The Lessons of China and Iran

Uighur uprisings in China and political protests in Iran have dispelled the conventional wisdom about both countries. What should we expect next? Get ready for non-stop turbulence.

Last week's rioting in the western Chinese city of Urumqi between Muslim Turkic Uighurs and Han Chinese claimed close to 200 lives and injured more than 1,000. Tension between the two groups has been long in the making. In 1994, I visited the region, including Urumqi, while doing research for a book and found the words mutual hatred not too strong a term for the relationship between the two communities.

The province of Xinjiang, where the riots occurred, means "New Dominion," and it is called that for a reason. Though a Chinese state has existed in eastern Asia for 3,500 years, Xinjiang became part of China only in the middle of the 18th century. And the Uighurs, who use the Arabic script and look to Mecca for their identity, have historically interacted more with Russian Turkestan to the west than with the Chinese heartland to the east. Clearly, the Uighurs, like the Tibetans to their southeast, symbolize the parts of China's population that have yet to be fully absorbed into it.

I don't believe for a minute that China will be seriously destabilized by these riots. I assume that the state will move in with a fierce and adroit hand, arrest culprits, punish them severely, and channel more aid to the region in its continuing, decades-old struggle to tame the province. Expect Chinese officialdom to react to these riots with much more wisdom and efficiency than the Iranian government has reacted to its own. There will be fewer—and less profoundly outlandish—statements originating from Chinese policymakers than have originated from the Iranian president and supreme leader.

For there is little prospect of China’s leadership losing legitimacy, whereas one could convincingly argue that legitimacy is something Iran’s rulers no longer have. China's regime may have its troubles in Xinjiang, but it still delivers efficient management of a complex society that spans nearly a continent. Iran's regime simply cannot lay claim to that kind of stability. And the Chinese communist party is not split like the Iranian clergy.

While the unrest in China was a matter of ethnic strife, rooted in the illiberal language of blood identity, the demonstrations in Iran had universalist stirrings, reflected in the cry for "democracy." Thus, while the turmoil in China unsettles us, we find the drama in Iran uplifting. Yet both disturbances remind us not to become too complacent about our assumptions.

For years we had perceived China as a state galloping ever forward, en route to peer competitor status with the United States and its military. We forgot that foreign and defense policy emanates from a country's domestic conditions, and that if its domestic conditions are less than harmonious, its policy toward the outside world, too, may be less than robust. In other words, China's rise cannot be taken for granted. To wit, China is also grinding away at its environmental base. Its water table is diminishing, along with the nutrients in its soil. But the regime cannot afford to slow down its economic growth for fear of a popular eruption far broader than what we just saw in Xinjiang. With communism lost as a philosophical underpinning to the regime, China's leaders may increasingly have to resort to nationalism in the face of some future economic downturn. And the Uighur rising - and the Hans’ bloody response – gave us a look at the depth of some of the ethnic and nationalistic tensions that will need to be assuaged if China is to fulfill the vision as a legitimate and largely peaceful peer competitor. Remember, nothing is destiny.

Then there is Iran. Until just a few weeks ago, we had assumed, as many in the foreign policy mandarinate had assured us, that Iran was a new, unconventional, and irresistible imperial force stalking the Greater Middle East—dangerous and largely unbeatable precisely because its system was fundamentally stable. Now street protestors have created a whole new set of assumptions. What if Iran were not so hostile in the future? What if its power in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were diminished by sustained unrest and divisions at home? What if, because of dramatic political evolution in Iran, a decade hence we had better relations with Iran than we currently do with Saudi Arabia?

The real lesson of the disturbances in both countries is that in this demographically dense and technologically interconnected world, we should be prepared for non-stop turbulence. Foreign policy will be the art of quick-reaction, as situations can turn on a dime. That is why I strongly believe that President Barack Obama will ultimately be judged less by any preconceived philosophical notions he brings to foreign policy, than by his inner temperament—which may or may not enable him to respond well to the crises and upheavals ahead.