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How to Be a Modern-Day Dictator

July 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
What techniques do modern-day dictators use to control protestors? Hari Sreenivasan and Slate editor William Dobson discuss Dobson's new book, "The Dictator's Learning Curve," a portrait of how today's dictators are confronting and controlling democracy activists.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a portrait of how today’s dictators are confronting and controlling democracy activists.

Hari Sreenivasan has our book conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: 2011 brought the year of the protester. Demonstrations rocked Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Yet, despite this wave of pro-democracy movements, the number of free countries declined for the sixth year in a row. That’s according to the Freedom House Research institute.

One reason for that is authoritarian regimes are learning to manipulate political system without using brute force for suppression. A new book by William J. Dobson, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy,” tackles that subject.

For two years, Dobson traveled the world to examine regimes that managed to rule with a velvet glove, in spite of their iron-fisted policies.

William Dobson, thanks for being with us.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON, Author, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy”: Thanks for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so if modern-day dictators aren’t using firing squads or kidnappings, what are they doing to stay in power?

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: Well, the modern dictator understands that if you are going to try and keep ahold of your people, you have to use new and different techniques, such as — take, for example, Putin. Putin chooses to send tax inspectors or health inspectors to close down or shutter a dissident group.

In Venezuela, laws are written broadly and then used like a scalpel to — against any group that is deemed a threat. The Chinese Communist Party frequently refers to democracy and makes sure that all of its top leaders only serve two terms. There are all sorts of different ways in which regimes are finding how to move and navigate through forces that challenge their regimes that make them appear to be other than what they are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So there is a scene in the book where you talk about the tension on the streets in China after the revolutions were happening in the Middle East, and they — how they were trying to prevent any spread of a Jasmine Revolution. Describe that.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: Well, I was in China about 10 days after Mubarak fell.

And it was an incredible moment, because the party — on the one hand, there was no visible sign of revolution. But there was a tremendous tension. And there had been a call for people to assemble at different points around China at a particular moment on a particular day.

And the regime knew that. And so I was — I went to one of those spots at 2:00 p.m. on that Sunday. And it was an incredible thing. You saw the fear that the regime exhibited by just the sheer number of police that were present. But more than the police were the number of plainclothes policeman.

There were moments when I was walking through crowds, and literally, three, four, five people around me, they all had earpieces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What did they try to do to prevent the crowds from assembling?

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: They have really developed excellent crowd control techniques, where they would move the crowds through with street-cleaning equipment. And they would push people through with lots of water, cleaning the same street corner again and again and again.

Mind you, no one is actually coming out to protest. No one is actually declaring, down with the Chinese Communist Party. If you were to do that, then you would be rushed away in no time by security. But, rather, the call had been for people just to come out for a stroll.

And that was sort of a very — that was a very clever way of going about it, because you can’t really arrest someone for just walking down the street.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So there seems to be almost a cat-and-mouse game on what I would call the technologies of expression. Help folks understand that.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: One of my favorite examples is actually from Egypt before the revolution, where you had members of the April 6 Movement, who they put out a call on Facebook for people to rally around a strike that was going happen in another part of the country.

And they said to people, on that day, just don’t go to work, another easy way to sort of show your protest without actually taking enormous risk. Just stay within your home on that given day. And the support for this was enormous on Facebook. And so the regime’s initial response was to start putting out a ticker on all television broadcasts saying, on April 6, everyone must go to work.

They inadvertently broadcast this message in a way that the members of April 6 never could have imagined. Egypt is a country of 81 million people. The regime had mistakenly, inadvertently communicated this protest to everyone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about Syria.

It’s in the news. We see horrendous bloodshed there. Not necessarily advice for Assad, but how do you size that up? He’s clearly chosen to go the old-fashioned route: Let’s just mow people down.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: That’s exactly right.

He is really following his father’s example, who in the early 1980s crushed an uprising at that time by murdering more than 25,000 people in the space of a month. His son hasn’t killed that many yet over the space of a year, but he’s taking that same approach, the slow-burning 20th century approach of trying to just resort to violence.

And that’s what the regime did almost right away, as opposed to others, who have tried to accommodate these protests. I mean, the thing to remember about 2011 is that it wasn’t just North Africa and the Middle East. This was — we saw protests spreading across the world. And we see how people reacted in many different ways.

In the case of Malaysia, there was a very sophisticated approach, where they essentially ultimately welcomed some of the protests as signs of a mature democracy. In Russia, much the same. Putin has complimented the protesters, while using laws to squelch it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Which leads me to wonder if I’m a dictator and I have this control and there’s people sort of saying whatever they want about me on Twitter and Facebook, why should I care?

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: A certain amount of actual dissent, open dissent isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s like a safety valve that lets some of the pressure out of the system. It lets people feel a certain amount of freedom without actually having the means of acting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So you talk a lot in the book about almost a burgeoning cottage industry between pro-democracy movements and how much the U.S. government as well as others are trying to foment change in different ways.

Talk a little bit about how they are learning from each other.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: Well, that’s — it is an important element, because when I was traveling to a lot of these different countries, and I would talk to different student groups or activists, you name it, they would often draw off of examples that they had gathered from other places and other times.

So the call for people to go for a stroll in Beijing and across China, that was something that was actually done during the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. Others were taking lessons from the young Serbs who had overthrown Milosevic in 2000. When you have a police official or goon that really enjoys beating up children and beating up protesters, what do you do?

They took a tactic from the Serbs, where they take photographs of the person beating these people. They get their cell phone numbers. And they plaster posters of the man beating the kids in the places where his wife shops…


WILLIAM J. DOBSON: … where his children go to school. If we can’t confront him through the badge, through the state, we can use his own family to shun him and to make him stop.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, the book is called “Dictator’s Learning Curve.”

William Dobson, thanks so much for your time.

WILLIAM J. DOBSON: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: We have posted William Dobson’s list of the top seven people tweeting against the authoritarian regimes online. That’s on our World page.