The Washington Post

Why are dictators always so sensitive?

Dobson is guest-blogging for The Post.

From the dictator’s point of view, many of these threats seem reasonable. Any authoritarian needs to keep his military happy. Take former Chinese Communist leader Jiang Zemin. He was the first Chinese leader to lack military credentials. So, for a while, it seemed as if almost every photo-op was of Jiang pinning a medal on this or that general.

Likewise, political intrigue at the highest levels is dangerous. Whenever Hosni Mubarak saw anyone’s political star rising too far, he had the person sidelined. For example, for a brief moment in the late 1990s, former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa looked like a future leader. So in 2001 Mubarak sent him packing to the Arab League, the political equivalent of purgatory. (Apparently, Mubarak’s instincts were right. Moussa intends to run for president this fall.)

But why then, do tyrants and dictators become apoplectic over the smallest threats? Why does the Burmese junta fear Aung San Suu Kyi? Why does the Chinese Communist Party revert to breathing fire at the first mention of the Dalai Lama?

Because all of them understand the power of symbolism. They understood how a person, an event or even a simple gesture can move people to act in a way they otherwise never would.

One of my favorite examples of this symbolism is the politically sensitive anniversary. Remember, it wasn’t by chance that the Egyptian protests began on Jan. 25. That day had been set aside by the regime as a national holiday, Police Day. And, as anyone who watched the images out of Tahrir Square knows, the Egyptian people don’t hold their police in particularly high regard. The idea that the police should have their own day to be honored was a bitter pill. So the youth activists chose it as a rallying point. In fact, they had tried to lead demonstrations on Police Day in 2010. The only difference was that this time it worked.

The trouble for authoritarian regimes is that the longer they stay in power, the more politically sensitive anniversaries they accumulate. The calendar becomes littered with dates that remind people of the regime’s crimes.

There may be no better example of this than China. Chinese leaders must navigate a calendar full of controversial anniversaries that have the potential to remind citizens of what happens when people question the regime’s right to rule.

A quick rundown of the Chinese political calendar includes March 10 (the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising), April 1 (anniversary of the end of 1978 Democracy Wall movement, May 4 (anniversary of the 1919 May 4th Movement), June 4 (the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre), July 5 (the 2009 suppression of Muslims in Xinjiang), July 22 (the 1999 crackdown on the Falun Gong movement), and October 1 (the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic). Any of these dates are times when the regime must be on edge, looking for “black hands” or “bad elements” that might try to rally people against the Communist Party.

The fear is so great that in 2009 — when many of these dates would have significant anniversaries — the Party reportedly set up a special high-level task force called the 6521 Group. (The numbers 6521 referred to the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre and the 10th anniversary of the Falun Gong crackdown.) Beijing clearly understands the symbolic importance of an anniversary.

I recently ran up against the regime’s hypersensitivity. I wanted to travel to China when the political climate might be a little more relaxed. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to arrive on June 3 or Sept. 30. I had planned to travel in December. When it became clear that the Chinese scholar Liu Xiaobo would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in early December, I had to scrap my trip. I chose instead to travel in February. Nothing happens in February. Of course, a few weeks earlier the Middle East went into full revolt. Afraid of the Jasmine Revolution it was witnessing, the Chinese government went into lockdown, preemptively arresting or putting under house arrest anyone it considered a threat. 

Of course, from the outside, much of this looks like paranoia. But from the dictator’s point of view, the stakes are too high to treat even symbolic threats casually. The Middle East is littered with regimes that didn’t anticipate the warnings. And if the Chinese Communist Party gets it wrong one day, there’s a chance it could create the most significant political anniversary yet.


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
Play Videos
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Learn to make this twice-baked cookie
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
Play Videos
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
The art of tortilla-making
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat