsher form of authoritarianism in Czechoslovakia, for example, produced a coherent opposition whose frequently jailed leaders were ready to take over running the country communism collapsed, in Yugoslavia a less resentful population was content to stick with its former communist leaders after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with disastrous consequences. As Ms. Drakulic wrote in her book The Balkan Express:

Recently an American friend asked me how it happened that the most liberal and best-off Communist country was the one that now had the war. . . . The answer is so simple that I’m almost ashamed of it: we traded our freedom for Italian shoes.

The recent crackdown on the Internet in the immediate aftermath of the Xinjiang unrest came just after the protests in Iran were self-reported by members of the opposition with Twitter, YouTube and Facebook accounts. That might seem to be a case of China learning from Iran’s experience. But, as David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote last month, before the violence in Urumqi, China’s government seems to have been learning how to deal with unrest in the Internet age based on its own experience with protests in the past year:

Not so long ago, the suppression of any and all information about mass incidents in China was a matter of virtual certainty. But Chinese officials have surprised over the past year. They have often been right on top of strikes, riots and opinion storms. And crisis management has been, at least on the surface, more about press conferences and press releases, and less about police muscle. At CMP, we have used the term Control 2.0 to talk about an emerging new order of information management and control in China, something more nuanced and clever, and something altogether more Hu Jintao. [...]

The difference with Control 2.0 is that the party is moving from a defensive position, as passive controllers and censors, to a more active position. That is to say, they are now on the offensive.

Control 2.0 is control that makes a shrewdly realistic assessment of China’s new information environment — the result of the Internet, predominantly — and recognizes there are some events that cannot be entirely controlled. So the core of Control 2.0 is reporting at the first possible moment those news events that cannot be concealed, getting the government’s official explanation and version of the facts out first. This pre-empts other media, including international media.

By getting the information out, officials can get the “peripheral media” (especially influential portal news sites, but also commercial newspapers) to work for them. These media feed off of the original Xinhua reports, amplifying their effect. Those same reports, with only slight permutations in many cases, become AFP, Reuters and AP reports. Finally, using those methods that create the smallest stir, you kill the information it is most critical to keep under wraps, keeping rabble-rousing professional media away, and punishing those media that “don’t listen.”

Mr. Bandurski notes that in June 2008, in an address to the People’s Daily newspaper, President Hu himself outlined the need to develop a “new pattern of public opinion guidance,” explaining:

In the age of the Web, everyone can potentially be a source of information and a wellspring of opinion. It is as though everyone has a microphone before them. This has raised the bar on the need for public opinion channeling. Faced with sudden-breaking issues, it is not sufficient for the government and mainstream [official] media to release information. They must also move quickly to understand the pulse of new information emerging on the Internet, reacting quickly to public doubts. This requires that governments, and especially propaganda offices, be equipped with the ability to rapidly and accurately compile and analyze public opinion.

Given the speed with which Twitter accounts were set up by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards last month, to taunt and hunt down opposition bloggers, it seems that President Ahmadinejad may be paying close attention to President Hu’s lectures.

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