Internet Freedom--or the Lack Thereof--in China

Paul Rosenzweig reports on what one has to put up with:

  • The one time I thought to go to an Internet cafe for access, I was waved off by my guide.  Turns out I would have had to show my passport (which was back in the hotel in a safe) to get access.
  • We had a Gmail account (since deleted) for email contact.  Every time I tried to access it the processing got =very= slow.  By contrast, all the connections to Chinese websites were quite quick.  I strongly suspect that some serious filtering was slowing access.
  • The same was true for access to non-Chinese, Western web sites.  Efforts, for example, to navigate to cnn.com or google.com proved to be exercises in either patience or frustration.  In the end, I had better things to do with my time and mostly gave up.
  • The highlight (or lowlight) of the exercise was on my last attempt to get to the Gmail account.  I was using Internet Explorer 7 (old stuff) and as I went to the Gmail page, an explosion of pop-up web pages started propagating.   It got up to 58 different browsers opened before I could halt it with a 3-finger (CTL-ALT-DEL) hard stop.  I haven’t seen a virus (I assume it was a virus) like that on a US computer in several years.

I'd very much like to visit China, and I might be willing to put up with all of this hassle in order to do so. But it is a hassle. And it shouldn't be. Contra Rousseau, man may not have been born free, but in a host of places, he is in chains.

More Revolution in Egypt

The post-Mubarak Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi has failed to capture the hearts and affections of the Egyptian people, thanks to its willingness to substitute one form of dictatorship for another. It should therefore come as no surprise whatsoever that the Egyptian people are determined to throw out Morsi, just as they were willing to throw out Mubarak. And now, the armed forces are stepping in as well:

Egypt's armed forces sent a stiff message to the country's embattled president and his political opponents and allies: the current governing crisis must be resolved in 48 hours or it will embark on a road map designed to restore order.

Egyptians who helped overthrow a 29-year dictatorship in a widely hailed revolution have now given the country's first democratically elected president one day to step down from office.

In 
a statement posted Monday on its official Facebook page, Tamarod (the "rebel" campaign") demanded that if President Mohamed Morsy doesn't leave office by Tuesday, the group will begin a civil disobedience movement, call for nationwide protests and march on the presidential palace, where Morsy's administration is running affairs.

If the last few days have been any indication, Tamarod's deadline will most likely be ignored.

Developing. On the one hand, this is a clear indication of maturity on the part of the Egyptian people; they are simply no longer willing to accept or put up with dictatorial acts from their leaders. On the other, one naturally fears that the situation could turn terribly violent. If it does, any revolt against dictatorship could be threatened and undermined, and of course, the number of people who could be killed or wounded might reach terribly distressing levels.

In any event, this situation deserves a lot of attention from the American media. Here's hoping that news organizations are up to the task. 

Surprising--and Unsurprising--News from the First Round of Iran's Presidential Election

First, the surprising news: The leading moderate candidate for the presidency has emerged as the strongest of all of the candidates after the first round of voting

Early results from Iran's presidential election put the reformist-backed candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in the lead.

With 2.9m ballots counted, the cleric had 1.46m votes, or 49.87%, well ahead of Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, with 488,000 votes, or 16.65%.

If no candidate wins more than 50%, a run-off will be held next Friday.

It remains to be seen if a second round can be avoided. If we end up having a second round, my fear is that at that point, the regime will work to ensure that the deck is stacked against Rohani. Unless the regime is absolutely determined to ensure that no one ever again accuses it of rigging presidential elections, I can't believe that it will allow a moderate to become president and give Ali Khamene'i yet another round of headaches.

And now, for the unsurprising news: 

Millions of Iranians took to the streets to demand a re-run after the last presidential election in June 2009, when the Supreme Leader dismissed claims by the three defeated candidates of widespread fraud.

Two of them, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and senior cleric Mehdi Karroubi, became leaders of a nationwide opposition known as the Green Movement, after its signature colour.

They were placed under house arrested in February 2011 when they applied to stage a protest in support of the anti-government uprisings which were sweeping the Arab world. They are still being detained.

No foreign observers are monitored this year's election and there have also been concerns that media coverage in the run-up has been unfair.

Many reformist newspapers have been shut down, access to the internet and foreign broadcasters restricted, and journalists detained.

On Thursday, the BBC accused the Iranian authorities of "unprecedented levels of intimidation" of BBC employees' families.

It said Iran had warned the families of 15 BBC Persian Service staff that they must stop working for the BBC or their lives in London would be endangered.

Tehran has so far made no comment on the allegation.

Proof positive that no matter who becomes president, the nature of the regime prevents the emergence of democratic discourse and the thriving of basic political/social/media freedoms.

Political Freedom--Or the Lack Thereof--in Iran

I really look forward to the day when I don't have to read stories like this one.  But I fear that day won't arrive for a very long time:

A senior Iranian diplomat linked to Iran's reformists, who has been detained at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for three months, has been denied access to his attorney for the entire time, sources familiar with the case told Reuters on Monday.

Bagher Asadi, who was previously a senior diplomat at Iran's U.N. mission in New York and most recently a director at the secretariat of the so-called D8 group of developing nations in Istanbul, was arrested in mid-March in Tehran for unknown reasons, sources said last month.

"He has a lawyer but he has been denied access to him for three months," a source familiar with the case told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "He (Asadi) has not been given the papers to sign by the authorities so he can see his lawyer. It's just a way of denying him (the lawyer) access to his client."

Another source confirmed the remarks. Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Heads: Iranian Hardliners Win. Tails: Iranian Reformists Lose.

It's not enough for the Islamic regime in Iran to disqualify certain reformist candidates for the presidency; it must also punish people who attend campaign meetings for reformist candidates who are actually allowed to run for president.

Stories like this one are why I have an objection to calling the regime a "theocracy." In fact, it is best to describe Iran's system of government as a theocratic mafiocracy. The regime is as corrupt as it is brutal, and its hardline faction has no compunction whatsoever about showing both its corruption and its brutality in trying to hold on to power.

The Ghosts of Lincoln and Douglas Weep

It's bad enough that the presidential election process in Iran consists of having hardliners eliminate reformist candidates so that the former can hold on to power without having to actually bother to steal the election (though 2009 showed quite clearly that hardliners are entirely willing and eager to steal an election if that is what it takes to hold on to power). It's even worse that the interaction amongst the candidates who are allowed to run makes it extra special clear that the Iranian presidential election is an utter farce:

Iran's first debate between candidates for the presidency degenerated into acrimony live on state television on Friday when, instead of discussing the economy, some of the hopefuls resorted to sniping over the questions and format.

The testy exchange between the moderator and reformist Mohammad Reza Aref, moderate Hassan Rohani, and conservative Mohsen Rezaie was the subject of wide ridicule by Iranian viewers who had tuned in for the four-hour discussion.

They were among eight candidates for the June 14 vote presenting their ideas on an 
economy buffeted by international sanctions over Iran's disputed nuclear program, rising unemployment, and inflation running at over 30 percent, according to official figures.

[. . .]

The debate's first half allowed the eight to give a three minute answer, with a 90 second response from the other seven. Then moderator Morteza Heydari asked them an economic question that could only be answered yes, no or with an abstention.

One question was: If you want to select an official for your administration, what is their most important quality? Candidates could choose between a lack of corruption, experience, expertise or prudence.

They were also presented with pictures, such as an agricultural scene, a market, or a cargo ship, and asked to say whatever came to mind.

[. . .]

The three, seated with their colleagues in a line of desks in front of a backdrop of flowers and rolling woodland, said the format was farcical and did not allow them to present their plans to the country or engage in dialogue with each other.

Several times they simply refused to answer the question.

"In honor of the dear people of my country I will sit here, but I will answer none of your test questions," said Aref, gesticulating with his pen towards the moderator standing in front of an image of Khamenei.

"I am a patient person and I can tolerate a lot," added Rezaie. "With these repetitive, discontinuous, short, one-to-three minute answers, the people are being harmed and the eight people up here are being insulted."

Rohani, the most prominent moderate candidate in an election dominated by hardliners, said: "People will see this style of debate as insulting."

I fearlessly predict that future debates will include the "if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" question.

Is This What Iranians Have to Look Forward to?

The frontrunner in the race to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran is Saeed Jalili. Don't know who Saeed Jalili is? Behold:

At his first presidential campaign rally, Saeed Jalili on Friday welcomed the cheers of thousands of young men as he hauled himself onto the stage. His movements were hampered by a prosthetic leg, a badge of honor from his days as a young Revolutionary Guards member in Iran’s great trench war with Iraq.

“Welcome, living martyr, Jalili,” the audience shouted in unison, most of them too young to have witnessed the bloody conflict themselves but deeply immersed in the national veneration of its veterans. Waving flags belonging to “the resistance” — the military cooperation among Iran, Syria, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and some Palestinian groups — the crowd roared the candidate’s election slogan: “No compromise. No submission. Only Jalili.”

Mr. Jalili, known as Iran’s unyielding nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is emerging as the presumed front-runner in Iran’s presidential election on June 14, an unsettling prospect for future relations with the West. Mr. Jalili, 47, who many analysts say has long been groomed for a top position in Iran, is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved to participate in the election.

Opposing “détente a hundred percent” and promising no compromise “whatsoever” with the West over matters like Iran’s nuclear program and involvement in Syria, Mr. Jalili seems set to further escalate Iran’s standoff with the United States and its allies if elected president.

“He seems to be Ahmadinejad Phase 2,” said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert based in Virginia, referring to Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “He would probably not be a partner to negotiate for the nuclear issues, as we have seen before when he was headin
g the delegations.”

An analyst based in Iran, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said Mr. Jalili was “the perfect follower of Khamenei.”

“If he gets elected I foresee even more isolation and conflict, as he doesn’t care about foreign relations, the economy or anything,” the analyst said.

The Iranian people can't catch a break, can they? Note as well the story's discussion of the blatant favoritism shown to Jalili by the regime and the media it controls. So much for democracy in Iran.

Quote of the Day

. . . The President’s view is not necessarily statist in the sense that everything must come from government. He holds the fairly standard view that markets should be robust, but that market failures and other societal needs require government action. His views about the size of government are of course more expansive than that of most readers of this blog, but they are not out of the mainstream: they summarize the standard progressive position.

Yet it is not this antinomy between large versus small government that I want to discuss here. It is, rather, the President’s concept of legitimacy of government action. His view is disarmingly simple: the government is us. The government is not morally separate from us. We are part of it; indeed, that is the centerpiece of the “brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule” that the President evokes. This view seems to suggest that when the government acts, it’s we who act. So if (say) the government snoops on journalists, then it is us who are snooping on journalists. This is because government and people are one undifferentiated entity. In our democracy, the government can never be tyrannical by definition, because whatever harm the government may inflict, it is self-inflicted. The people has harmed itself, and, of course, volenti non fit injuria (to the willing no injustice is done.) So when you lash out against government you are not lashing out against some sinister entity that is alien to you, but at an institution of which you are an integral part. Such view owes much to Rousseau and his concept of the collective will. Immanuel Kant flirts with this idea as well (see the Doctrine of Right on legislation, and his claim that the concept of revolution is an oxymoron). It is also reminiscent of some of Hegel’s organic conceptions of the state.

The idea, however, does not stand scrutiny. The government is an agent that we hire to do a certain job. The government is not us. It is contractually related to us. It has a fiduciary duty toward us, the duty to provide the services for which it was hired. This does not prejudge the question of how large that mandate should be. As any economist knows, fiduciary relationships often generate agency costs. The government sometimes acts ultra vires, it oversteps its powers, it spins out of control. When that happens, the position that the government is separate from us, that it has turned against us, is perfectly intelligible and justified. With the possible exception of Rousseau, the view that democratic procedures are sufficient warrant for government action is not supported by any credible philosophical view.

Let me put the matter a different way. In a well-functioning democracy, a government is composed of officials who play certain roles defined by laws, by rules. When officials perform coercive acts unauthorized by those rules, they violate the rights of the subjects. Those acts are impermissible acts of coercion. If this is correct, then the insistence that our “unique experiment in self-rule” somehow preempts us from warning about the dangers of government must be rejected. With the exception of anarchists, few people take the view that government is a “separate, sinister entity.” What libertarians and others do is to warn against the excesses of government, its threats to our liberties, its inefficiencies. Above all (and this is something the President overlooks), critics of government, armed with the tools of public choice, point out that the bigger government becomes, the greater is the threat it poses, the larger is the probability that it will malfunction and exceed its rightful function.

--Fernando Teson. (Emphasis in the original.)

The State of Play Leading Up to the Iranian Presidential Election

As noted before, the notion that there is anything resembling democracy in Iran is nothing short of laughable. More can be found here on how the election has quickly turned into a farce. The BBC informs us--in what is, perhaps, the understatement of the year--that "[b]y the standards of democratic countries, presidential elections in Iran are neither free nor fair," something anyone not living under a rock since 1979 already knew. Human Rights Watch has more:

Serious electoral flaws and human rights abuses by the Iranian government undermine any meaningful prospect of free and fair elections on June 14, 2013. Dozens of political activists and journalists detained during the violent government crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election remain in prison, two former presidential candidates are under house arrest, and authorities are already clamping down on access to the internet, having arbitrarily disqualified most registered presidential and local election candidates.

As the elections approach, authorities have tightened controls on information by severely cutting back internet speeds and blocking proxy servers and virtual private networks that Iranians use to circumvent government filtering of websites. The authorities have also gone after government critics, summoning, arresting, and jailing journalists and bloggers, while preventing opposition figures and parties aligned with Iran’s reformist movement from participating in the elections by banning or severely restricting their activities.

“Fair elections require a level playing field in which candidates can freely run and voters can make informed decisions,” said 
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can Iran hold free elections when opposition leaders are behind bars and people can’t speak freely?”

How indeed? Of course, the system of repression put into place by the regime in Tehran affects far more than a mere presidential election, and has prompted a lot if righteous backlash from the Iranian artistic community (which is far more civilized and enlightened than Iran's current crop of "leaders" could ever hope to be). Quoth Asghar Farhadi, whose film A Separation was the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film:

THR: How was shooting The Past in France different? Did it help you with censorship back home?

Farhadi:
 I get the question very often if working abroad changed my way of working, specifically because of the restrictions and the fact that I had fewer restrictions here. The only image I can maybe use to try and say how I feel is that if you have been walking the same way for 40 years, and all of a sudden, they put you on a path that is flatter, more comfortable, less risky, you don't change your way of walking. You will still walk the same way. The difference is that you might just feel more reassured or more comfortable, because of the new path. I must say here in France I had more serenity or security as I was working, because I knew I was making the film the way I wished and that the film would be seen ultimately, which is not always the case in Iran. In Iran, you always work having in mind this worry of will I be able to carry on my project as I wish and will the audience see the film. Here, I didn't have these worries, for sure.

THR:
 How does censorship in Iran work these days? Any signs that the system is becoming more open or more restrictive?

Farhadi:
 The system happens to be very unpredictable. You can not say how it is, you can not describe it, because it is changing all the time. It's a new story every day. And maybe that's what makes it difficult for us. If there were specific rules, we would know how to deal with them or avoid them. Whereas now, your situation depends on the mood of the people who make the decisions. So, some day it feels more open, and some day all of a sudden it is more restrictive. And that's what makes it very difficult and unpredictable. You have to submit a film twice - first as a project when the script is written, and then just before releasing it. These are the two crucial moments we have. Seen from the outside, maybe it can be very surprising how under such pressure it is possible to still make films that have an impact and that give an impression of freedom and strength. This is because our filmmakers and artists in general go on fighting and finding ways of avoiding the censorship and creating despite all these restrictions. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed.

The above does not a description of a free society make, and if anything, Farhardi understates the level of repression that afflicts Iran and the Iranian people. It is nice to see that the artistic community in Iran is finding ways to protest the repression that Iranians must put up with, but one wishes that they would not be given so much material by the regime.

In response to the disqualification of presidential candidates like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani--who made noises supporting the Green Revolution back in 2009 and who is the closest thing the Iranian people have to a major reformer--and in response to the general sense of political and social oppression in Iran, there has been a lot of talk on the part of moderate and reformist voters about not even bothering to participate in the 2013 elections. After all, the candidates don't reflect reformist views, and there is a very good chance that like 2009, the election will be stolen again if the outcome goes against the wishes of hardliners in the regime. May I beseech any and all Iranians whose line of sight passes over this blog to please not engage in such a boycott? The regime would like nothing less than to see moderate and reformist voters disillusioned, dispirited, apathetic and un-engaged in the upcoming elections; after all, such a state of affairs makes it easier to elect hardliners without resorting to vote-rigging, and thus without generating controversy. If the regime wants to have the halls of government stacked with hardliners, it should be forced to engage in vote-rigging and it should be forced to generate controversy, crisis and scandal. The more this regime is forced to repeatedly show the world that it is illegitimate, tyrannical and utterly dishonest, the more Iranians will be prompted to replace this regime with a government more worthy of them. And let there be absolutely, positively no mistake whatsoever; the current regime is completely unworthy of the Iranian people, who have deserved better from their political class for a very long time now.