Originally, I intended to write about this subject in a letter to the editor. It would have been a reflection on the column “The Arab Spring,” written by Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times.
He addressed his column to China’s President Hu Jintao, to bring to his attention the specifics of the “Arab Spring,” the revolutions sweeping through the Middle East.
“The revolutions in the Arab world contain some important lessons for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote. “Because what this contagion reveals is something very new about how revolutions unfold in the 21st century and something very old about why they explode.”
Friedman pointed out that sometime around the year 2000 the world achieved a very high level of connectivity. This web was built on the diffusion of personal computers and the Internet that enables billions of people to become “next-door neighbors.”
He explained that because the world is now hyperconnected there is no such thing as “local” anymore. News flows instantly into a global platform where it gets shared. “The days when Arab dictators could take over the state-run TV and radio and shut off all information to their people are over.”
Friedman wrote that China should keep this in mind. He quoted the Russian historian Leon Aron, who postulated that revolutions nowadays are not so much about “bread” but in quest of “human dignity.”
In the draft of my letter, I noted that President Hu Jintao, may find Friedman’s advice too cerebral. That Jintao may advise him, in turn, to study Mao Zedong’s writings. Particularly the chapter where the ‘great leader” said: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
“Saddam Hussein of Iraq would still be in power in absence of American intervention,” I wrote. “The Tahrir Square revolution succeeded, at least temporarily, because the Egyptian Army refused to shot at the demonstrators. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime may survive because his Alawi-sect troops and the security forces have no scruple killing as many civilians as necessary to stay in power.”
I noted that Friedman’s assessment of the Arab Spring may fit neatly into our Western concept of what a “hyperconnected world” means. But it ignores the realities in parts of the world where political power still grows out of the barrel of a gun.
I shared the draft with some “wise men” whose opinion I value highly. One of them wrote back: “I remember in a college class studying revolutions that one of my professors said that if a dictator was willing to be bloody enough that he could put down a revolution. Syria is proving that. And if pushed too far, China will also prove that.”
Another evaluated the outcome this way: “This is a ying and yang thing. Trying to find the balance between good and evil. While the gun’s brute force succeeds initially, history has shown that nonviolent means, as long as there are enough people behind the nonviolent movement, win over brute force. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are examples.”
The third “wise man” summed up his views this way: “I have my own doubts about the “Arab Spring.” It’s one thing to depose a dictator; it’s quite another to make functioning democracy out of a nation that is semi-literate, tribal, and has none of the cultural/philosophical underpinnings the West enjoyed. It took 500 years to go from the Magna Carta to the French Rights of Man. That was a psychological maturation that needed to take place. None of that has happened in the Arab countries.”
No doubt, there are still rulers who are willing to follow Mao Zedong’s teachings to secure their regime’s survival.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.