The Historic Implications of Qaddafi’s Downfall

At the moment, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces control only a few pockets in Tripoli, so it’s a good time to reflect on one of the Libyan dictator’s more interesting comments from this year. “Students in Beijing protested for days near a Coca-Cola sign,” he said in late February, referring to the tragic events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. “Then the tanks came and crushed them.”

After Mubarak fled Cairo, some said he and Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell because they were not ruthless enough. Yet the world’s dictators may want to think about whether resorting to massive force, as Qaddafi did, will keep them in power. The use of the gun obviously failed Brother Leader in Libya, and, by the look of things, it has not been especially effective for his counterparts in Syria or Yemen either.

The failure of Qaddafi could mark a historic transition when autocrats can no longer count on force to maintain their rule. There are many regimes that could come apart as soon as people find inspiration from Libya’s brave citizens.

The message from Libya could even inspire those far from Arab lands. Take China, for instance. Its leaders massacred great numbers of protesters in Beijing in 1989, yet the brutal lesson has worn off in the last decade. The Chinese people are losing their fear, as the rising tide of protests, strikes, riots, disturbances, and bombings across the country reveals.

This new assertiveness—some call it “defiance”—means it is increasingly hard for the Communist Party to control society. For one thing, the ruling organization’s message no longer inspires the Chinese people, and so it has to rely on ever-greater repression to keep itself in place. Yet China has changed since 1989, and it is hard to see anyone on the Politburo Standing Committee—the nine-member group that rules China—repeating Deng Xiaoping’s infamous words: “We are not afraid to shed a little blood since this will not seriously harm China’s image in the world.”

Veteran China watcher Willy Lam, in a conversation with me in 2003, said it was extremely unlikely that anyone in the Fourth Generation leadership—the country’s current crop of autocrats—would ever order another Tiananmen massacre. For one thing, no one in the civilian leadership had then—or has now—the personal authority to do so.

Even if someone in the Standing Committee gave the order, it’s highly unlikely the People’s Liberation Army would obey. Even with his military credentials, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. The current civilian leadership does not have the same stature, and such an order might split the military and cause a revolt in the officer ranks. Finally, even if the top brass followed an order to shoot, it’s unlikely that most ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of most of its people. A government under siege cannot survive when its soldiers refuse to fire their weapons.

There are times in history when authoritarian governments are relatively stable. And then there are moments when they are not. Qaddafi has shown, in the second decade of this century, that the last resort of a failing leader—the use of force on a wide scale—is no match for the human spirit.

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