At night every light that is on in Tehran shows that somebody is sitting behind a computer driving through information roads.
– Iranian cyber-dissident
My back is someone else. People can’t trust each other. People can’t even trust their wives or children.
– North Korean émigré recently arrived in the United Kingdom
Agreeing to disagree is a prerogative only of those who live under a democratic system. Under an authoritarian regime, disagreeing can be seen as a crime. This makes life for us rather difficult. Sometimes dangerous. But certainly not dull.
– Aung San Suu Kyi 1997:123
Zimbuyer.com is a UK-based website that allows Zimbabweans living in the UK to purchase groceries and other items such as satellite dishes for friends and relatives back home, using the Internet and mobile phones, and thus avoid the costs of run-away inflation. The ordered goods are delivered by hand to households in Harare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo. There are several other websites that offer similar services. For example, Mukuru.com is a UK-based platform through which money can be transferred (at the black-market rate), as well as payments for fuel and mobile phone airtime. Likewise, Beepee Medical Services, based in the UK, allows the diaspora community to pay for doctors’ appointments, prescription drugs and surgery for people in Zimbabwe; the service was set up by a Zimbabwean doctor in the UK and has staff working full-time in Zimbabwe.
These websites could be regarded as a form of economic dissidence, which is just as important as the various forms of political dissidence in creating space in illiberal regimes. Whether we are talking about people smuggling in North Korea, the tourist market in Cuba, or blogging in Iran and China, increasing interconnectedness has weakened the state’s ability to exercise administrative, economic and even ideological forms of control. Individuals, groups and networks use their global links to break out of the constraints imposed by authoritarian or repressive regimes.
This chapter is about global civil society in illiberal regimes. We define illiberal regimes in terms of the spaces that exist for what might be described as civil society. And we ask whether and how these spaces are opened, closed or transformed in the context of globalisation. The chapter is based on a study of civil society in six countries: China, North Korea, Burma, Belarus, Iran and Saudi Arabia; and we also refer to Cuba, Russia and Zimbabwe. Each case study was based on a survey of available literature and websites, personal interviews and interviews via email. Our main argument is that globalisation, even in the most closed authoritarian systems, has led to some form of involuntary pluralisation and that different types of illiberal regimes are based on various forms of this involuntary pluralisation. Pluralisation is not the same as democratisation and global connections may help both to dismantle and to strengthen illiberal regimes.
We start with a critique of the literature on illiberal regimes and the failure of most scholars to take globalisation into account. We then describe the ideas, the forms of activism and the spaces that characterise civil society in different illiberal regimes, and their global connections. We show that the idea of separation between the outside and inside does not hold. Rather, they are interconnected and embodied in civil society that is both local and global at the same time.
The nature of illiberal regimes
Remarkably little has been written about totalitarian and authoritarian regimes since the fall of Communism. The main preoccupation of scholars in recent years has been the process of democratisation rather than the nature of contemporary illiberal regimes.
Linz and Stepan, in their classic book on the transition to democracy, identified five modern regime ideal types: democracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, post-totalitarianism and sultanism (derived from Weber’s extreme patrimonialism), which they described in terms of the defining characteristics of pluralism, ideology, mobilisation and leadership.
Of particular interest for our argument is their perspective on pluralism and, more specifically, the space of civil society in these regimes. According to Linz and Stepan, there is no civil society in sultanistic and totalitarian regimes due to the extensive power of the sultan or the party respectively. Totalitarian regimes were characterised by a pervasive ideology that, at their height, controlled even private spaces. By contrast, they argue that there is limited pluralism in authoritarian and post-totalitarian regimes. In the former, pluralism is mostly social and economic, with limited political pluralism. In the latter, there are various degrees of a ‘second culture’ or ‘parallel society’ that is limited and persecuted, but nonetheless a potent and independent political alternative (Linz and Stepan 1996: 38-54).
Implied in these definitions is the assumption that it is the state that grants or at least tolerates these liberties and, hence, free spaces. The state is understood as an all-powerful institution capable of controlling society. Yet it was always the case that the state is the expression of a set of social relations and the degree of control depends on the way that such relations are regulated. The difference between democratic and non-democratic regimes has to do with whether control is based on consent or coercion; usually state control depends on a mixture of consent and coercion. In democratic societies, control is based largely on consent, which in turn is the outcome of a debate within civil society. In non-democratic societies control is based on a mixture of submissive consent and coercion. We would contend that in the age of globalisation it is increasingly difficult, though not of course impossible, to exercise control on the basis of submissive consent and coercion. The consequence is that, contrary to the image of the all-powerful state, illiberal regimes are often also weak regimes.
The assumption that the state is all-powerful is linked to the tendency to focus on domestic factors and to treat external influences as add-ons, exogenous rather than endogenous determinants of democratic developments. Because of their focus on domestic factors, the analysts of ‘troubled’ democratisation tend to emphasize the legacy of the past more than the contemporary global context.
By contrast, we introduce globalisation into the analysis of democratisation, or, put more modestly, into the opening up of illiberal regimes. From this vantage point, the distinction between the external and internal does not hold. Instead, globalisation becomes internal to the changes in illiberal regimes. Our argument is that contemporary illiberal regimes are being pluralised involuntarily under the complex pressures of globalisation. The nature of these illiberal regimes changes as civil society spaces are carved out, either in the virtual world or in physical space or as a combination of both these spheres.
Involuntary pluralisation is a result of the impact of global political, economic and cultural/media forces. The state’s ability to exercise control has been undermined both in a functional and spatial sense: in its ability to deal with challenges like the HIV and AIDS epidemic or environmental crisis, and in the increasing porosity of national borders and the ‘infiltration’ of global criminal networks that bypass the state, as illustrated by smuggling people out of North Korea.
Illiberal regimes have found themselves affected both by progressive and regressive globalisation. Commonly, when we think about globalisation and democratisation, the focus has been on the impact on norms and human rights, which was so important in Latin America and Communist Europe (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Kaldor 2003). Schmitter has pointed out that ‘this world beneath and beyond the nation state has played an especially significant role in the international promotion of democracy’ (1996: 29). And even today, under the global gaze and pressure put by human rights activists, illiberal regimes have sometimes been forced to give in, and, for example, free political prisoners, as is happening now in China (see Box 5.1).
However, our case studies show that regressive globalisation, especially involvement in the illicit global economy (whether criminal, informal, or in extremist transational networks), is forcing regimes to open up, although this process may not be the same as democratisation. In the Balkans or the Caucasus, for example, powerful transnational networks involved in people smuggling, drugs, or other forms of organised crime, are linked into the state and help to sustain a combination of state weakness and repression (Kostovicova and Bojicic-Dzelilovic 2006). In Saudi Arabia, until recently, the main form of opposition consisted of groups linked to extreme global Islamism, with powerful global outreach through the Internet and other new forms of communication.
Like their democratic counterparts, illiberal states have understood the need to change and adapt in the face of globalisation. It is possible to distinguish three main forms of control exterted by the state. The first is administrative, the exercise of the rule of law and/or repression. While repressive regimes can and do imprison political dissident and use torture and other inhumane treatments, it can be argued that physical repression is less effective than in the past, partly because of the difficulty of controlling the spread of weapons or knowledge of bomb-making, and partly because of international pressure. To an increasing extent, the implementation of a rule of law or of administrative measures depends on consent. The second is economic. Totalitarian or sultanistic regimes exercised total control over the economy. Today, economic control is exerted through patronage, for example, through oil rents, as in the majority of authoritarian regimes, or through predation, as in Zimbabwe. The growth of global markets, such as China’s, creates autonomous economic spaces that require a political response lest they open the floodgates for freedom, as happened in the former Soviet Union. The third form of control is through communication or, as Joseph Nye puts it, soft power (2004). In the global era, this may be the most critical form of control. New forms of communication such as the Internet and the electronic media are inherently global, and these connections can help and hinder illiberal regimes in promoting their ideology.
Today, most illiberal regimes are populist, mobilising consent around powerful nationalistic or religious ideologies. They use modern communications to promote their messages and they thrive on external hostility or pressure. Bush’s phrase the ‘axis of evil’, for example, has helped to substantiate the anti-imperialist claims of regimes in Iran and Venezuela. Paradoxically, these same communications offer space for debate and discussion that is often difficult to close down. Ending illiberal regimes is not simply ‘a matter of wiring enough people’; nonetheless the Internet is bound to be a factor in their opening up, along with other vital processes of ‘traditional’ liberalisation, such as civic education, building local governments and so on (Kalathil and Boas 2003: 135-153).
In sum, it is difficult to introduce a new set of categorisations for today’s illiberal regimes because each regime has different characteristics. Thus both Iran and Saudi Arabia are dominated by their religious establishments but in Iran the religious institutions preside over and interfere with more or less ‘normal’ democratic institutions, while in Saudi Arabia, the total control of the monarchy and the tribal system was only very recently tempered by the introduction of minor, and many would say cosmetic, reforms. In both countries there is a form of gender apartheid and the role of ominous groups like the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice in Saudi Arabia, and the Monkerat (morals police) in Iran rigidly enforce gender segregation and/or women’s dress codes. China, North Korea and Cuba are all nominally communist. Yet China is probably the most successful capitalist economy in the world today, while Cuba’s income depends largely on Western tourism, which opens up autonomous economic space. Even in North Korea, new forms of communication and illicit economic relations as well as nuclear diplomacy are penetrating what appears to be the last bastion of totalitarianism. Zimbabwe and Belarus both seem to be characterised by mad leaders, but while Lukashenko has managed to sustain a relatively orderly repressive society, Mugabe’s government has degenerated into spreading predation that is completely unable to control a burgeoning civil society. In Burma, brutal violence against the Burmese and ethnic minorities, and pervasive control by the military junta of all aspects of state and society give this dictatorship totalitarian characteristics.
In all these regimes, civil society expands and contracts as the regime passes through cycles of reform and repression. The more that civil society takes advantages of openings, the less able the regime is to close them again. Thus Iran experienced a brutal period of repression after the revolution. The sweeping victory of Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections and of reformists in the parliamentary elections of 2000 ushered in a ‘Prague Spring’ with talk of civil society, rule of law and a ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’. The victory of the hardliner Mahmoud Admadinajad in the 2005 presidential elections led to a wave of arrests, executions (including of people under 18), and closures of civil society spaces. Despite the crackdown by religious authorities and the removal of reformists from the government, the debates did have a deep impact on Iranian institutions; above all, as one person interviewed put it, the reform period ‘demystified Islam and separated Islam from Absolutism’. There is a parallel here with the hollowing out of Marxist-Leninism in the last years of communism.
What is a civil society in an illiberal regime? The survey of ideas, activism and spaces of civil society in the illiberal regimes selected for this study tells us that civil society is least likely to resemble the liberal Western conception of civil society as a space between the family, market and state. It may be a family affair, as with the activism of China’s most famous dissident couple; we may talk about ‘market dissidents’ in Cuba or North Korea, about societal autonomy created by NGOs that were originally created by the state to further its control; or we can count those dark elements in society who embrace ideologies more extreme and repressive than the ideology of the ruling regime (Salame 1994).
It is more helpful to view the autonomy of civil society in terms of its impact. Civil society activists from Burma to Iran have demonstrably undermined to various degrees the state’s ultimate claim to political control over society, which is the essence of illiberal regimes and their survival. One Iranian theorist defines civil society as ‘the sphere of social discourses, trends and autonomous social movements that attempt to regulate society’ (Amiramachi 1996). According to this definition, we can identify something that could be called civil society in every illiberal regime that exists today, ranging from economic dissidents in North Korea to the very lively range of different opinions, movements, organisations and spaces that exists in Iran, even after the recent elections and the retreat of the reform process, and in Zimbabwe.
Civil society in an illiberal regime is shaped and constrained by its own repressive political environment as well as complex global connections. Autonomous initiatives are exercised at a great risk, including persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death. Nonetheless, they do take place, though how and where they do are as different as the regimes they challenge. In the next section, we provide an overview of the ideas, activism and spaces of civil society, which reveals the diversity of challenges they can present against even the most repressive state in the context of globalisation.
The ideas guiding civil society activities in illiberal regimes can be grouped as follows:
- Ideas informed by Western liberal thought and a commitment to political and civil liberties.
- Ideas that are about reforming the system framed within the dominant discourse of the regime.
- Ideas about specific issues such as environmentalism, women’s rights, poverty, or HIV and AIDS, that can be framed both within a liberal discourse and within the dominant regime discourse.
- More extremist ideas than those of the regime. The pervasiveness of these more extremist positions within some illiberal regimes dispels the notion of civil society as a solely progressive and liberal space.
1. Western liberal ideas
This group of ideas is pursued by Western liberals in a non-Western setting have campaigned for democratisation based on the defence of the political and civic rights. They are a small but visible minority threatened with severe persecution by their rulers. Their language is the language of democracy, rights and the rule of law. Perhaps the embodiment of this set of ideas is Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become a global symbol for a non-violent struggle for democracy and against repression in Burma, on a par with the South African leader Nelson Mandela. For most of the time since the 1990 electoral victory of her National Democratic League (NLD), which the military junta refused to recognise, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for her beliefs. The Lady, which is how the Burmese call her in deference, describes what she is fighting for:
When we ask for democracy, all we are asking is that our people should be allowed to live tranquilly under the rule of law, protected by institutions which will guarantee our rights, the rights that will enable us to maintain our human dignity, to heal long festering wounds and to allow love and courage to flourish. Is that such a very unreasonable demand? (Suu Kyi 1997: 205).
Similarly, there are Chinese dissidents who have put the struggle for democracy and political rights at the forefront of their activism. Xu Wenli, known as the ‘godfather of dissent’ in China was involved and imprisoned for involvement in the ‘Democracy Wall’ movement in the 1970s. The wall was a notice board for dissident views. In 1998 he tried to establish the China Democratic Party, the first opposition party in China, directly undermining the regime’s soul. Subsequently jailed for 13 years and released early on medical grounds, Xu Wenli joined a growing number of Chinese dissidents in exile. However, the political struggle and its persecution in China has continued, exemplified by Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jinyan. Their latest house arrest and ban on foreign travel is part of a crackdown on human rights activists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing (see Box 5.1). Hu Jia began as an HIV/AIDS activist in the 1990s. However, he soon realised that social challenges in China could not be tackled without first addressing politics, and consequently turned his efforts to the struggle for the freedom of speech and the press.
2. Reformist ideas
Alongside the dissenters who mount a direct political challenge to the regime, there has been widespread activism that challenges the regime on its own terms, both in religious or ideological terms. They are guided by ideas framed in terms of the discourse of Islam in Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, as well in terms of ‘rightful resistance’ in China.
In Iran many of the radicals who made the 1979 revolution became the backbone of the reformist movement in the 1980s. Particularly important has been the Islamic reform movement that argues that Islam, in particular Shi’ism, depends on human interpretation. The missing Imam in Shi’ism implies that no one has a direct line to God. Rules that are said to be Islamic are, in practise, the result of Islamic jurisprudence, that is constructed by men. Every individual is able to interpret the right ‘way’, i.e. sharia, and there is no ‘objective interpretation of divine law, independent of historical, geographical and socio-cultural context’ (Amiramachi 1996).
3. Specific issues
In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, new ideas about the role of women have been developed within the Islamist discourse. Thus women campaigning for greater rights in Saudi Arabia point out that Mohammed was committed to equality and that his wife Khadiga was a successful businesswoman. They point out that there is nothing in the Koran that says that women must not drive or must cover their faces. Similarly, in Iran it is argued that discriminatory laws against women contradict the fundamental Islamic belief in justice and equality (Mir Hosseini 2006). In particular, women are supposed to have a privileged position as mothers yet they do not enjoy fundamental rights (Gheytanchi 2001).
In Zimbabwe, it is women who have provided the inspiration for the civil disobedience movement. Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a movement with 35,000 both male and female members, has adopted the slogan ‘Tough Love’. The idea that the power of love can conquer the love of power comes out of Zimbabwean traditions and norms. The argument is that ‘Tough Love’ is the disciplining love of a parent; women practice it to press for and to bring dignity back to Zimbabweans. Political leaders in Zimbabwe need some discipline, it is argued, and who better to dish it out than mothers? Tough Love is used as a ‘people power’ tool to press for better governance and social justice. Annual marches held on Valentine’s Day demonstrate the power of ‘Tough Love’ (URL).
4. Extremist ideas
Alongside the liberal, the reformist and the issue-based ideas actors, civil society harbours extremist ideas as well. There is a tendency to believe that it is regimes that are bad and people that are good. But as was revealed after the end of Communism, prejudice and hatred are bred in authoritarian regimes just as much as a belief in democracy. There are extreme nationalists in Russia and Belarus and extreme Islamists in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Iran, for example, in January 2007, the government closed down a fundamentalist website Baztub, which had accused Ahmadinajad of betraying the revolution because he watched a female dance show at the recent Asian games in Qatar.
In Saudi Arabia, the main opposition, at least during the 1990s, was extremist Wahabism, which distinguishes itself both from mystical Islam and from Shi’ism. These conservatives argue that modernity and westernisation is threatening the true Islam both globally and locally, and that the royal family is failing to protect and promote the values of Islam. The Gulf War of 1991 was a turning point for these groups – the deployment of American troops in Saudi Arabia was considered a betrayal of Islam. Key issues are the defence of global Islam, opposition to corruption and demands for redistribution, and opposition to the American presence in Saudi Arabia, especially in the holy places.
By definition there is only a limited space for political activism in illiberal regimes. However, a close look at movements, NGOs and associations, reveals a busy civil society engaged in a spectrum of activities ranging from those that are political and persecuted by the regime, to those that are humanitarian and supported by the state. Women and youth groups are particularly important social forces in all our case studies.
In Iran, discriminatory laws were introduced within weeks of the 1979 revolution, including the right of men to divorce unilaterally, lowering the age of marriage for women to nine years, imposing a rigid dress code for women, introducing strict gender segregation, and inflicting violent punishments such as flogging and stoning. Since the revolution, prohibitions on ‘immoral behaviour’ are enforced by the Revolutionary Guards, other paramilitary groups of the Ministry of the Interior, and by the Monkerat.
In Saudi Arabia, in 1991, a large group of educated women drove their cars into the centre of Riyadh. They were harassed, threatened and publicly denounced. Subsequently the government announced travel restrictions on women. Women have become more outspoken in the last few years. The broadcaster Rania al-Baz allowed her face to be photographed after her husband beat her. A businesswoman addressed the Jeddah Economic Forum with her face uncovered. In 2004, a petition signed by 300 people demanded greater rights for women, and women protested their exclusion from the municipal elections. The government’s defence was based on logistics, the difficulty of registering women, rather than on principle, and it has been agreed that women would be allowed to vote in future elections.
In China, women have been critical in raising awareness of state repression. Particularly important has been the role of the ‘Tiananmen Mothers’. A group of mothers who lost their loved ones in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre got together with the aim of seeking justice from the regime. They were harassed, threatened, put under surveillance and some were detained by the Chinese authorities. The Internet was critical to their cause. They informed the Chinese public about their cause, publishing open letters, declarations and other information. In 2002 they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Transnational connections with human rights groups abroad were critical for ensuring the early release of three mothers arrested for ‘harming national security’ in 2004 (Tai 2006: 106-108).
Young people are often singled out as a political threat by illiberal regimes, one might say not without good reason. While thriving on and learning from transnational connections facilitated by information and communication technologies, they have challenged their respective regimes in numerous creative and humorous ways. Their activism has managed to capture and mobilise popular support.
In Iran, young people’s movements include non-political movements of young people who want to be able to meet the opposite sex freely in public places or dress as they please, as well as those who make more explicitly political demands, especially among student groups. Unemployment is also an important factor in young people’s protest. In Burma, university students were a critical force in the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally suppressed, but they are still defiant and active. Despite the regime’s repression of dissent, some 1,000 people gathered to mark the birthday of the imprisoned student leader Min Ko Naing in October 2006 (Yeni 2006).
In Belarus as well, the regime has been particularly afraid of youth activism. Grassroots movements of youth groups and unregistered NGOs, such as Malady Front (Youth Front) and Zubr (Bison as the country’s national symbol) have flourished, even as their members have been imprisoned. They have launched campaigns like ‘Enough!’ modelled on the Serbian youth movement Otpor (Resistance), organising street actions or satirising the regime. They collaborate with the youth Ukranian activists, in Pora, National Alliance, and Svoboda, learning from their role in the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (Schipani-Aduriz and Kudrytski 2005; see Chapter 4 of this volume).
NGOs and associations
Across the spectrum of illiberal regimes there is a myriad NGOs and associations in some places and hardly any in others. For example, they number some 8,000 in Iran, hundreds of thousands in China but cannot be counted in Belarus because of the government’s policy of ‘judicial liquidation’, a series of repressive administrative measures that aimed to ‘root out’ civil society. In some countries NGOs cover the whole spectrum of opinion; in others, only pro-government NGOs are allowed to exist.
In Saudi Arabia, religious charities became the breeding ground for extremist Islam during the 1990s and only recently has the government imposed restrictions, which have affected moderate charities as well. A few NGOs and associations are also tolerated. These have included the establishment of professional syndicates where women have been allowed to stand and vote, for example, the Saudi National Agency of Engineers, the Chambers of Commerce, and an organisation for journalists.
In Iran, there are many pro-government groups, such as Ansar-e Hizbullah, Muslim Students following the Imam, and the Tehran Militant Clergy Association. There are also pro-reform groups like the Office of Strengthening Unity among students, and opposition groups. And there are groups representing minorities who are discriminated against (such as Arab, Kurdish, Azeri, Christian and Bahai).
Whether in Iran, Burma, Belarus Saudi Arabia or China, the regimes themselves have resorted to the creation of NGOs. In Burma, the state created its own ‘civil society’, embodied by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Its focus on the youth is an important element in its campaign to forestall the dissent among young people, especially after the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations. Like USDA, the Belarussian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) seeks to appeal to youth, but also intimidates and harasses the regime’s opponents at universities and schools. BRSM is known as Lukamol, a combination of Lukashenka and Komsomol, the Youth Communist League from the Communist Period. In Saudi Arabia, two human rights bodies have been established by the government although they have no autonomy and could not, for example, defend the signatories of the Petition for a Constitutional Monarchy, some of whom were arrested and imprisoned.
The state-led creation and/or tolerance of NGOs also often has a functional justification: to offload services onto the non-state sector and to fill in gaps in service provision. In Iran, the grassroots response to the humanitarian crisis after the Bam earthquake, and NGOs specialising in dealing with drug addiction or poverty play a critical role. In China, ‘civil society’ has been allowed to assist the state in service provision where the state and market cannot deliver (Chong 2005), for example fighting the HIV and AIDS epidemic or environmental degradation (see Box 5.2).
In both China and Iran, the government has maintained a restrictive legal environment in order to ‘contain and control’ the civil society, lest it should provide a political challenge to the state (Zengke 2007). Despite this, many NGOs have managed to bypass the government’s restrictions in different ways, gain some autonomy, and even challenge government policy. For example, in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, Homeowners Committees represent the increasing number of homeowners who have taken developers or local governments to court for infringing their rights.
The clandestine printing and dissemination of Samizdat editions with dissidents’ works and ideas during Communism in Eastern Europe illustrates the necessity and power of communication for civil society activists and their struggle against non-democratic regimes. The arrival of the Internet, with websites, blogs and emails, and of other information and communication technologies, such as mobile phones and SMS,, have revolutionised the opportunities to communicate dissent. At the same time, it has given illiberal regimes another sphere in which to practise repression. Although the Internet is a significant space, it is one of many.
The Internet and other new technologies
The Internet has provided an unprecedented space for dissent for civil society and a dilemma for rulers. As Taubmann says: ‘efforts to sanitize the Internet are hampered by the fact that the features of the Internet that cause problems for nondemocratic rulers are the same features that make the technology so attractive’ (1998: 256) and, one might add, necessary in order to participate in the global economy. (See Box 5.3 for an exploration of efforts to control the Internet).
Until recently, in Iran the Internet offered a freer space than the print media. By 2001 there were some 1,500 Internet cafés, and there are now between 70,000 and 100,000 bloggers. Some 7.5 million Iranians are estimated to surf the net, more as a proportion of the population than any other Middle Eastern country except Israel. The government has not been able to enforce its own regulations effectively for a number of reasons, including its own lack of expertise, and because the Internet is largely provided by commercial providers. In addition, the government uses the Internet to propagate its own Islamic discourse. According to several clerics the Internet is a ‘gift to spread the word of the prophet’ (Rahimi 2003).
The use of the Internet by reformists include a former prostitute whose weblog exposed the ‘underworld life of Iranian society’ (Rahimi 2003); the intellectual Akbar Ganji who posted his Republican Manifesto; and Ayatollah Montezeri, the 82 year old dissident cleric once in line to be Supreme leader, who uploaded his 600-page memoir in December 2000, which criticised the ideological foundation of the Islamic state and opposed the ‘dogma’ of velayat-e fiqih.
However, since 2003, the Iranian regime has stepped up its attack on the space provided by the Internet. Some 450 Internet cafes have been shut down, dozens of websites have been closed down, including popular Western sites like Amazon, YouTube and the New York Times (in 2007), and many bloggers have been arrested. Egyptian bloggers have also been targeted by the state – see Box 5.4.
In Saudi Arabia, the Internet has also become a space utilised by both government and opposition. As in other Islamist countries, the religious establishment regards the Internet as an important forum to propagate its message. The Saudi regime interdicts many popular western websites; nevertheless technically-savvy people can find ways to circumvent these restrictions. No one knows who runs the Committee Against Corruption website (URL). According to its mission statement, it was inaugurated by ‘people with strong ties to the business community in the US and Saudi Arabia’.
In China, virtual technology provides a way to side step restrictions on public gatherings and social activism. It has become a ‘hotbed of collective action’, a site for making cyber-protest and organising cyber-gatherings. The death of young graphic designer and student Sun Zhigang, in Guangzhou in March 2003, illustrates the power of the Internet. Arrested on his way to an Internet café for not having a residency permit, he was taken to a local detention centre for beggars and vagrants. Three days later he was found dead in a local hospital. A local reporter published the story on the his paper’s Internet edition. It led to a nationwide public outcry. Pressure built up through online postings in chat rooms, blogs, online petitions and protest letters. It resulted in charges against government officials and police officers, financial compensation to the family and eventually the repeal of the out-dated law on urban vagrants (Tai: 159-268).
Since the introduction of the Internet in China, the government has played a ‘cat and mouse’ game, using various approaches to control it, including regulation, self-censorship, ‘cyber police’, surveillance, a crackdown on internet cafes, and the building a ‘Great Firewall’ around China (Endeshaw 2004). However, having learnt from its inability to stop the use of satellite dishes in China, it has not tried to ban Internet access. A Chinese official compared the Communist Party’s strategy towards the Internet to the Chinese people’s historic struggle to control the Yellow river. According to him, the proper technique is not to try stopping the water but to guide it in the right direction (Cody 2007).
In Burma, restrictions on the Internet are physical, such as restrictions on where people can open email accounts (only in hotels, government offices and businesses), and technical, such as blocking access to Yahoo and Google. Still, people can use a handful of Internet cafes to surf and to sidestep government restrictions. A journalist from Burma with whom we corresponded said:
There are Internet café owners who are asked by military intelligence to monitor the users and inform the officials if they try to look at the banned sites. But many Internet users are still reading banned sites with the help of proxy software and sites. Internet connection starting installation fee is about US$ 2,000. But in cafes, hourly usage costs only US$ 0.6. While I am trying to send this letter to you, I am using a proxy web to use gmail illegally in a café and sometimes we need to spend one hour to send a letter.
Like the youth movement Otpor in Serbia and Kmara in Georgia, Belarus’ Zubr, has relied on mobile phones, text messaging, and emails to organise rallies in the capital. In North Korea, illegal sales and the spread of transistor radios without a fixed tuning dial are lifting the information blockade imposed by the regime. Defectors from North Korea have been able to get in touch with families back home thanks to the penetration of the Chinese mobile network in border towns (Jeffries 2006: 93). And family connections were rekindled thanks to video-conference telephoning between relatives separated after the Korean war of the 1950s (Jeffries 2006: 76-80).
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Websites (consulted 19 July 2007)
- Amnesty International, http://web.amnesty.org/wire/september2001/china
- Collectif Chine JO 2008, http://pekin2008.rsfblog.org
- Committee Against Corruption, http://www.geocities.com/saudhouse_p/faq.htm#remember
- Falon Gong, http://www.fofg.org/
- Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/china/beijing08/
- International Olympic Committee, www.ioc.org
- Alaa and Manal blog, manalaa.net
- Wael Abbas blog, misrdigital.tk
- Noolympics, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8siFEJktZs
- Nora Younis blog, norayounis.com
- Not On Our Watch, http://www.notonourwatchproject.org/
- Olympic Charter, http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_122.pdf
- Olympic Dream for Darfur, http://www.dreamfordarfur.org/
- Olympic Watch, www.olympicwatch.org
- Mohammed al-Sharqawi blog, speaksfreely.net
- Women of Zimbabwe Arise, http://wozazimbabwe.org/?page_id=4
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