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Talking with the enemy

October 23, 2008 - 4:00am -- Nick Young

In June 2008 I was invited by the pressure group, Human Rights in China (HRIC), to serve as guest editor for an issue of their quarterly journal, China Rights Forum. The piece below is an introductory article, discussing the role of human rights organizations like HRIC, that I contributed in my capacity as invited editor. HRIC declined to publish the article, offering instead to publish a truncated version comprising the first four paragraphs followed by one or two sentences selected from the subsequent text. I did not consent to this arrangement so the article sees the light for the first time here.

It is a privilege to serve as guest editor of this issue of China Rights Forum and I would like to begin by thanking HRIC Executive Director, Sharon Hom, for her liberality and courage in inviting me to do so.

Those familiar with my earlier work as founding editor of China Development Brief might be surprised to find me here. For was I not always a staunch advocate of international ‘constructive engagement’ with China? A critic of human rights organizations and China pundits who shout from the sidelines? Even, some said, an apologist for the Communist Party of China? So is this me now crossing over to the other side after I became an early casualty of the pre-Olympics tidying up campaign, with my publication shut down by the authorities and myself barred from the country?

Not really. For the fact is that I don’t really believe in ‘sides.’ Leastwise, I have seen enough of conflict and the suffering it causes to prefer bringing ‘sides’ together—even when they are divided by real and sharp conflicts of interest—to try to find some common ground, some higher, shared interest. What I believe in is getting people to talk to each other; because that’s perhaps our only chance—and it may be slim—of achieving any decency in this world.

My first finding on arriving in China in 1995 was that it had a severe communication deficit. Information was either mere propaganda or else jealously guarded. People working in adjacent offices often had no idea what went on next door. The government had no idea how to talk to the people, much less listen to them, and the people had no way to be heard by the government. Different parts of government did not talk to each other. Different parts of society did not talk to each other. People were secretive and suspicious and clustered in fractious cliques. This poverty of communication, I felt, was a major constraint, perhaps the single most important constraint, on China’s peaceful and sustainable development.

I felt that the most useful contribution I could make was to facilitate information exchange and communication, and China Development Brief was the flimsy platform I created for this. Our efforts, especially in our Chinese language publishing, were largely concentrated on China’s nascent NGO and non-profit community because that was an obvious and particular area of need, of palpable thirst for knowledge and peer exchange. But I was neither ‘strategic’ nor opinionated enough to have a vision of what a civil society should be like in China, much less any grand notion of a road map to democracy. I felt that for the present it was enough just to encourage some new conversations in the—still limited—public and private spaces that were opening up. In the event, I believe that over the 13 years I spent in China communication between many people and institutions, and even between society and government, did improve very significantly (and, I hasten to add, my contribution to this was miniscule.) But, as what happened to me perhaps demonstrates, there is still a long way to go.

Communication requires some minimal level of honesty, otherwise it is mere prattle. I have to say that standards of openness and honesty in the international aid and philanthropy industry, which China Development Brief watched closely, were not entirely elevated. The fear of offending Chinese government partners and damaging relationships haunted virtually every international cooperation project I reported on and, in my view, weakened many. Individuals who worked as international project consultants, and many international scholars too, were guarded about what they said (and where: few would wish to be linked to a publication like Chine Rights Forum) lest they jeopardize the entry visas, fieldwork permits and access to interviewees that were essential to their own future careers. This caution, osmotically absorbed from the Chinese environment of self-censorship, was entirely understandable, as my own case attests.

It is precisely because so much ‘constructive engagement’ with China tends to be compromised by diplomatic, political, corporate, institutional and personal interests that truly independent—but informed—analysis and commentary is so very important. And organizations like Human Rights In China clearly have a very important role to play in this.

However, I do not believe that advocacy has to be like a boxing match where you pummel your opponent with everything you’ve got and concede absolutely nothing. Adversarial contest plays a defining role in Western political, legal, journalistic and scholarly systems and traditions so it is small wonder that 20th century NGOs should have been cast in much the same mould. But I never assumed that this was appropriate to an Asian context, and I am not convinced that it is appropriate to a 21st century global context either. For the fact is that—thanks to the unstinting efforts of many fine and humane people, doing their best to bring manifest injustices to public attention—civil society advocacy has become very powerful over the last few decades. Indeed, in some European countries NGOs and media have largely displaced the church, and politicians, as the moral conscience of the people. Fine. (Well, maybe not all that fine, because I think this raises questions about where electoral democracy and religion now stand; but let us leave those questions aside for the sake of argument.) My main point has always been that, if this is the way that things are now, media and NGO advocates need to be responsible and objective and nuanced, because the moral conscience of the people should not be treated lightly.

Yet, alas, I have seen numerous NGO and human rights reports on China that suffer from dire presentation of evidence, poor contextualization and no willingness to concede that the authorities have ever done anything worthwhile. Reports that I would never have accepted for publication in China Development Brief, not for ‘political’ reasons but simply because they were unbalanced, poorly informed and had little that was new to say. And yet these very same reports had little trouble making the pages and airwaves of the world’s incomparably more powerful mainstream media. I find it hard to regard this as a victory for human communication.

I am not suggesting that human rights organizations should stop speaking frankly about the many failings of China’s social and political systems and highlighting particular cases of abuse. But I think they need to speak more thoughtfully. Their case will be strengthened if they recognize the enormous complexity and difficulty of China’s situation and acknowledge that no international human rights covenant affords an easy, off-the-peg remedy. For me, this is a matter of intellectual honesty. But there are also practical and quite pressing reasons why a change of approach is now more imperative than ever.

Firstly, the Beijing Olympics turned out in the end to be a significant, if not entirely unqualified, global public relations success for the government of China, just as they had hoped and planned. This was, it should be noted, at least as much a matter of luck as judgment. The first lucky break was when the Sichuan earthquake and outpouring of global sympathy largely extinguished the Tibet and Xinjiang stories. Then the Georgia-Russia spat came as a gift from the skies: for column inches and airspace that might otherwise have been devoted to more critical appraisals of scary China were instead given over to following scary Russia’s thuggish re-extension of its sphere of influence. What better backdrop to a smoothly executed and widely admired opening ceremony spectacle than an old rival being widely frowned upon for its boorish behavior? So: the ball rolled very nicely for Zhongnanhai; the Olympics coverage was generally pretty positive, and Party chiefs would have been delighted with the final summing up of one BBC World Service correspondent, that ‘the Chinese feel they are not well understood and want a better relationship with the world.’

Secondly, the moral conscience of the people tends to slumber somewhat in times of economic downturn and turmoil, and this greatly reduces the potential for an adversarial approach to leveraging political and economic power. The world at large may remain skeptical, even disapproving, but it is not going to ostracize or take action against China for human rights abuses. It is just not going to happen. Not at a time when a deeply indebted US government is hard put to stump up bale-out cash for creaky and only loosely regulated financial institutions that enjoyed the good times and now call for help. Not at time when executives in New York and Frankfurt and London sit hoping for a call from the China Construction Bank offering some capital. Not in a global economy where everything holds together, or else everything falls apart.

These factors create the distinctive danger of Communist Party triumphalism and hubris. Why bother to advance political reforms when the gods are smiling and everything is going well? Why not just get back to business as usual, drill the populace in the latest, legitimating ideologies, and press ahead with ‘anti-terror’ mop-up operations in Xinjiang and Tibet now that the spotlight is off and foreign critics are piping down a bit because they need, for their own sakes, accommodation with the regime?

At such a time, the role of organizations like Human Rights In China is more important than ever. But I would still maintain that, in order to be effective, they need to argue honestly and thoughtfully, not just rely on routine denunciations and well-rehearsed critiques. A watchdog that yaps all night is just an irritating background noise, not a watchdog.

This means a significant degree of re-thinking, from fundamentals; and it also means a more concerted effort to engage ‘the enemy’ and discover her humanity. HRIC needs to find a way to speak to and with, not just at and about, the Communist Party’s 60 million members (who, let us not forget, are also members of Chinese ‘society’). HRIC needs to avoid just getting stuck in the ghetto of preaching to the converted. (And note that the marvels of the Internet do not automatically link us all up together but have at least as much propensity to split and factionalise us into special interest groups that never talk to each other.) For political change in China will almost certainly come from within as well as from outside ‘the system’ and from the conversation that develop between people on either ‘side.’

I was sadly struck in the run-up to the Olympics by an account of the San Francisco torch procession fiasco that a Reporters Without Borders activist wrote for the Index on Censorship website. This correspondent, recalling the first sight of ‘pro-China’ demonstrators, tells us that ‘The Chinese authorities had obviously decided to play the PR game and send their own people to counter the visibility of their opponents.’ ‘Obviously?’ I am sorry, but that is not good enough. There was no effort to substantiate this claim, which was especially disgraceful coming from the representative of a group that claims to represent objective reporting. No effort to speak to the people concerned and find out what they thought. No sign of any understanding that there might be young Chinese citizens studying overseas who don’t like the Communist Party much but who don’t like the West either. No, this was assumption and prejudice pure and simple. And that is not good enough.

Get our there, activists. Get out and talk to these young people. Try to find out what is going on in their heads, and try to find some points on which you might agree rather than points on which you must differ. That was my suggestion and request as guest editor of this issue, which aims simply to present a range of voices—not so wide a range as I would have liked but, as noted above, it is hard to get people to contribute to CRF—discussing Chinese history and culture, and how younger Chinese people locate themselves within it.

There are doubtless readers who will think this is all romantic hogwash and that, in the real world, freedoms need to be won by struggle, not conceded after rational persuasion. I understand and am in many ways sympathetic to that viewpoint, as I have seen my share of struggles. People do need to stand up for their rights, for it is still generally the case that, if they don’t, no-one else will do it for them. But they need to do it by rational, creative and non-violent means that look for commonalities, not just differences. I say this from a position of extraordinary privilege, having traveled widely over several continents and for several decades; but, being still an Englishman at heart I cannot help keeping an eye on the weather reports, which now tell me that the world we fight over is melting all around us. Nothing is more certain than that if we cannot now progress beyond the millennia of anger and recrimination that lie behind us then we are all done for.

Nick Young
September 2008, Kampala