Sunday, July 31, 2011

Improving Human Rights Through Social Change

Last Monday, I was invited to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill to Congressional staffers on the topic of "Human Rights and Social Change".  It was an opportunity for me to think through the U.S. government's (and more generally the U.S.) approach to the human rights issue in China.  Here are my remarks:

The way in which we view China is shaped strongly by our own political, social and cultural biases.  We tend to focus on areas that are of importance to us: human rights, rule of law, treatment of ethnic minorities, rights-based activities, freedom of expression and religion, etc.   What we might call political and civil rights.  These are important issues not only to Americans but to the larger international community, but we should keep in mind that they come out of a specific political, social and cultural context, and are not necessarily the most important issues to many in China’s civil society.  These are also areas where the party-state has been more vigilant in opposing reforms, partly because they perceive outside forces pushing hard for changes in these areas.  

The problem is that in focusing so much of our attention and energies on these areas, we have developed blind spots in other areas where change is occurring in a more organic fashion, using strategies and methods that are generally accepted and have proved effective in China.   These changes have not resulted in the kinds of change we in the U.S. would like to see, particularly a stronger, more independent legal system, and greater protection of legal rights, and the expansion of freedom of expression and religion, for Chinese citizens.  But they are nonetheless important changes that have resulted in the expansion of civil society broadly defined.  This civil society consisting of voluntary, private, self-governing initiatives, organizations, networks and movements has been growing in numbers and in the diversity of actors involved.   They include lawyers, journalists, academics, ordinary activists, NGOs, foundations, informal and virtual groups and networks, and even the occasional government official.

I would argue that we need to do a better job understanding how social action and change is unfolding in China before we try to impose our own template of how political and social change should occur.  Why and how has civil society continued to grow through the cycles of relaxation and repression that we keep hearing about in the international media?   What are the consequences of this growth?   Where will it lead?  What if anything can the U.S. government do to support civil society?

We’ve been very good about identifying and calling attention to the ways in which the government has sought to stifle and repress civil society.  It seems that every week we read news about activists, writers, lawyers,  and monks being restricted, detained, disappeared or arrested.  We’ve also done a fairly good job of identifying acts of “mass disturbances”, strikes, protests, riots.  But again, these stories are consistent with our concern for rule of law, freedom of expression and religion, and the treatment of ethnic minorities. 

What we hear little about are the stories that do not get the attention of journalists.  Stories about the quiet work that is being done behind the scenes, the emergence of social actors promoting change in less public ways, the growth of social and virtual networks, and the growing collaboration between civil society actors, the government and business sectors.   These are areas where civil society is trying escape marginalization and join the mainstream of Chinese society.  They are also trends that get little mention in the media and in U.S. government human rights reports.

Information about these changes is not lacking.  It is available and being documented by academics, bloggers, and organizations like China Development Brief.  But it does not seem to be filtering up to those in the U.S. government.

Just to give one important change that has happened recently is the rapid rise of private foundations which offer another means of support for civil society.  The rise of foundations established by private entrepreneurs suggests that the private sector is gradually becoming more socially engaged.  Their support of civil society, while not a direct statement supporting political reform, shows their support for an organizational sphere independent of the party-state.  The coming together of private entrepreneurs and civil society has been gathering speed over the last two years.  It represents a very significant event that is beginning to change the civil society landscape because now you have independent foundations with lots of money and influence.  The question is, will they support civil society? 

The always insightful Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, recognizes the importance of social change in reforming the political environment in China.  In his 2006 essay, “Changing the Regime by Changing Society”, he states:

“China’s course toward a free society will mainly rely on bottom-up gradual improvement and not the top-down ‘Chiang Ching-kuo style’ revolution.  Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people.  In other words, pursue the free and democratic forces among the people; do not pursue the rebuilding of society through radical regime change, but instead use gradual social change to compel regime change.  That is, rely on the continuously growing civil society to reform a regime that lacks legitimacy.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Talking about Chinese Philanthropy and Civil Society in the U.S.

I'm currently on home leave in the U.S., supposedly on vacation but at this point more work than vacation.  I figure now that I've left the Great Firewall I should use this opportunity to blog at least once, just to say I did it.   So this post is pure in the sense that it hasn't been filtered or laundered through a VPN or anonymous proxy.

While on home leave, I'm taking advantage of being on the east coast to promote the work I've been doing with China Development Brief, in particular our special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society that is appearing on our website at  I just finished a talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations today on that topic.  The talk was held at the Luce Foundation's conference room in their lovely 30th floor office with beautiful views of the city.  There was haze on the horizon which made me feel like I was in Beijing, right at home!

I couldn't imagine a better venue for my talk than the Luce Foundation.  Luce is one of the big names in philanthropy and they have a major Asia program to improve U.S. understanding of Asia.  There is also a China connection.  Henry Luce set up the foundation as a tribute to his parents who were missionaries and educators in China during the first half of the 20th century.  All four of the Luce children were born in China.  So to give a talk on philanthropy and civil society in China at the Luce headquarters seemed very fitting.

The talk went smoothly, aside from some initial technical problems with the computer.  I spoke about my work with China Development Brief (English), and spent some time discussing what constitutes the nonprofit/NGO/philanthropic sector in China before getting to the meat of the talk which was to lay out the major findings from the 12 articles we translated for our special issue on philanthropy and civil society.

For those interested, my discussion of the nonprofit sector and the major findings will be laid out in an introduction to the special issue that should be on our website soon.  Given the anxiety in the U.S. about the human rights situation in China, I expected more questions about the political situation for nonprofits in China, but there were none, though that may have had something to do with the limited time for Q&A.

In any case, the main purpose of my talk, beyond promoting CDB, was to send the message that there is a great deal of change going on in the nonprofit world in China despite the recent crackdowns on individual activists.

Next week I'll be giving a talk on the same topic next Tuesday, July 26 at the Kissinger Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. 

After that, a week in San Diego and then back to Beijing where I may finally be able to take that vacation!