Sunday, July 31, 2011

Improving Human Rights Through Social Change

Last Monday, I was invited to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill to Congressional staffers on the topic of "Human Rights and Social Change".  It was an opportunity for me to think through the U.S. government's (and more generally the U.S.) approach to the human rights issue in China.  Here are my remarks:

The way in which we view China is shaped strongly by our own political, social and cultural biases.  We tend to focus on areas that are of importance to us: human rights, rule of law, treatment of ethnic minorities, rights-based activities, freedom of expression and religion, etc.   What we might call political and civil rights.  These are important issues not only to Americans but to the larger international community, but we should keep in mind that they come out of a specific political, social and cultural context, and are not necessarily the most important issues to many in China’s civil society.  These are also areas where the party-state has been more vigilant in opposing reforms, partly because they perceive outside forces pushing hard for changes in these areas.  

The problem is that in focusing so much of our attention and energies on these areas, we have developed blind spots in other areas where change is occurring in a more organic fashion, using strategies and methods that are generally accepted and have proved effective in China.   These changes have not resulted in the kinds of change we in the U.S. would like to see, particularly a stronger, more independent legal system, and greater protection of legal rights, and the expansion of freedom of expression and religion, for Chinese citizens.  But they are nonetheless important changes that have resulted in the expansion of civil society broadly defined.  This civil society consisting of voluntary, private, self-governing initiatives, organizations, networks and movements has been growing in numbers and in the diversity of actors involved.   They include lawyers, journalists, academics, ordinary activists, NGOs, foundations, informal and virtual groups and networks, and even the occasional government official.

I would argue that we need to do a better job understanding how social action and change is unfolding in China before we try to impose our own template of how political and social change should occur.  Why and how has civil society continued to grow through the cycles of relaxation and repression that we keep hearing about in the international media?   What are the consequences of this growth?   Where will it lead?  What if anything can the U.S. government do to support civil society?

We’ve been very good about identifying and calling attention to the ways in which the government has sought to stifle and repress civil society.  It seems that every week we read news about activists, writers, lawyers,  and monks being restricted, detained, disappeared or arrested.  We’ve also done a fairly good job of identifying acts of “mass disturbances”, strikes, protests, riots.  But again, these stories are consistent with our concern for rule of law, freedom of expression and religion, and the treatment of ethnic minorities. 

What we hear little about are the stories that do not get the attention of journalists.  Stories about the quiet work that is being done behind the scenes, the emergence of social actors promoting change in less public ways, the growth of social and virtual networks, and the growing collaboration between civil society actors, the government and business sectors.   These are areas where civil society is trying escape marginalization and join the mainstream of Chinese society.  They are also trends that get little mention in the media and in U.S. government human rights reports.

Information about these changes is not lacking.  It is available and being documented by academics, bloggers, and organizations like China Development Brief.  But it does not seem to be filtering up to those in the U.S. government.

Just to give one important change that has happened recently is the rapid rise of private foundations which offer another means of support for civil society.  The rise of foundations established by private entrepreneurs suggests that the private sector is gradually becoming more socially engaged.  Their support of civil society, while not a direct statement supporting political reform, shows their support for an organizational sphere independent of the party-state.  The coming together of private entrepreneurs and civil society has been gathering speed over the last two years.  It represents a very significant event that is beginning to change the civil society landscape because now you have independent foundations with lots of money and influence.  The question is, will they support civil society? 

The always insightful Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, recognizes the importance of social change in reforming the political environment in China.  In his 2006 essay, “Changing the Regime by Changing Society”, he states:

“China’s course toward a free society will mainly rely on bottom-up gradual improvement and not the top-down ‘Chiang Ching-kuo style’ revolution.  Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people.  In other words, pursue the free and democratic forces among the people; do not pursue the rebuilding of society through radical regime change, but instead use gradual social change to compel regime change.  That is, rely on the continuously growing civil society to reform a regime that lacks legitimacy.”

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