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Why countries that usually don't see dissent are now seeing their people protest

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start by thinking about something you might have seen and wondered about - the protests we're seeing in countries where this kind of public dissent is not the norm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Xi Jinping.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: That was the sound of protests in Russia, Iran and, most recently, China. Now, the people in these countries went to the streets for different reasons. In Russia, it was to protest against the country's invasion of Ukraine and forced conscription. In Iran, it was the death of a young woman in police custody after she was detained for violating the country's strict dress code. And last weekend in China, protests began over China's strict zero-COVID policy. These acts of defiance, though, are rare and have serious consequences. Some protesters have been arrested, others killed. But despite that, the protests continue, with some even demanding that their leaders step down, which is very unusual.

But we wanted to know if these movements, although started for different reasons, have a connection and if they tell us something larger about the current state of power in authoritarian regimes. So we called Larry Diamond. He is a professor of political science and sociology at Stanford University, and he studies democracies. And he is with us now. Professor Diamond, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LARRY DIAMOND: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So to start us off, I'm wondering if you see a through line across these demonstrations.

DIAMOND: Well, there's one stunning through line, and one element of it is that the regimes have been performing very badly in meeting people's expectations and in governing in a way that people find acceptable and tolerable. Of course, the colossal disaster that Putin has inflicted on Russia as a result of invading Ukraine is particularly noteworthy in that regard. But you look at the long-running disaster that the Islamic Republic has been in Iran as a result of their ineffective modes of governance and now in China, with the zero-COVID policy that has inflicted misery on hundreds of millions of Chinese who've had to experience these neo-totalitarian lockdowns. And then the second through line, Michel, is that as a result, each regime is facing a legitimacy crisis now. That is a sharp decline in the belief that the regime really has a right to govern.

MARTIN: So all these countries have surveillance mechanisms - right? - that you kind of wonder how people can even get themselves organized to protest. And so what do you think these protests say about the control or lack thereof of its people in these countries?

DIAMOND: So I think that particularly in the case of China, we're learning two things. And one is very sobering, and the other is more hopeful. The sobering thing, well reported recently in The New York Times, is that China now has such a massive and triangulated surveillance system that they have multiple ways of tracking down people who protested. They still have pretty extensive networks of human informers as well. What we're learning on the other side that's more hopeful in the case of China is that there are always leaks and cracks in the surveillance system. And when people get really angry and protests happen simultaneously in large numbers, there is a kind of surge effect that overwhelms the social and political control mechanism.

MARTIN: I think people who believe that these are oppressive authoritarian regimes who wish for something different for the citizens of these countries, they look at that, and they think, is regime change possible?

DIAMOND: So that, of course, is the question that people are ultimately asking. In China, I think regime - some kind of alteration in the nature of the regime there is probably a long ways off because, first of all, there have been large numbers of people in the streets in multiple Chinese cities at the same time, and they seem to have shed their fear and are calling now not just for better government policies. They want freedom. But at the same time, we don't know what Chinese public opinion really is. And if Xi Jinping can succeed in instituting a more flexible and rational system for meeting the COVID challenge and if he can regrow economic growth, then he's probably going to be able to survive and restore political stability for some time to come.

In the case of Russia, I think there's growing evidence of elite as well as public dissatisfaction with Putin's ineptitude in prosecuting the war in Ukraine and maybe starting the war. The problem is that there's also a lot of evidence that the most serious and credible opposition to Vladimir Putin is coming from the radical right, who feel that he hasn't done enough to flatten Ukraine and totally mobilize the society. We all have to keep in mind the possibility that change could come from other authoritarian circles.

I'll just note that in the case of Iran, I think that is the regime, of the three we're talking about, that is most on tenterhooks and is most vulnerable. They already had - you will recall - a national uprising in 2009, the Green movement, after massively rigged elections that looked like it might topple the regime. And certainly, the regime was panicked and very much on the defensive. So this is a recurrent phenomenon in Iran. And I think it's very clear there that as the Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi said at Stanford on Wednesday evening, probably 80% of the country at this point is with the protesters and against the regime.

MARTIN: That was Larry Diamond. He's a professor at Stanford University, and he's an authority on Democratic movements, as we've been discussing. Professor Diamond, thanks so much for talking to us.

DIAMOND: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.