In Sao Paulo, it was bus fares. People in Brazil’s largest city were infuriated that their transit fares, already more than twice the cost of New York’s, were being raised again amid massive expenditures for the Olympics and the World Cup. So they hit the streets, in crowds that increased to the millions, threatened the stability of their national government and forced their President to announce major policy changes.
In Istanbul, it was a leafy urban green space. Public outrage over the transformation of Gezi Park into a development turned into wider protest against an elected national government that had become too secure in power, too religious and too authoritarian for many Turks.
In Heshan, China, it was a downtown uranium processor. The people of the city in the thriving Pearl River region took to the streets this month when they learned of plans to build the plant in their city, and the government backed down. The project won’t be approved, Communist authorities declared last week, so as to “fully respect the opinion of the masses.” That follows similar reversals on major industrial projects following urban protests in Shanghai and Kunming.
While China’s Communist Party is no more tolerant of national democracy than before, officials are increasingly willing to give way to public protest at the city level. “Winning or losing public support,” President Xi Jinping said last month, “is an issue that concerns the CPC’s survival or extinction.”
Suddenly, all politics is municipal politics. While big cities have always been the sites of revolutions and coups, never before have they been the only locus of national politics in almost every country in the world, and never before have such regimes been so willing to cede to the power of their urban residents.
There’s one good reason for this: For the first time, almost all the citizens of these countries are either urban or urban-minded. The populations of Turkey and Iran are both 70 per cent urban; Brazil is close to 90 per cent urban. China has just passed 50 per cent, but is urbanizing extremely fast. (As a comparison, about eight in 10 Canadians are urban.)
Once you reach those urbanization levels, from my observation, it means that almost nobody living in a village is really “rural” – their families all have members who live and work in the city, and the general world view and ideology of villagers becomes almost indistinguishable from urbanites – something that is borne out in elections, where the rural-urban divide doesn’t really exist any more.
Too many people still hold the vestigial belief that the “real” citizens of poor countries are peasants. Turkish-American sociologist Zeynep Tuekci complained this week that she keeps “coming across pundits referring to ‘rural’ Turkey as real Turkey – as in ‘what about rural Turkey?’ ” But 70 per cent of Turkey is urban, she noted. “There are many cleavages in Turkey but if you are going to divide Turkey into significant groups, ‘rural’ is not top of your list.”
For democracies such as Brazil and Turkey, that means foment. But it threatens the existence of dictatorships. American political scientist Jeremy Wallace has just published an important analysis of the role of cities and urban-financing policy in “authoritarian regime survival” – that is, he asks whether crowded mega-cities are useful props or threatening menaces to dictatorships. After analyzing the fates of scores of non-democratic regimes around the world between the Second World War and the present, he finds that these cities are the main threat to the regimes’ survival.
Regimes often feel threatened by their urban residents, Mr. Wallace concludes, and they respond by trying to buy off the disgruntled urban elites. In the Middle East, this was done explicitly, by creating a coddled, regime-backing nationalist middle class. In South America and Asia, it was often done through tax and welfare policies that favoured city over countryside.
But, his results show, buying off the cities “represents a Faustian bargain … Because urbanites pose a more immediate threat to stability, self-serving regimes tend to adopt redistributive policies that are biased in favour of city residents: to reduce grievances and the likelihood of protests in these key locales.” But this tends to be self-defeating, because it further empowers and expands the city, “which in turn is linked to a shortened lifespan for authoritarian regimes.”
This is part of the reason why China is effectively paying 200 million people not to move from their villages to the city, and why Iran fetishizes its empty villages. And it’s why most of the stories of regime change for the rest of this century will begin with municipal politics.