Governments fear losing the consent of the people

Governments fear losing the consent of the people

Protesters are hit by police water cannon during a demonstration against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong. (Reuters)

The government of China abuses the human rights of Chinese citizens because the government fears the people. It really is that simple. The Chinese government has essentially imprisoned an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims and inflicted on that population a litany of other cruelties because it fears that a religiously and ethnically distinct group is hard to control. Thirty years ago, the Chinese military attacked peaceful student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing because it feared the dissension would spread. In just the past few days, China arrested leaders of the Hong Kong protests in operations that appeared more like abductions because it again fears that the movement for liberty will continue and grow.

That is why it is estimated that China will have 600 million surveillance cameras around the country within the year. The Chinese government wants to keep an eye on every Chinese citizen. It wants to watch, observe and record what they do because it does not trust them. Like prison guards who monitor the inmates, the Chinese government’s leaders are keeping track of the people.

China does all of this because it fears that the people will act subversively. The people operating within the government want to maintain their own power and even increase it. They most fear losing it. For this reason, they act in concert to prevent the people from taking that power. The end effect is that, historically, governments tend to grow in power. To do so, they must subvert the will of their own people.

In Russia, hundreds of studentshave been arrested during pro-democracy protests this summer. Russia has elections for show, but Vladimir Putin has held unfettered control of the government since 2000. He does not take kindly to the idea that the people should choose who leads their government. It appears that most of those arrested were released fairly quickly after the police broke up the rallies. However, as the BBC reports, “three undergraduates are among those charged with a ‘riot’ that even the video evidence produced by investigators does not show.” The Russian government — like governments historically — does not like dissent, and public dissent is dangerous for it.

In Iran, the government has lately appeared to have trouble exerting its control over the people. New videos keep coming out of strikes and protests over the failing economy, the government’s support of foreign terrorism instead of domestic needs, and restrictions on women. Especially popular on social media are videos of women — young and even old — protesting restrictive social and religious laws by publicly taking off their hijabs or dancing in the streets. Iran is terrified that its people do not want the form of government they have. Like any true autocracy, the Iranian regime believes it must punish the people to cling to power.

Repressive autocracies are typically most fearful of their own people because, after all, those governments are not chosen by the people. Nevertheless, even in liberal democracies with checks and balances, governments sometimes fear the people and act to suppress their freedom. In the US, schools teach about the country’s past sins of slavery, the slaughter and relocation of Native Americans, and racism. These topics are regularly discussed. Less understood are the few times when the government acted to politically suppress the people.

In 1776, the US Declaration of Independence declared: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And yet, at times, the US government has acted to repress the people for fear of losing that consent. Granted, the US has infrequently suppressed liberty for political reasons alone, but it has happened. During the First World War, it was made illegal to express disloyalty toward the government. This law was clearly unconstitutional and would not be upheld today but, at the time, the government acted out of fear of the large anti-war movement that opposed its actions.

Even in liberal democracies with checks and balances, governments sometimes fear the people and act to suppress their freedom.

Ellen R. Wald

Just last week, a report was issued outlining some of the actions taken by former FBI Director James Comey as he apparently attempted to prompt a Department of Justice investigation into President Donald Trump right after his election. Trump was duly elected by the people of the US, yet it seems that one of the country's most powerful law enforcement workers was trying to hamper the power the people entrusted to Trump. 

In the US and other liberal countries, the government is meant to serve the people, but it often seems to serve itself and the people who work within it. These instances are scandals. Thankfully, in such systems, scandals are often ultimately discovered, thwarted and rectified by the press and the voters themselves. This is not often the case in repressive systems. In autocratic countries like China and many others, the government is typically undeterred from and even rewarded for suppressing the people’s search for freedoms. The people themselves must stand up to stop it.

While it seems like governments have the power, they can only govern — or rule — by “the consent of the governed.” Ultimately, governments know this, and that is why they fear the people. They fear losing that consent.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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