Sunday, November 15, 2015

Civil Society’s Response to Terrorism: the Paris Attacks and China’s Crackdown

Reading about the atrocities committed in Paris yesterday, I was struck by a parallel between the Paris attacks and the recent crackdown on China's civil society. This parallel had to do with how civil society should respond to terrorism of all kinds, whether domestic, transnational or state terrorism. What we saw in Paris appeared to be a blend of domestic and transnational terrorism. But terrorism can also be of the state variety carried out by state actors such as the police and government security forces against its citizens.  The latter is what Chinese civil society – NGOs, human rights lawyers, labor activists – is currently facing in a sustained clampdown that is well into its second year.

In formulating an answer, one thing to keep in mind is the important role the media plays in conditioning our response. Unfortunately, much of the media magnifies the effect of terrorism by focusing on the violence and brutality of the action, and instilling a sense of fear and helplessness with headlines like “Paris Terror,” “Terror in Europe,” “An Awful Realization: Terror Strikes Again” and the unfortunately-worded “Massive Muslim Terror Attack in Paris.”

The same is true of the way media and human rights organizations often report on the Chinese government’s crackdown on activists and NGOs. The narrative is to portray them as victims who are helpless in the face of overwhelming state power. To be fair, we need to be informed about civil society's plight so that it can receive attention and support from the international community, and both the media and human rights organizations play an important role here. But the narrative can become so one-sided and deafening that it can have a paralyzing effect on both activists and bystanders. People and organizations stop what they are doing or change their usual routine, lie low or head for shelter to escape the impending storm. But this behavior is precisely what terrorists intend, to instill a sense of fear and helplessness among citizens so that they will give into the agenda of those who seek to terrorize them.

The way for citizens and civil society organizations to respond to terrorism is to resist this narrative, and stand firm, resolute and optimistic in the face of terrorism, and continue to work with others to move forward on making the world a better, more equitable and yes more hopeful place. After the Paris attacks, there will be a great deal of work to be done in advancing that agenda. Finding and working hand-in-hand with like-minded people is important because solidarity provides the empowering effect needed to resist fear, helplessness and anomie.

I realize this may all sound obvious but it is actually very difficult to do when the dominant narrative does not encourage this mindset. These days I meet with funders, and representatives from foreign governments and international organizations, who tend to treat us like victims, buying into the narrative that the space for civil society is closing. We are viewed with sympathy, but when we say we are finding ways to move our work forward and are looking for funding, our remarks are received with skepticism and we’re told how many Chinese organizations cannot carry out their projects because of the crackdown. I almost want to say, listen we have a labor movement to build and it can't wait. But I sense a passive response from us is what is expected, while an optimistic, defiant response gets challenged instead of supported.

So I was happy today to find a sign that some (many?) citizens in Paris are responding to the attacks with great courage and optimism. That sign was not in any headlines but buried deep in the middle of one article on the Paris attacks. A French woman who was on her morning run was asked for her reaction to the attacks. She said she was still trying to process the events, but without succumbing to fear. “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. We are not at war here. We need to stay confident and hopeful.”

That quote beautifully expresses the attitude that civil society can and should take in response to terrorism.


  1. Thanks for this, Shawn. Can I humbly suggest you also cross-post on Medium? It's a great writing platform I think you would enjoy using.

  2. So true. The real power terrorists wield is the fear they sow in everyone's hearts.