I’ve always been more of an optimist when it comes to the future of civil society in China, even in these dark days under Xi Jinping’s rule. In early March of 2015, I wrote the response below to some hand-wringing among academics about the growing restrictions on labor NGOs and activists. Soon after I wrote this, five women activists around China were detained in a coordinated high-level campaign, and then about nine months later, a number of labor activists were interrogated and some detained and criminally charged. So was I wrong? I don’t think so. Re-reading this response, I think it’s as relevant as it was when I wrote it about a year ago. My point then and now is that we need to be more attentive to the organic way in which civil society multiplies and regenerates itself. Indeed, months later, some of these same women activists, who were released after a month in detention, have gone back to working on the same issues they were working on prior to their detention, and for all I know they may have found a few more supporters, and I’m confident the same will be true of some the labor activists.
March 2, 2015
At a macro level, the recent campaign against lawyers and activists in China is not sustainable, nor is it meant to be sustainable. In this sense, the crackdown is not the “new normal”. It is instead a means to an end. What that end is remains to be seen, whether it’s laying the foundation for the reforms laid out in Xi Jinping’s ambitious Third Plenum Decision, or revitalising the relationship between the party-state and society, or strengthening China’s national sovereignty and security, or perhaps all three. Those are the new normal, not the crackdown.
The end is not, as some people believe, the eradication of civil society. If that is the end, then the Xi Jinping administration has a lot more work to do but I don’t believe that is a priority. The leadership has too many other burning issues to attend to than try to stamp out pesky activists - the economy, the anticorruption campaign, territorial and sovereignty issues on its periphery, and North Korea come to mind. Nor am I saying Xi Jinping is a closet liberal who will turn around to save civil society. He wants to save and strengthen the party and the nation, not civil society. But if Xi Jinping’s affirmation of “social governance” in his Third Plenum Decision’s is still valid, then there’s still a chance that he is willing to work with civil society if it helps him achieve his larger goals.
At a more micro level, I wish journalists and academics would do more to recognise the hard work of civil society activists and organisations on the ground and their achievements rather than their setbacks. Activists, NGOs and lawyers seem to attract more attention and support for being repressed than for making progress. No disrespect to the journalists which have done a great job covering China under tight deadlines and editorial demands, but if I was just trying to understand China by reading the media, I’d wonder how civil society could make any progress at all on the ground because it always seems be getting shut down.
To illustrate the power of the media, I always think about people I met when I was reviving the English version of China Development Brief whose founder, Nick Young, was barred from China in 2007. When I told them in 2011 or 2012 that I was working for CDB, many would tell me that they read CDB’s newsletter and would cite some piece from the pre-2007 days. Well you know, I would say, that was the old CDB, but you know there’s now this new CDB and it’s not the same as the old one. I could tell though it was hard for them to get their mind around this piece of information. It was like once the media reported that Nick had been barred, CDB ceased to exist in the minds of many people.
The reality is that in China, as I’m sure happens in other countries, detaining activists and lawyers and closing down NGOs is like the whack-a-mole game. They just pop up in other forms. Or maybe a better analogy is to understand these civil society actors as an organism. Hurting that organism, killing some of its cells, is only a temporary setback because over time that organism will grow new cells to replace the ones that died. Just as I was able to resurrect the old English-language CDB through the Chinese-language CDB that had spun off of the English-language organization and had managed to survive the closing down of Nick’s operation. Count that as yet another achievement of civil society. Once it begins to multiply, it’s very difficult to exterminate.
Ironically, this seemingly novel way of looking at civil society is applied to uncivil society actors, or what we might call bad civil society, such as terrorist organizations and networks. We often hear how killing leaders of an organization like Al Qaeda may not be that be that effective because other leaders and cells will arise to take their place. How prophetic that insight has become! But it’s that not great of a leap to say the same of civil society actors.
I recognise that there are exceptions to this tendency in the media to play up the negative, but the grand narrative plays in favor of seeing activists and NGOs as weak and powerless rather than as fighters, objects to be pitied rather than admired. Progress made by civil society is rarely reported, whereas their failures almost always are.
I think our myopia with regard to civil society is one reason we are often caught off guard when social movements succeed in causing a political rupture, as in the Solidarity movement in Poland, Arab Spring in North Africa, and the democratic opening in Myanmar. Experts very rarely predict these events. They end up trying to explain them using the benefit of hindsight, working backwards from the rupture to see what they had missed. But maybe if we were more attentive to following the various ways in which civil society multiplies and regenerates, we might have more forewarning of when a rupture is coming.