Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
When Time magazine announces its 2022 "Person of the Year" on Wednesday, worthy winners might be Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or Wyoming Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, two unflinching fighters for democracy.
But beyond these elected leaders, Time would be justified in naming the nameless, unelected citizens waging courageous defiance against repression. Examples exist in every authoritarian nation and those under assault from them, like brave Ukrainians. All deserve to be honored. But those protesting in China and Iran are particularly notable, especially since they appear to have achieved small victories against their oppressors in recent days.
Progress seems more certain in China, where the ruling Communist Party has begun to ease, however slightly, the zero-COVID protocols that sometimes turned citizens into near prisoners in particularly affected cities. At significant risk, resistance grew into protests against the policies and, at times, even more boldly against Beijing and the rule of President Xi Jinping, who has severely constricted civic expression amid his successful quest to secure a precedent-breaking third five-year term, making him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao.
Although there is no sign, and unfortunately little hope, that the government will democratize in any consequential fashion, it does seem to be beginning to respond to the widespread despair over nearly three years of severe COVID restrictions. Residents were able to return to their places of work in several cities, and in some areas requirements of incessant COVID tests were lessened. Notably, the mantra of "dynamic zero COVID" was recently absent from state statements reported in compliant media.
Protesters still face severe consequences for "criminal acts that disrupt social order," and Xi's Orwellian surveillance continues apace. But it's doubtful the limited relief the Chinese received from such unsustainable protocols would have been possible if brave individuals didn't take on an omnipotent system.
The same dynamic might be playing out in Iran after weeks of widespread protests sparked by the death of a young woman detained by the government's "morality police" for allegedly improperly wearing her headscarf. As in China, the Iranian protests started small, quickly became larger, and expanded beyond head coverings to a call for the head of the government to step down.
Tragically, beyond 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, at least 470 others have been killed, including 50 minors, and about 18,000 have been arrested by the theocracy's thugs deployed from various security services, according to human rights groups. (An estimated 30 members of security services have been killed in clashes, too.)
On Sunday, it appeared that Tehran had decided to abolish the morality police, according to Iran's attorney general — a move that seemed to be confirmed by Iran's foreign minister. However, the central government has not yet announced disbanding the hated entity, so there's uncertainty about the official policy. But the fact that it's even being considered at the highest levels of government shows the potency of protests, which are often led by women intrepidly jettisoning their headscarves and even publicly cutting their hair in defiance of the regime and its rules.
Demonstrators in Iran, China, and other such countries protest despite risks that are "extraordinarily high," Mary Curtin, diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, told an editorial writer. "Authoritarian regimes are afraid of civil society, they are afraid that these movements could gain enough strength to overthrow them because that's happened in different places."
And so the authoritarians crack down. Often with brutal violence, and/or by ratcheting up the social and economic cost to the protesters. At times they try to turn some of the public against the protesters by labeling them foreign agents as well, which can make the U.S. government seem timid in its official response, not necessarily because it doesn't support the protesters, but because it doesn't want to exacerbate the risks.
"The United States has to be careful that it doesn't inadvertently make these protests about us, or doesn't make the U.S. a point which those governments can use to further oppress the protesters," Curtin said. At times, other diplomatic dynamics are at play, which may be the case with China. The Biden administration is trying to stabilize a dangerously deteriorating bilateral relationship and ensure that China doesn't materially aid Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
And yet Washington needs to signal its longstanding democratic values — here at home, by tending to our imperfect democracy — and abroad. To date, the Biden administration is handling the balance relatively well.
The key is keeping the focus on the protesters and the justifiable reasons they take great risks to take to the streets. Their governments should hear and heed them. And the world should admire and support them. Indeed, they're worthy of being honored as people of this or any year.