Hegel and the philosophy of protest

Over the summer of 2002 I spent a couple weeks in the China’s far north-western province of Urumqi province pretending to be Marco Polo. The region provided a startling physical and cultural contrast to the China we most often think of as represented by Beijing and Shanghai. Predominantly Muslim, rural and far less developed than the country’s eastern seabord, Urumqi was home to an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the local population and the national government. The then-nascent war in nearby Afghanistan and increasing rhetoric about the threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism only stoked the fires of that antagonism.

I spent countless evenings sitting at local restaurants talking with the Uighur equivalents of me about their lives in China, the challenges of minority status in China, and the persecutions they faced. And while many were initially reserved while in public, on several occasions I was ushered into back rooms where, away from over-jealous listeners, I was told of family members and friends who had disappeared for their roles in advocating for rights, cultural preservation and local autonomy.

What struck me at the time was the fervor with which my hosts explained their desire for voice, for recognition and ultimately for a role in deciding their own fates. The violent protests and reprisals that engulfed the province in 2009 thus came as little surprise. If anything I wondered why it had taken so long to boil over. What I heard over bowls of soup was a desire for recognition and respect no different than what Hegel’s Philosophy of Right taught us about man’s desire for recognition when he wrote it in 1833.

Weeks before, as I travelled through the country’s predominantly Tibetan countryside in Sichuan and Northern Yunnan province, I experienced the same. On several occasions I shared tea with young Buddhist monks who, eager to speak English, and once away from prying ears, shared their perspective on their rights and their desire to determine their own futures. The rapid influx of Han Chinese into traditionally Buddhist regions only served to sharpen their demands. And like in Urumqi, the protests that swept through monasteries across the region in early 2008 was far from surprising. Eventually those demands for recognition and the tensions they cause boil over.

The current unrest and upheaval in Syria is fundamentally no different. Yes, the issues, actors and contexts are extremely different. However, as our brief time in Syria in 2009 taught my wife and I, the confluence of stagnating economic prospects and a lack of voice provided kindling for the current fire.  I remember a conversation one night with a local engineer about Syria’s “supposed democracy,” his words not mine, and the growing angst that the lack of free speech and truly democratic accountability was catalyzing. Syria was ripe for change, he said, because people were demanding a voice. Once again, the subsequent protests fail to hold much surprise.

What’s interesting is that there are places we’ve been to where, based on what seemed like public consensus, I’d swear the revolution should be right around the corner – like Cameroon –  but where nothing has happened, and others – like Tunisia – where just over a year ago we heard not the slightest indication of what was to come. The mix of factors that determines the speed of change is huge – economic issues, the strength of the state, communications tools, grassroots organization etc.

But beyond these specific contextual factors, what’s interesting is that Fukuyama’s once-negated thesis on the natural evolution towards democracy looks increasingly apt. Many thought that the survival of autocratic regimes in Asia and the Middle East discredited Fukuyama’s work. Contemporary events however might just bring him back en vogue.

Ultimately, what still needs questioning is his thesis on “the end of history.” Recent events might mark a progression but is contemporary democracy really it?


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