The people of Iran and China are at a make-or-break point in their history, and the West’s values-based diplomacy is the key to their fate.

When Iranians headed to the streets in mass anti-regime protests in the summer of 2009, the people of China risked their own safety to support Iranians with the hashtag #CN4Iran. Now, more than a decade later, both nations are in the streets again, calling for basic human rights.

A wave of protests continues in Iran more than 70 days after the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini, while university students and civilians in China are taking to the streets to protest the Xi Jinping regime and its repressive zero-COVID polices. Chants such as “Xi Jinping step down,” “We want freedom, we want human rights,” and “we want universal values” have been heard so far. In one video, protesters are heard chanting in solidarity with the women of Iran.

Despite the rise in public anger and demonstrations in China, the authorities have so far been slow to respond and have refrained from cracking down with maximum force. This could signal that they weren’t ready for protests or that they feel confident in their ability to quash the protests before they get too big.

The protests in Iran have exposed the brutal realities of gender apartheid to the world and made it difficult for the international community, namely Western governments who take pride in their support of women’s rights, to justify their appeasement policy toward the Islamic Republic. On November 24, member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council made history by passing a resolution to establish an independent fact-finding mission into the human rights abuses in Iran. Only six countries voted against the resolution, including China.

To ease pressure from Western sanctions, the Islamic Republic has vigorously sought to strengthen its ties with the regime in China. In March 2021, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement in Tehran. Then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani actively promoted “strategic cooperation” with China.

Last year, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) approved the application for Iran’s membership and is set to formalize it in April 2023. On Sunday, the parliament in Iran voted in favor of permanent membership in the SCO and the Iranian foreign minister posted a message to social media declaring their seriousness in developing “regional, international, and economic cooperation with Asian countries.”

Meanwhile, China is Iran’s most important trading partner, with bilateral trade in the first seven months of 2022 amounting to $9.66 billion. Iranian exports accounted for about half that total, up by nearly 25 percent from the same period last year. Bilateral relations have also developed in the military sphere. Chief of General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe announced in Tehran in late April 2022 that the two countries would hold joint military exercises in the Gulf of Oman.

While the repressive regimes in China and Iran work to strengthen their ties, this is a critical time for the democratic world to reassess what differentiates the alliance of authoritarians from the alliance of democracies. What does it take for a Western nation to have relations with an authoritarian state? At what cost?

Democracies can only have relations with authoritarian regimes if they are willing to compromise democratic values and principles. They would need to turn a blind eye to the human rights situation in the country ruled by the authoritarian regime to forge a “peaceful and stable” relationship with that regime.

The problem with most political diplomacy is that it resembles coercion more than true dialogue, because most dialogue is centered on mutual interest rather than differences. And the only true mutual interest between democratic governments and authoritarian states is financial profit. Prioritizing financial profit over a set of universal basic values is what sustains and perpetuates the corruption and violence in the world, and why it is so hard to create real peace and stability.

Often Western governments justify their lack of support for democratic movements in authoritarian states by saying that the people weren’t ready for democracy up until the point they risked their lives to head to the streets to demand change. But the reality is far grimmer. Democratic governments have benefited financially from cooperating with authoritarian regimes. And to cooperate with a dictatorship, you need to put democratic values on the back burner. The sheer act of compromising democratic values for business deals with dictatorships – at the expense of the freedoms of the people living under those regimes – is sending the message that it is fine for some people to live without their basic freedoms while it is not fine for others.

The subconscious compartmentalization of who “deserves” fundamental freedoms and who does not helps spread the false narrative and assumption that people under authoritarian governments are passive agents who willfully choose to be ruled by a regime that deprives them of their universal basic freedoms. If we consider that a large majority of the people in the world currently live without their universal basic freedoms, but many pro-democracy protests have erupted from these people even while there is a decline in democracy worldwide, it becomes clear how ridiculous and false the notion is that some people aren’t ready for basic freedoms. Instead, a light has been shone on the real problem: that compromising democratic values for the sake of business deals has contributed to the rise in authoritarianism.

The concept of peace and security has come to mean stabilizing the current governments in power at all costs, when it should mean working toward making authoritarian systems irrelevant.

When we live in a world that prioritizes financial profit over the wellbeing of humanity, it is only natural for democracy to be on the decline and authoritarianism on the rise. What we need is a set of universal basic values rooted in fundamental freedoms, that are prioritized over all else.

However, for this to become the case, we must change our incentive structures where we stop pursuing short term gain for a select group of people and instead focus on the long-term vision of a prosperous world where everyone has access to realizing their potential.

There is not much that separates the authoritarian regimes from democratic governments unless there is a set of universal basic values acting as a reference point and incentivizing support for fundamental freedoms for all.

There are universal basic values that are objective enough that all nations can pledge to uphold them regardless of culture, religion, or other factors. To move away from the growing trend of authoritarian ideology toward a world that is stable and peaceful, we require a set of shared values rooted in fundamental freedoms that we can use to set a minimum standard requirement for governments to meet before they are recognized by the democratic world as a legitimate representative of a nation. On the other hand, Western governments also need to ensure that they are upholding these universal basic values at home too, as leading by example is the only path forward toward reviving democracy and strengthening humanity.

The people of Iran and China are at a make-or-break point in their history, and their fate is contingent on the support they receive from the international community. The democratic world is pressured now more than ever to cut their ties with these regimes and instead shift their focus and priority to establishing relations with civil society leaders who are the most aligned with democratic values, such as the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms for all.


Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, an Iranian human rights activist, is founder of the Oslo Women’s Rights Initiative.

This article first appeared in The Diplomat on 11/29/2022.