Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How Civil Society Can Resist State Repression, Part I: Changing the Way We Perceive Repression

I’ve been meaning to write for a while about a insightful and timely article written by Michael Caster – “Matching Resistance to Repression in China” – which was published on April 8, 2015 in Open Democracy. I now have no more excuses for procrastinating after police actions were launched last week against Chinese labor activists in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. To date, at least five activists have been criminally detained, while others have been interrogated and released, and computers confiscated from their offices[1].

What inspires me to write this post is not the police action but the vigorous response by Chinese workers and civil society activists, organizations and their supporters. Their firm, courageous stance in the face of state power touches on the important question of how civil society, particularly those working in authoritarian systems, should respond to state repression. Borrowing insights from Caster’s article, I’d like to propose some ways of thinking about this question. Recognizing the difficult and unpredictable nature of civil society actions in hostile environments like China, I hesitate to offer any hard and fast prescriptions. Instead, I’d like to think of this post as the first in a series of meditations on the subject, offering ways to rethink our response to state repression.

My starting point is an observation made by Caster:

Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships. 

I think this point deserves to be highlighted and emphasized again and again. Repression should be seen not as a one-off crackdown by an omnipresent state, but as a series of police and extrajudicial actions to exert, in Caster’s words, “steadily increasing pressure” on civil society. I’ve always disliked the word crackdown because it suggests an action without any history or context or follow up. “Crackdown” is also a useful, catch-all term used to refer to any seemingly repressive action by the state ranging from unfriendly regulations to a police raid. But every crackdown has a backstory, a history, and is part of a series of past and follow up actions by the state and civil society. In addition, the word crackdown magnifies the power of the state by suggesting that it has put an end to the activities of the activists or NGOs in question. The June 4 crackdown on protestors in 1989 came close to this meaning, but the vast majority of “crackdowns” lack the finality of June 4. Repression, harassment, raids, police actions all come to mind as better alternatives to the term “crackdown”.

Borrowing a chess metaphor, the term crackdown sees repression as as an endgame situation of getting to checkmate in a few moves where one side emerges victorious and the other is extinguished.  But if we see repression more as a series of actions designed to exert pressure on the activist or NGO, then the more appropriate chess metaphor is that of a long endgame in which both sides are seeking positional advantage. This latter situation is what we are dealing with in post-1989 China. 

A second point I would make is that repression should not be seen as coming from a monolithic, all-powerful state, but from specific state actors. Given the opacity of the Chinese state, it’s almost impossible to know with any certainty where the order for the repression originated. But we do know enough about the Chinese state to know that it is far from monolithic or unified, and that there are many departments and localities within the state with different, and even conflicting, interests and agendas. Decisions to harass or detain activists or close down an NGO are made within this system and shaped by this interest-based logic. We know that many actions against civil society over the last two decades have come from local authorities or from specific departments or individuals that view activists, NGOs, bloggers, lawyers and others as a threat to their interests.

Changing our perception and naming of repression is important because it recalibrates the challenges facing civil society activists and supporters, and the bar for what they can achieve, to a more realistic and human level. Magnifying the size and scope of the threat and the necessary response might be good for getting people’s attention, but it does not stimulate intelligent, strategic decision making. On the contrary, it can lead activists to either overreach or make bad decisions, as in the case of the 1989 protests or the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong, or to question whether they can do anything at all.

As the Davids facing the Goliath of the state, civil society needs to identify achievable goals that can lead to small achievements that will instill confidence in, empower and unify citizens who come together because they wish to and can act. At the same time, civil society also needs to consider, discuss and debate how these goals will help to bring about a long-term, strategic objective whether that objective be a vibrant and independent civil society or a more equal and tolerant society or a democratic regime.  In Caster’s words,

Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.

Baby steps, as my wife said when I told her about this post. Baby steps for a nascent civil society sounds about right, but baby steps with a grown up vision.

[1] See Tom Philipps’ December 10, 2015 article in The Guardian, “Calls for China to free labour activists or risk backlash from frustrated workforce”.