April 22, 2011 (updated May 29, 2011)
I started this blog out wanting to write more about what NGOs have achieved in their short life in the PRC – their achievements, the people behind the scenes, the challenges they face -- but I find myself returning frequently to the issue of how the party-state controls NGOs. I have to admit that this is driven by international media reports that focus heavily on instances of NGOs being harassed and closed down. Of course, state control and regulation of NGOs is an important dimension, but it’s only one dimension, and the purpose of this blog is to bring to light other aspects of social activism in China that do not get much attention in the international news media.
So you can imagine that I’m writing this post with some trepidation, and I’ve sat on it for over a month before posting this. But it’s hard to ignore the international media reports on the recent spike of repression in China following the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and calls for a similar uprising in China. It’s also hard to ignore when it affects someone you know. One of my friends, a foreign journalist who was at the Wangfujing area in Beijing which was supposed to be one of the staging grounds for the uprising, was a victim of that repression. He was beaten up by a gang of plainclothes thugs/police because he was carrying around a camcorder filming what ended up to be a nonevent. He suffered cracked ribs and had to be hospitalized. Later, to add insult to injury, he was followed by the police for days.
The April 16-22 issue of the Economist argues that the latest crackdown on activists like the artist Ai Weiwei, rights-defense lawyers, and other human rights activists goes far deeper and wider than previous crackdowns. It then makes the startling claim that this crackdown is the worst since the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen.
I like the Economist but I think this time it went too far. Before I explain myself, let me say for the record that I don’t want to sound like an apologist for the regime, or to downplay the repression that is happening. I too am dismayed by the many arrests and disappearances of activists who are fighting the good fight. What happened to my journalist friend was reprehensible. The Chinese government should be called to account for what they did. And I agree with the Economist when they say that the repression is an overreaction to perceived threats and shows a regime that is not confident but rather very nervous about its position.
But the Economist makes it sound like we’re returning to the days of the early 1990s or even the early 1980s when outlets for activism for few and far between. If so, how do we square this claim with more optimistic trends discussed in this blog and elsewhere showing the emergence of a more vibrant civil society?
I like to think of civil society in China as an iceberg where only a small portion is visible and the bulk lies below the surface. The tip of the iceberg are mostly individual activists – rights lawyers, human rights activists – who dare to venture over that imaginary line that the Chinese government says should not be crossed. A few are activists associated with NGOs. Below the surface lie other activists and groups, including many NGOS, that carry out their work in relative anonymity within the boundaries permitted by the state. Over the last two decades, this iceberg has grown substantially and ever so often we see cycles of repression aimed at the tip of that iceberg. But the bulk of the iceberg below the surface continues to expand without attracting much attention.
The iceberg is also sprouting new tips as we see more of the iceberg below the surface emerging and becoming visible as the government and society begins to recognize the NGOs and activists that are working within permissible boundaries. NGOs are also getting more networked not just with other NGOs, but also with government agencies, GONGOs, businesses, academics, and the media. NGOs are also making some progress in terms of diversifying their funding and attracting more professional staff. These trends – greater legitimacy, networks, professionalization – are all indicators of a more mature, independent civil society emerging in China, even as repression continues mostly against those individual activists who push the boundaries of the permissible.
What bothers me about the kind of coverage we see from the international media is that its coverage of civil society is driven by the harassment, arrest and disappearance of activists. This narrative is misleading on two counts.
One is that it sends a message that human and social agency in China is monopolized by an all-powerful, monolithic government that can squash (or allow) dissent and activism at a moment’s notice. As I’ve written about in other posts, this is not an accurate reflection of the reality here. There is no single, unified view or approach within the government about how to deal with civil society here. Yes, there are efforts to wall off the more vocal activists who push the envelope, but in other areas the government is seeking to find ways to better regulate the growth of independent organizations. Of course, one motive behind greater regulation is control. But government leaders are also beginning to realize that civil society is not going away, and that it will be better to have civil society as allies working together with the government to address China’s immense social problems.
Secondly, this narrative sees these individual activists as representative of the larger civil society in China. That is not the case. Many NGOs are aware of the latest crackdown, and may sympathize with their fellow activists, but they also have different philosophies and approaches to carrying out their work. Like the state, civil society is by no means monolithic.
What is missing from this narrative is accounts of the many expressions of social agency coming from activists, NGOs, bloggers and other groups that are an important part of China’s civil society. How else to explain the expansion and maturation of civil society over the last 20 years? How else to explain their growing partnerships with and acceptance by government, businesses, academics, the media, and society at large? I’ve heard some people say, these trends have happened because the government allows it. But once again, this answer makes the same mistake. It assumes agency on the part of the government, and sees social activists and groups as passive actors trapped within an authoritarian system.
If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt tell us anything, it is that we should not underestimate the agency and power of society even within seemingly resilient authoritarian states. Yes, we should sympathize with activists who are unjustly harassed or jailed. But we should also call attention to the many other social activists who, by working within permissible boundaries, are changing China slowly from within.