Saturday, November 14, 2009

On what Obama can do for NGOs on his visit to China

November 14, 2009

On the eve of Obama’s first trip to Beijing, there has been talk about whether he should raise the human rights issue. Here’s my take on this. Obama should address human rights in China by recognizing the progress made by Chinese NGOs. After all, he knows what it’s like to be a Chinese NGO.

In an article he wrote in 1988 titled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City”, Barack Obama recounts an episode in which a public school aide says she can’t understand why he, a college graduate, would go into community organizing. Obama asks her why. Her response: " 'Cause the pay is low, the hours is long, and don't nobody appreciate you."

She could have been describing what it was like working for a Chinese NGO which face not only problems with raising funds, but also lack of legitimacy and respect from the government, business community and society at large.

As a former community organizer, Obama has a natural connection to Chinese NGOs, and he should play on it when addressing the human rights issue in his upcoming trip to China. Thus, rather than criticize China’s human rights record, which he will probably not do publicly, he could meet with grassroots NGO leaders and recognize their efforts. Moreover, in his meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, he could take the time to commend them for encouraging NGOs and other social organizations to play a bigger role in addressing many of China’s environmental and social problems.

Normally, China’s NGOs work quietly on the margins, educating people on China’s tremendous environmental problems, helping migrant workers recover back wages, integrating mentally challenged youth into the community, and counseling women in abusive relationships. But NGOs and volunteer groups played a very public role in the relief and reconstruction effort following the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008. You might say 2008 was the coming-out year for Chinese NGOs and volunteers who showed many in Chinese society were willing to lend a hand to address China’s many social and environmental problems. Obama could mention these efforts to Hu and Wen as a way to bring the value of NGOs to Hu and Wen’s attention.

Obama’s mention of China’s NGOs would of course be symbolic. But his actions and words, no matter how small, would mean the world to them. His support would give NGOs a measure of recognition at the highest levels of the Chinese government, and encourage NGOs to move forward, despite political and legal obstacles, and lack of support and recognition from the government, businesses, and society at large.

As a former community organizer, Obama knows NGOs need all the encouragement they can get.

There is also evidence that praising China for progress they’ve made, is more productive than harping on their shortcomings. In 1996, Carter wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin about his delegation’s favorable assessment of the ongoing village election experiment. Soon after, Jiang began to pay more attention to village elections and lending them his support. Obama could do the same for China’s NGOs.


  1. hi shawn, i found your blog today as i was doing some research into chinese ngos of my own and i just want to say this is great and i hope to see more in the coming weeks. i guess your hopes, and mine, for obama's visit were roundly dashed. perhaps obama was trying to "work quietly on the margins" and be tactfully respectful. i am hoping for a more direct discussion when they meet for the human rights discussions in february.

  2. Hi Nan, glad to hear from you. I have to say I wasn't expecting much from Obama this time around, but hope he does pay more attention to NGOs in his next visit. I'm hoping Clinton will give him a nudge in this direction since she did meet with some activists the first time she came to Beijing.