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17 February 2023

Are public protests challenging authoritarian regimes around the world?

A new podcast episode looks at recent large-scale public protests in Russia, China and Iran including what has sparked them and what they tell us about the balance of power of these regimes.

banner from public protest about Iran saying 'not a protest a revolution'

The latest episode of the WORLD: we got this podcast series explores the role and significance of recent public protests on the streets of Russia, Iran and China, despite the extremely severe punishments that people can face for dissent.

The episode, featuring academics from the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, looks at what has sparked the protests, and what effects they might have on people’s freedoms. It also asks whether these protests are a sign that authoritarian regimes are losing their grip or whether some might use them to justify increasing control.

Ahou Koutchesfahani, a PhD candidate in our War Studies Department, talks about thousands of people taking to the streets in Iran in protest at the death of Mahsa Jîna Amini, after being arrested by morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Ahou said the reaction from the Islamic Republic has been brutal. To date, more than 20,000 people have been arrested, four executed, more than 500 have been killed by security forces, including 70 children, and more than 100 people are at imminent risk of being executed.

Despite this people are continuing to protest and the demonstrations are bringing together men and women from all ethnicities and minorities to call for change. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also participating despite the huge risks of doing so.

Her research has shown the important role that social media is playing in the latest protests to mobilise protestors in Iran and the diaspora. It is proving vital by documenting what is happening and giving insights into the lives of victims.

Social media has been able to make people less afraid because even though lives are at imminent risk on the ground, they live on in the digital. Social media has been helpful to Iranian people and at the same time has been very little help to the Islamic Republic because seeing and hearing each individual's life that has been lost just sparks more anger and more motivation to continue.

Ahou Koutchesfahani

She believes that there will be change because of the current protests.

No one believes that we are ever going back to the way things were prior to Mahsa Jîna Amini's death. So, the seed of revolution has already been planted and it's growing. It's only a matter of time for change to actually happen.

Ahou Koutchesfahani

Dr Jane Hayward, a lecturer in China and Global Affairs at King’s Lau China Institute, talks about how protests in China last November were unusual as they were nationwide and brought together different ethnic communities and socio-economic groups. All were linked to the COVID restrictions in some way, although she says people were affected very differently by the rules depending on where they lived and worked.

She does not think that China eased its restrictions just because of the protests, but they were “a hugely significant catalyst”.

When considering why people might be taking to the streets, she warns against making assumptions around the motivations of protesters. In 1989 western media reported the Tiananmen Square demonstrations as student-led demands for liberal democracy but research has since shown people had many different reasons for protesting. Similar mistakes were made around reporting the demonstrations last November.

What we got, I think from a lot of the coverage was that this is people as one mass group, as if all people are experiencing the lockdowns in the same way, with a particular focus on students and demands for democracy, very front and centre. We don't know that people were all demanding democracy and even if they were, we don't know what kind of democracy that would be.

Dr Jane Hayward

She points out how the zero COVID policy was almost a flagship policy for the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and we don’t really know how popular he is among Chinese citizens, although a protestor called for Xi to step down in October last year and some repeated this during protests in Shanghai.

That doesn't mean that calls for Xi Jinping to step down are widespread. They have been particularly high profile, so that may be a symptom of something more going on beneath the surface. But we don't really know.

Dr Jane Hayward

Dr Maxim Alyukov, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s Russia Institute, outlines how President Vladimir Putin uses information and propaganda to reinforce his power in Russia on a huge scale.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he says there has been the widespread manipulation of information around the war. His research shows the state tailors its strategies to specific audiences such as using bots and trolls on certain channels to reinforce the attitudes of those already pro-regime and pro-war.

The Kremlin adapts the message for different audiences. So for instance, it uses television to appeal to older and less Internet-literate audiences, it uses news aggregators for people who do not watch television and just check headlines. And then for more active users, there's a Telegram ecosystem where pro-government telegram channels are used to shape the views of those who are more active online and critical of television.

Dr Maxim Alyukov

He says the widespread manipulation of information and the use of propaganda can cause people in Russia to only process information on quite a superficial level which also leads to political apathy.

'However, there were significant protests in Russia when Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine with more than 10,000 people detained in the first weeks of the invasion and 10,000 more throughout the year.

On whether Putin is popular in Russia, he says there is a significant group supporting Putin, but it is hard to know if people are answering polls accurately and if those who participate truly represent all sections of society. However, research suggests that since 2015 more Russians prioritise economic prosperity than for their country to be ‘a great power’.

Of course, there is a radical minority who want a strong leader and authoritarian rule and there is widespread imperial sentiment but on average I’d say that Russians want an economically prosperous life more than war, oppression and a strong leader.

Dr Maxim Alyukov

Find out more about the series

Find out more about the WORLD: we got this podcast series including information on episodes from all four seasons to date or listen to them all on Acast here.

In this story

Jane Hayward

Lecturer in China and Global Affairs

Maxim Alyukov

Research Fellow