Why do apologists for authoritarian regimes always cite the diversity of the impacted people as evidence of the regime’s moderate governance and of the reader’s ignorance? “[I]n China as a whole, discrete zones of freedom exist alongside governmental repression, and the view of a homogenized, blinkered populace is highly misleading,” writes Iain Mills in World Politics Review. “Rather, Chinese society is diverse and dynamic, and so is the distribution of freedom and repression within it.” To whom is Mills ascribing this view of China’s people as a “blinkered populace”? Those of us who want to see Beijing release its Nobel Prize–winning thinkers from jail? Those of us who believe the Chinese should have unfettered Internet access and a right to redress their leaders without fear of punishment?
To Mills, somehow pointing out government oppression is synonymous with assuming the existence of a zombie public. As inexplicable as this intellectual shell game is, it is not uncommon. This is exactly what we heard from Tehran apologists in 2009, during the run-up to the fraudulent June 12 presidential election and the deadly crackdown that followed it. “Iranians are property-buying, car-mad, entrepreneurial consumers with a taste for the latest brands,” wrote the New York Times’s Roger Cohen in February of that year. “Forget about nukes. Think Nikes,” he urged, before closing on this recommendation: “America, think again about Iran.” I hope the Iranians had their Nikes on four months later when they had to run from Revolutionary Guard clubs and bullets.
It is precisely because Americans do not assume the people in authoritarian countries to be thoughtless automatons that we recognize the tragedy of their lot. The fact of individualism and the recognition that people in other countries harbor the same hopes and dreams of all human beings are the most elemental aspects of support for political freedoms. A defense of a country’s population is not a defense of its authoritarian leaders; it is an indictment of them.