Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nice response to my last post from Holly Chang: civil society activism and the international media

 Following is an insightful email response from Holly Chang, who has her been working to support various grassroots NGOs in China through her nonprofit, Golden Bridges. Holly points to how certain kinds of activists who push the boundaries tend to get more play in the international media (think Ai Weiwei), and how this can effect civil society's efforts to exercise influence domestically.  With her permission, I'm posting most of her response below.


For international and interested observers, I can understand how difficult it is to study civil society in China because it is a moving stream of activity, it is highly anecdotal, and there is not really a strong "culture" of transparency where successful practitioners write or speak about how they succeed.  
In a recent interview with the WSJ, Henry Kissinger says "I have not joined public denunciations in order to preserve the possibility of maintaining influence on human rights issues."  
His statement made me think of all the people that are at the frontlines successfully pushing the needle in a very real way - they do not speak out to the international audience in order to "preserve the possibility of maintaining influence".  What little time they do have to communicate and speak out, they may do so only within their domestic circles. 
This unfortunately creates an incredible imbalance in the tone and mood of international media reports about civil society in China.  The negative reporting ironically creates an environment where I feel local government becomes nervous and is pushed to be less tolerant than normal, and therefore potentially worsening the situation for practitioners, potentially creating more distrust in those that represent international groups on the ground (ahem).
In my efforts to be a better "bridge", I am trying to find a balance between "doing the work" on the ground and "communicating to the outside" about both the successes and challenges.  This is a challenge for me as an engineer, attempting to do more PR - it is not my strong suit, but this year, I will start to try. 
We should not forgive or ignore the realities of the brutality. But we also need reports of hopeful examples that should and can be replicated, to inspire and perpetuate a more conducive and healthy environment for actors (both local and international) to succeed on the ground.  Thank you for your post.