||These dynastic dictatorships are doomed|
The Times - July 4th 2011
If you want a sense of time standing still, go to the “demilitarized zone” between North and South Korea and the place where the truce was signed between those two countries and the United Nations forces in 1953. When I visited Panmunjom last week with a group of British parliamentarians and diplomats, it felt as if barely a speck of dust had moved since my previous visit, a quarter of a century earlier, right down to the ritual of North Korean soldiers peering through the window at visitors, just to show that they are there. But then a strange, small sign of another sort of déjà vu planted a little hope in my mind.
In one of the UN buildings, where ancient Bakelite phones are used to convey messages across the border, among the pictures on the wall was one I immediately recognised. It was a framed cover of The Economist, from 2000 when I was that magazine’s editor. The picture was of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s weird “dear leader”, the topic was the first summit between the two Koreas since the truce, and the headline (written by my deputy, Clive Crook, I hasten to add) was the wonderful “Greetings, Earthlings”. Yet it was something else that caught my eye.
In the smaller headlines advertising other stories were two simple words: “After Assad”. For this was also the moment when the brutal dictator of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, died after three decades in power, handing over to his supposedly reformist son, Bashar. Now you can probably guess the hopeful thought that popped into my mind. It was that soon, possibly very soon, those words will appear again on magazine covers and newspaper front pages. For family dictatorships do not last forever.
Among the bravest people in the world right now must rank the protesters in Syria, who are coming out every week, in city after city, in their hundreds of thousands, despite the Assad regime’s continued brutality. When the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia last December and then spread to Egypt, many wondered whether the revolt might also spread to Syria but then dismissed the idea, especially once the regime had shown it was still willing to kill to stay in power, and able too to shut off the internet, keep out the foreign media and retain the loyalty of the army.
That is proving to be wrong. Syrians’ bravery and determination, shown especially in the city of Hama, where Bashar’s father ordered his army in 1982 to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians to suppress a previous revolt, is steadily weakening the regime’s grip. Whether the Assads will fall before or after the Qaddafis in Libya is hard to say, of course. But time will not stand still for either of them. Both families look doomed.
The early euphoria about the Arab uprisings has turned into a mixture of fatigue—so many chaotic revolts, so many troubled countries—and, as the Libyan war grinds on, grim pessimism. Yet in reality patience and optimism, particularly in the light of so much bravery, are called for. The pressure for freedom and change continues to be felt right across the region.
Even the old monarchies are feeling obliged to make concessions, with Morocco’s referendum last week and Bahrain’s commencement of a “national dialogue” on reform. Both of those gestures look inadequate, and likely to invite further pressure. In the oil-rich Gulf, there is enough money to buy off dissent and keep the army happy, but even there the fall of the dictatorships of Syria and Libya will cause new flutters of nervousness, happy though the monarchs will be to see the end of the awkward Assads and Qadaffis.
What, though, could this mean for those bleak remnants of the cold war on the Koreans’ border? Perhaps nothing: for as long as I can remember, when asked how long the North Korean regime might last, experts have answered “about ten more years”.
That is what many said when Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founding dictator, was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, in 1994, and now that that Kim is planning to bequeath power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-Eun, the same may be said again. The chubby 27-year-old has even been reported in the South Korean press to have had plastic surgery to make him look more like his grandfather. Nevertheless, the tottering Assad regime in Syria should counsel against making firm assumptions about the Kim regime’s durability.
Having China as your ally and neighbour does help. But the contrast with China’s authoritarian political system is also telling. The strength of family dictatorships, you might think, is trust and the ability to concentrate power. But their weakness lies in their rigidity, and their need to keep rewarding other groups to maintain their grip—in Syria’s case the security services and the monopolist businessmen with whom the Assads have surrounded themselves, in North Korea’s case, the army—in ways that reinforce that rigidity.
China’s Communist Party last week celebrated its 90th birthday, prompting plenty of reflection on how long it, too, can survive in power. The key to its resilience, however, is that it is a system, not a family. There is plenty of corruption and cronyism, naturally. But during the 1980s and, especially, the 1990s, the party shed most of its dynastic ties to Mao’s Long Marchers and turned itself into a bureaucracy, with entrance exams and term limits that enforce rotation and keep something of a lid on corruption.
Most of all, the Communist Party has been flexible, allowing society and the economy to evolve around it. One day, the revolts against the party might become too much, especially if the economy turns sour. Some of the new team of leaders that will take over in 2013, including Xi Jinping, the next president, are the sons of Long Marchers. But as long as the party remains flexible, permitting China to evolve, the day of reckoning may well be staved off.
That is what neither Syria nor North Korea has allowed, albeit in their very different ways and circumstances. Every effort the Chinese have made to encourage the Kim regime to follow their example with economic reform has been rebuffed or quickly abandoned. Rigidity, strict control, cannot be relaxed. It has served the Kims well for more than 50 years. But, albeit in a less hermetically sealed country, rigidity and strict control served the Assads well for decades too. Not for much longer.