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Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing June 8, 2012. Mr. Ahmadinejad is in China to attend the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) summit. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing June 8, 2012. Mr. Ahmadinejad is in China to attend the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) summit. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

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A 21st-century checklist of the new autocrats Add to ...

It was a noteworthy week for despot-watching. Chinese President Hu Jintao played host at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a club of nations that boasts such authoritarian heads of state as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central Asian leaders-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also in Beijing as an “observer” to the SCO. After griping at length about how things like human rights and democracy were Western contrivances designed to undermine their rule, the strongmen again made clear their support for the violently flailing regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Dictators supporting dictators, some will say. But that one word fails to capture the range of autocracies that have developed in the post-Cold War era. It’s not fair to use the same term for Mr. Hu, Mr. Putin, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. al-Assad. Russia in 2012, where there are opposition newspapers and radio stations, a relatively unfettered Internet and even some tolerance for anti-government protests, is a far freer place than today’s China.

Mr. Hu and his Communist Party, meanwhile, seem positively enlightened when held up alongside a thugocrat like Mr. al-Assad or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who deprives half his population of even the most basic rights. And then there’s North Korea.

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