Goodbye, tyranny!

When I wrote “Goodbye, Gadhafi” two months ago, some web users accused me of jumping the gun. They said Gadhafi might stage a comeback. But in fact I wasn’t jumping the gun at all.

One-hundred years ago, perhaps 90 percent of nations on earth were ruled by despots who relied on military might. Fifty years ago, such countries represented less than 50 percent of the total. And today, less than 10 percent of nations in the world are under autocratic rule.

I would argue that against this historical tide, one could write a “goodbye” essay about any despot and then sit around waiting for their undoing. The people won’t keep you waiting long, and history won’t disappoint you.

When I saw pictures online of Gadhafi’s bloodied face [during his capture], something he said not long ago echoed in my ears. He said with total confidence during a recent interview with a Western journalist: “Will I step down? Who will overthrow me? The people of Libya love me . . . ”

It was these very same people whose love he claimed to possess that drove him to such a piteous state, and who took to the streets to celebrate his defeat.

In civilized societies there is an unwritten rule that even when the most ruthless killer is put to death under the law, none celebrate it, because human life is valued above all else — and we are all of us born innocent babes.

Right now, this rule does not apply to Libya. It is not suited to the Libyan people, who have just freed themselves from a brutal dictatorship. Anyone in the world can understand them, how the death of a despot is cause for celebration for a free and peace-loving people. Once the world has been rid of all of its despots, humanity will no longer hail the death of any one person, and the world will be more civilized for it.

Some people — and Chinese in particular — cannot understand the hostility others have for despots, and they don’t understand the difference between democracy and autocracy. On this issue, please allow me to offer the following three points:

1. The hostility people feel toward despots does not necessarily have anything to do with democracy. Many people taking to the streets do not know what the benefits of democracy are. They know only that despotism is no longer tolerable.

The history of the overthrowing of dictators over the past century has shown us that this does not happen because the people hanker after some fantasy of democracy and therefore rise up to overthrow autocratic rulers. This is an important factor for intellectuals in a number of countries. It’s not that they aren’t aware of the hateful nature of autocracy; it’s just that they can’t see the democratic future clearly and therefore are willing to do a dance with dictatorship. In order to sleep soundly at night, they dupe themselves into believing that “servility” is “reason”.

2. Overthrowing dictatorship does not equal the establishment of democracy. Many half-baked scholars are inclined to use the chaos of democracies to argue that overthrowing dictatorship is “not worth it” or that “the time is not right.” They fail to see clearly the trends of history, and they underestimate the power of human conscience. Perhaps democracy is far off in the distance, but if tyranny is not thrown down it will be farther away still. Autocratic rule is the worst of systems in the world. Only by casting it down can people come to grips with other choices and forge a future for their country.

Of course, we must recognize that owing to various historical, cultural or religious factors, the overthrow of one form of tyranny may lead to its replacement by another.

Looking at the Middle East, we can see the Western democratic systems have had little success in the region. Turkey, the country recognized in the region as the most democratic, has many outstanding issues that need solving.

In this sense, Asian countries influenced by Confucianism are more suited to democratic systems. Japan’s democratic system has already in some ways surpassed that of some Western countries, and South Korea’s democratic system is undergoing constant improvement. Especially worthy of note is Chinese Taiwan, whose democratic system has been operating for not quite 20 years but can already serve as an example not just to Asia but to the rest of the world. A number of countries have made rapid progress on the democratic front, enough to make the United States, whose democratic system has a 230-year history, blush with shame.

3. While perhaps all autocratic regimes collapse suddenly, democratic systems cannot be built in a day. As tyranny goes against human nature and public feeling, regardless of how splendid things seem on the surface, no matter how much rulers whitewash reality and employ machines of propaganda to inspire a glorious image of public loyalty and love, it will all unavoidably come crashing down, and this will happen faster than anyone can expect it.

This is why everyone knows we will ultimately say “goodbye” to autocratic regimes. We may not know exactly when they will come to an end, but they most certainly will.

However, for all sorts of reasons, not least the damage inflicted on a country by its autocratic rulers, once a regime falls the autocratic impulse can persist for generations, and the project of democracy will come upon all sorts of difficulties and obstacles.

Even though this is true those who grumble that democracy is no better than autocracy should open their eyes and look again — no person in those more than 100 nations of the world that have won the right to free choice would choose to return to the autocratic systems of the past. And there are peoples who have not yet set off on the road to democracy who still choose to spill their own blood and lay down their lives [in the hope of throwing off tyranny].

The vicissitudes of the past century have taught us that while it may be a simpler matter to send tyrants to their grave, it is much harder to build democratic systems. If the “Jasmine Revolution” in the Middle East is about people yearning for democracy and overthrowing tyranny, then the Wall Street protests are about the hope that democratic systems can be improved. Democratic systems have the capacity and the space for self-improvement.

If the autocratic rulers of the world do not loosen their grip on power, they will find themselves without choices — like Nicolae Ceauşescu, Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi before them.


9 Comments to “Goodbye, tyranny!”

  1. ltlee says:

    No. It is not my intention to argue for the sake of argument. If it please you, I have no problem rephrasing one of my previous statement to the following:
    Thank you for confirming that comments here were moderated based depending on certain judgement of “legitimacy =Not Spam.”

  2. David says:


    Wow, are you are so desperate to find a thread of an argument? I did not say “legitimacy” of ideas was a criterion in passing comments through. Legitimate = not spam. Everything else goes through. Period.

    Like everyone else, we use the WordPress comment moderation function as an anti-spam system — not as a censorship mechanism. Or do you really think we can better serve our readers by having the our margins full of bogus comments with links taking people to XXX sites?

    Again, your comment (unless it was your first one) was not held up. It’s just not possible. If your first one was held up it was because I was busy doing my job. I think that a simple enough concept to understand — and of course has absolutely nothing to do with censorship, in China or anywhere else.

    In a general sense, I would possibly agree with you that “many people seem to have an overly broad view on censorship when applied to China.” But I spend much of my time documenting how it actually does happen — with the human beings who suffer it on a daily basis. If you are really interested in the issue, I suggest you do the same, rather than resort to “overly broad” statements.

    The evidence is all around you.


  3. ltlee says:

    I had talked to westerners concerning the Opium Wars. Some did not appear to know anything about them. One actually thought the Opium Wars were caused by China importing opium into Britain. Would you blame internet censorship?

  4. ltlee says:

    Thank you for confirming that comments here were moderated based depending on certain judgement of “legitimacy.” Concerning the technical point, my posts did appeared upon submission. But then the status were changed to awaiting moderation for over a week.
    I have no problem with moderation and I don’t see my comments being held up as any kind of conspiracy. I only mentioned it because many people seem to have an overly broad view on censorship when applied to China.

  5. David says:


    [Sigh] . . . More conspiracy theories . . . But I did get a good chuckle out of this one. So thank you.

    I personally handle comments that come through this site, approve deletion of what is spam (20-30 per day), and pass through everything else, without exception. I’ve never, ever had a legitimate comment (not spam) that left me the least bit conflicted as to whether or not to approve it.

    But there’s a technical problem with what you’re saying as well. From the time your first comment on this site was approved, ANY comment you made using the same account would be automatically approved — going up without me ever seeing it unless I happened upon it while trolling through spam and posts by new commenters.

    We use a plain-old WordPress system, nothing fancy, so you’re welcome to read up on their comment function yourself. Or make a few phone calls?

    As a matter of fact, the only reason I saw this amusing accusation of yours was by stumbling on the topmost comment by Andao while clearing out spammed comments with links to product websites.

    I hope that makes you wiser, but I’m not holding my breath.


  6. Andao says:

    Itlee, I can’t comment for CMP since I’m not sure how they work things. But I do know from discussions with my girlfriend and her colleagues (Chinese citizens who do not speak English) that they have little or no awareness of things like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen Square. How would they know to even look for information about these events, if they never knew they existed? The vast majority of Chinese I know realize they aren’t getting the full story when it comes to news or internet, but they have no idea how extensive it is.

  7. ltlee says:

    Don’t know what you mean by impossible to know the other side. Most talks about censorship in China are exaggerated. One example, people were not supposed to talk about June 4th 1989 according to western media. I, however, had no problem initiating and continuing discussion on this topic in People’s Daily’s forum. Yes, my posts on June 4, 89 were moderated and they did not show up 1 -2 days late. Was it necessarily censorship? For comparison, some of my comments in this site, yes, CMP of Hong Kong University, were also moderated and did not show up after more than a week.
    Anyway, please tell what information available on the internet is impossible to know by making a few phone calls.
    No, I don’t think Yang’s categorical statement about the Chinese people is valid.

  8. Andao says:

    Itlee, I think Yang’s assumption is valid. Chinese live under a despotic government but do not sympathize with those Arab Spring protests/revolutions, and so you see nothing of that sort here. Furthermore, a great many do not realize the internet or news or Chinese history is censored as much as it is, so it’s impossible for them to know what it’s like on “the other side”.

  9. ltlee says:

    “Some people — and Chinese in particular — cannot understand the hostility others have for despots, and they don’t understand the difference between democracy and autocracy.”
    Dear Mr. Yang, you are certainly free to count yourself among those “Chinese in particular”. However, I don’t see how you are in a position to include most Chinese in the above “cannot understand” category. If you have survey results to back up your assertion, please share.

Leave a Comment