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A civil resistance expert on the protests in China and Iran


Why do some protest movements succeed while others fail? That question is relevant to the people in China who marched in the streets protesting the zero-COVID policy and to those in Iran who've been demonstrating for months after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in government custody. Erica Chenoweth is a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School. They study protests around the world and what makes them work. Thanks for being here.

ERICA CHENOWETH: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your research shows that nonviolent protests are actually more successful than violent ones. Explain why that is.

CHENOWETH: Well, the main reason is that nonviolent resistance is a method that is more inclusive of a larger proportion of the population. So movements that rely primarily on strikes, protests, boycotts and other forms of unarmed resistance are more likely to attract people from all walks of life, which means that they can be more gender-inclusive, more multigenerational. They can often cut across class divides. They can cut across urban/rural divides, and that makes them larger. And once a movement is very large, it sort of comes with a sense that it has a greater claim to legitimacy, and they begin to get a lot more attention both from domestic and international audiences, which can ultimately result in really important power shifts within their opponents' kind of pillars of support - so the economic and business community, religious authorities and the security forces themselves, who - if they defect, it really can change the direction of the movement.

SHAPIRO: OK, so that explains why peaceful demonstrations are more likely to be effective than violent ones. But at the same time, you find that peaceful demonstrations are less successful these days than they were decades ago. What's going on there?

CHENOWETH: Well, I think what's happened is that authoritarian regimes around the world have basically learned that nonviolent resistance movements are a genuine threat to their political survival, and so they have adapted their techniques. They've become much more sophisticated, and they also have tried to shore up the loyalties, especially of those security forces - whether they're the police or military - so that they don't defect.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of one of the more sophisticated techniques we're seeing today to suppress peaceful demonstrations that we might not have seen decades ago?

CHENOWETH: Sure. So let's just think about the use of the internet, which - you know, when it first arrived on the scene, there was a lot of optimism about the ability of the internet to create virtual civic space where it had been shut down by autocratic regimes.


CHENOWETH: But if you look at how the internet was used in Myanmar, for example - the way that the regime used the internet was, of course, to surveil specific high-profile activists and basically try to selectively repress them. But they also shut down the internet so that people couldn't actually use it to organize and organize responses to these incidents of repression. So they would sort of turn it back on so that people could log onto Facebook and see that there had been horrific incidents of violence against key, well-known activists, but then they would shut it down so that people couldn't actually then organize via Facebook, private chatrooms or otherwise...


CHENOWETH: ...To figure out how they were going to respond to those killings.

SHAPIRO: When you look at demonstrations that work, what do they have in common? You mentioned that one thing is a big umbrella - they are across gender, generation, class, etc. What else?

CHENOWETH: I think the single most important factor is whether or not we start to see those cracks in the pillars of support for the opponent. So are we seeing civil servants walking out on the job? Are we seeing security forces calling in sick in large numbers or refusing to follow orders to arrest or shoot unarmed demonstrators, for example?

There are really two other things that are really important to look at in terms of the movement's own staying power. The first is - how is the movement responding to repression and the escalation of repression? Is it sort of falling into disarray? Is it fragmenting? Or, is it effectively responding to those incidents of repression by reinforcing its claims to legitimacy - by saying it's outrageous that the regime would use violence against unarmed demonstrators, and now we have 10 times more people joining us in this effort to seek justice? That's called backfire.


CHENOWETH: And then the fourth thing, really, that's important is whether the movement is innovating new tactics. So street protests and demonstrations are I think what a lot of people think of when they think of these mass movements, but they're not necessarily the most effective, and they can often be pretty dangerous over time for people to participate in. So what's really important is whether the movement is also able to turn to methods of non-cooperation, like strikes or boycotts or stay-at-home demonstrations, banging pots and pans - other things that are disruptive, symbolic, that make the point, but don't actually expose people directly to those security forces who might otherwise be attacking them.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's hard for China to use facial recognition technology against people who are staying home.


SHAPIRO: So when you look at the protests in China and in Iran and compare it to the kind of checklist of demonstrations that work and don't, what do you see?

CHENOWETH: Well, I first want to just say that, in the contemporary terrain, when a movement is rising up in a place like Iran, they're not just rising up against the Iranian government. They're rising up against an entire global autocratic coalition who is backing up the Iranian government, too. That said, what I look for when I see movements like this setting on is I look at especially whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing and whether there are visible defections taking place. Because these movements aren't winning because they're melting the hearts of their opponents; they're winning because they basically dislocate those opponents from their sources of power and authority, and they constrain their options. So that's why I look at those specific indicators as guides to predicting how they're going to end.

SHAPIRO: And right now, do you see that happening in either China or Iran?

CHENOWETH: The mass participation in Iran has been, I think, very impressive. It's been incredibly gender-inclusive in ways that differentiate it from previous waves of protest over the past 20 or 30 years there. That said, it's really hard to know whether defections are happening and, if they are happening, whether they are at the level of kind of critical political threat to the regime. There is a phenomenon that sometimes takes place where defections will start, and then there's a huge cascade of them more or less all at once. And, you know, that's something that really is fundamentally unpredictable.

And so I think the thing I would say about both of these cases is that they're both in kind of a trajectory right now where it's very difficult to predict how they end. And that's kind of a fundamental feature of these movements - is that there's so much that people aren't articulating publicly until they feel like the political winds have shifted and they don't want to be part of the sinking ship. And that's why you see those cascades of defections taking place all at once.

SHAPIRO: That's Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth. Thanks a lot.

CHENOWETH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mia Venkat
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.