Popular protests in China, feminist revolt in Iran, antiwar activism and possible sabotage in Russia—could the world’s three largest oppressive countries be teetering toward revolution or serious reform?
It wouldn’t be the first time. All three underwent multiple revolutions in the 20th century: Iran in 1906 (parliamentary) and 1979 (Islamist); China in 1911 (republican) and 1949 (Communist); Russia in 1905 (constitutional), 1917 (Bolshevik), and 1991 (quasi-democratic imperial-breakup).
All those upheavals came as surprises. So, even though revolutions in those countries seems unlikely today, they’re not impossible—and the people in those countries, both the aspiring revolutionaries and those defending the present order, know this. They know that popular uprisings once took place in those countries. And this awareness heightens tensions when they’re allowed to simmer and then boil.
Still, tensions usually don’t reach a boiling point. Sociologists and political scientists have analyzed the preconditions for radical change and one common conclusion is that, to be successful, revolutionary movements must have three elements: organization, a strategy, and a charismatic leader.
“Iran, China, Russia—the protests there have none of these,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of several studies on the transition from authoritarian regimes, in a recent phone conversation.
The Chinese protesters holding up blank signs, the Iranian women ripping off their headscarves and shouting “Down with the Ayatollah,” the Russian anti-war activists—these are all remarkably brave people, risking serious jail time or worse. But bravery and even crowded rallies aren’t enough to topple a regime or change a way of political life.
This is a major reason why Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, recently said in an NBC News interview that Iranian officials don’t see the protests as an “imminent threat” to their rule.
However, Haines added, the Tehran government may face trouble in the long run because resistance to its edicts is growing, schisms within its ministries are forming, and the economy continues to crumble. Besides that, much of Iran’s urban population—young, secular, plugged into Western news and culture, thanks to satellite dishes (which the regime long ago stopped trying to take down)—would be inclined to join a true revolution, if one began to take off.
Nonetheless, revolutions sometimes take off anyway. “Leadership, organization and strategy are not prerequisites,” Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and author of The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, said in a phone call. “Those things often emerge from movements that generate spontaneously.”
At the beginning of 1979, when anti-Shah protests began to spread, the Ayatollah Khomeini “was not a well-known figure outside certain clerical milieux,” Kurzman said. “His becoming a leader happened toward the end of the revolutionary process, not the beginning.” Similarly, at the beginning of 1917, as cries for bread and peace animated strikes and revolts in Russia, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party was a small faction among several socialist movements. (The term “Bolshevik,” which derives from the Russian word for majority, was deliberate hype.) The Second Russian Revolution, of 1991, was also well underway—propelled by the unraveling of the Soviet Union—before Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the parliament, alongside thousands of protesters, emerging as the new democratic leader of Russia.
Khomeini, Lenin, and Yeltsin, each in their own way, were skilled at exploiting a revolutionary situation and grabbing and steering the reins in a direction they desired. So were Mao, Castro, Napoleon, George Washington, and countless others.
In other words, revolutions may begin without a leader, organization, or strategy—but they rarely succeed unless at least some of those features emerge.
The heads of authoritarian governments—especially those of Iran, Russia, and China, which were installed through revolution—know this fact, and they have become very shrewd at identifying, splitting, arresting, or otherwise blocking potential protest leaders.
This is, for example, why Putin locked up Alexei Navalny on flimsy charges. Also, why his suppression of anti-war activists, shortly after his invasion of Ukraine, was so intense and broad that almost all of them—save those who were arrested or drafted into the army’s frontlines—were driven into exile. This is also why Iran has arrested 15,000 protesters, sentenced at least 20 of them to death, and very publicly executed a few of the vaguely charismatic figures who advocated not just the tossing of hijabs but the ouster of the mullahs.
In the time since they’ve taken power, the rulers of Russia, Iran, and China have built entire systems designed to insulate them from popular pressure. Putin has erected a monolith of one-man rule unseen in Russia since czarist times; he has monopolized the mass media; and he has plotted to bankrupt or assassinate any member of his entourage who dares criticize him directly. The protector of Iran’s regime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has taken command of most government ministries and key sectors of the economy; its grip on the country is tight and interlocking, even though much of the population—especially in the cities—is secular, literate, and well exposed to Western news and culture. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has revived Mao Zedong’s ideology of total state control, erasing many of the market reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
However, social, political, economic, ecological pressures often build up, no matter how hard a regime tries to stave them off. What happens next, whether the regime grows stronger or starts to unwind, depends on how it responds to those pressures. On the one hand, if a regime doesn’t reform at all and doubles down on oppression, it becomes sclerotic; the pressures intensify; and at some point, the gaskets blow (though this process can take decades to play out—see, for instance, North Korea). On the other hand, placating the protesters is a gamble: Will a gesture of reform take the air out of a nascent revolt—or will it simply spur the more radical rebels to demand still more change?
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, tried to reform his society, economy, and foreign policy without breaking the Communist Party’s monopoly on politics—and wound up bringing down the entire system, which turned out to be impermeable to mere reform. To survive, the Party needed to destroy the reforms (as happened in the mid-1960s after Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev), or the reforms would destroy the Party. Gorbachev was intent on pushing the reforms, and the system—the Communist Party and the Soviet Union—couldn’t survive them.
Many authoritarian rulers watched the Soviet Union’s implosion closely and took from it a clear lesson: Don’t start reforms in the first place. China’s Xi Jinping is particularly attentive to this and has repeatedly pushed the theme that moving toward Western-style freedoms—which is what Gorbachev expressly tried to do—would unleash only chaos. Putin has pushed this message as well. For several years, Putin and Xi have offered their people a deal: they will give them comfort and security, as long as the people give them control over politics.
Only lately has this deal broken down—for Putin by his (so far) disastrous war in Ukraine, and for Xi by his zero-COVID policy with its extreme lockdowns, which have been too oppressive even for most Chinese citizens’ sensibilities. (The lockdowns also brought China’s economy to a screeching halt.) Putin has responded to protest by doubling down on his war—mobilizing 300,000 fighting-age men, demonizing not only Ukraine but also all Western influences inside Russia. By contrast, Xi has backed off, at least a little, reversing his zero-COVID policy.
So far, both measures have worked, in one sense. Putin remains in control, and the protesters have, for the most part, left the country. At first, some Chinese activists tried to broaden anti-lockdown protests into calls for regime change in Beijing. But Xi’s concession on the single issue of COVID has taken the air out of the movement before it fully formed. “It seems the protest wave has come and gone,” Jeremy Wallace, sociology professor at Cornell and the author of Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts: Information, Ideology, and Authoritarianism in China, said in a phone interview. “The blank-page protests were attractive. Their message was ‘We don’t need to write down what we’re protesting, it’s so obvious.’ But that masked real differences within the population.”
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, agreed. “Some protesters called for freedom, but that doesn’t mean all the things we associate with freedom,” she added. “Many have bought the CCP narrative that Western freedom means chaos.”
Still, Wallace thinks the story isn’t over. “I do think it’s harder now to believe in Xi’s infallibility,” he said “The zero-COVID policy was his, and he’s moved away from it. The next time he asks everyone to jump, will they jump or jump as high? Maybe not.”
Relaxing the lockdown has unleashed a new wave of COVID, and that might damage Xi’s standing still further. “If millions of people die, this could be a real moment of political turmoil—probably not the result of popular protest, but among the internal elites, who might push Xi aside a little,” Wallace said. “The people he appointed to the Politburo are Xi’s people, but they’re not nobodies—they’ve had high-powered careers in the CCP bureaucracy.”
Xi has also started softening some aspects of his foreign policy, trying to revive good relations with Washington (again, on some issues). There are pragmatic reasons for this (an aversion to tightening his alliance with Russia, a desire to end the trade war in the face of a weakening economy) but the moves also reflect a leader who’s wavering, reopening rivalries with the party’s apparatchiks. Few if any think this could trigger a breakdown of the CCP’s control of China—but, depending on which faction is on the rise, it could ease some of Xi’s most oppressive controls.
Of the three countries examined here, Iran may in some ways be most susceptible to real change. For one thing, a majority of its urban population wants change. For another, fissures are clearly developing within the government. A senior official in the Iranian judiciary announced earlier this month that the “morals police”—the security branch that goes around beating and arresting, for instance, women who aren’t wearing headscarves—was being abolished. However, the morals police are run by the interior ministry, so the statement had no meaning, and the morals police seem still to be functioning.
Nonetheless, it’s rare for the government to expose any sort of division—and a fight over the hijab is significant. A clients’ report this month by the Eurasia Group noted that “the hijab remains a foundational principle of the Islamic Republic, and the right-wing establishment will carefully weigh any policy shifts.” A softer approach to enforcing the rules “could help the regime contain the protest movement in the near term but will not fully address the scale of public grievances; sporadic demonstrations are likely to continue in 2023.”
In the end, though, the Eurasia Group concluded in a separate report that an Iranian “regime collapse is unlikely over the next six months,” and that, should it occur, a takeover by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—a coup by the military’s most hardcore element—“is by far the most likely scenario.”
Popular uprisings often climax with military coups. In 2011, when massive street protests in Tahrir Square forced Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak, to step down (with the help of some prodding by President Obama), the throne passed not to the witty, computer-savvy, English-speaking young men so attractive to American TV cameras, but rather to the military—which controlled not just the guns but much of Egypt’s economic assets. Many countries that saw uprisings during the Arab Spring wound up ruled by the military—or, as with Iraq in the wake of President George W. Bush’s enforced regime-change, riven by sectarian civil wars.
If Putin is forced from office in Moscow, it will likely be by armed men in uniform as well. “Defeat in war is a frequent cause of regime change,” says the Hoover Institute’s Larry Diamond. “If the Ukraine army takes Crimea in the coming year, or if they begin to take the war to Russia, a move against Putin is possible.”
Already tensions are brewing within the Russian officer corps over Putin’s impetuous decisions in this war, including the invasion itself, which he made in consultation with his ultra-nationalist former KGB comrades, not with his military advisers. Like other authoritarian rulers, Putin has excelled at stamping out critics before they become rivals. If six officers were to plan a putsch, they would all have to be very confident that one of them wouldn’t betray the other five. But if there’s any chance that Putin’s head winds up on a spike, that’s probably the only way it could happen. And when such things do happen, they do so very suddenly. The plot could be hatching as I write this, and no one would know about it until the night of the long knives was over.
But the consensus view is that revolution is unlikely in the near term. As Charles Kurzman says: “Popular civic movements generally fail—you’d win money betting against revolution.”
Perhaps, Diamond said in a moment of partial optimism, the protest movements of this year will be “looked back upon as part of a historical process, which gradually leads to the weakening of a regime, maybe the transition to a better regime.”
How long this transition might take is unknown. “Revolutions are a critical-mass phenomenon,” Kurzman said. “There’s a bandwagon effect. People with lots of grievances start to act on them when they see other people act.” When the gears of change start to grind, they can accelerate very suddenly. “Revolutions seem perfectly explainable in retrospect,” Kurzman added, “but they’re inherently unpredictable before they happen.”