The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Uprisings in China and Iran show the limits of government harassment

Demonstrators in Beijing hold up blank sheets of paper to protest coronavirus restrictions and censorship on Nov. 28.(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

According to Dictionary.com, the verb “harass” means “to disturb or bother persistently; torment, as with troubles or cares; pester.”

Recent protests in Iran and China suggest another definition: “what tyrannical governments do to their people.”

More than anything else, what seems to have brought the people of both countries into the streets was being fed up with authorities’ incessant but unavoidable demands: In Iran, mandatory wearing of a hijab, or headscarf, for women (among other strictures); in China, endless lockdowns and coronavirus testing, on top of much other systematic surveillance and censorship.

Neither regime seems in danger of falling, though it’s anyone’s guess how the two dramas get resolved.

It’s not too soon, however, to reflect on the universal human need for autonomy that drives both struggles and the enigmatic process by which a people can shift — seemingly suddenly — from political quiescence to the opposite.

The Declaration of Independence has been subjected to retrospective critique largely because of the passages in which the Continental Congress blamed King George III for unleashing “merciless Indian Savages” or stirring “domestic insurrections” by offering enslaved Black people freedom in exchange for their support.

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As political analysis, though, the document is rock-solid: The declaration noted “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations ... evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”

It was “repeated injuries and usurpations,” including the dispatch of “swarms of Officers to harrassour people,” that pushed previously loyal or, at least, passive colonists to the breaking point.

Whether or not the declaration’s specific gripes about taxes still resonate today, the frustration at overbearing authority it expressed should. That sentiment links the patriots of the 1770s with contemporary rebels.

They range from the 1960s civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who triggered the Arab Spring by lighting himself on fire in 2010 to protest being arrested for peddling without a permit.

Of course, people not only can tolerate — even embrace — taxes, permitting laws and public health restrictions; they should do so when such rules enjoy legitimacy, in reality and perception. That legitimacy, in turn, hinges partly on whether the public has some say in making them.

What drove Bouazizi to self-destruction was not that the police punished him by taking away scales he used to measure out his wares — but that a local official refused to see him when he came to complain. What drove Chinese to mount protests in recent days was not just the “zero covid” policy but the sense that they were being lied to about its collateral costs — such as the lockdown’s possible interference with responding to a deadly fire in Xinjiang.

When authorities respond to reasonable disagreement or innocent mistakes with deadly violence, as millions believe Iran’s morality police did by arresting young Mahsa Amini for an alleged violation of the hijab rule — and then beating her to death — the consequences can be explosive indeed.

If unchecked harassment defines tyranny, the absence of any restraint does not define freedom. The latter does, however, require that any restrictions on people’s rights be limited and lawful. Governments can only find lasting stability based on the informed, uncoerced “consent of the governed,” just as the declaration said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and China’s Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping, see things differently.

Each believes that ideological precepts authorize him to dictate how his people live, in granular detail. Each has adopted the view that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — the greatest triumph over tyranny in recent memory — resulted from a U.S.-instigated plot that Moscow lacked the means or the will to thwart.

Khamenei and Xi are of course capable of pragmatically calibrating the official harassment their people bear. Xi appears to be easing the zero covid policy in part to defuse protests. Khamenei’s government, by contrast, has denied Western media reports it would abolish the morality police, though it has reportedly reduced their presence and many women have left their hair uncovered with impunity.

Still, both men’s ultimate prescription for stability — which they equate with regime survival — is repression. To them, unrest is not their people’s foreseeable response to being under constant official pressure; it is a foreign-inspired test of their political determination. And they intend to pass it at any price, as the long-suffering Iranian and Chinese people know all too well.

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