IRI President Speaks About the Role of Chinese Civil Society
Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
International Republic Institute
I’m delighted to be here today. I want to thank Bates Gill for the invitation, and also thank Savina Rupani for her work on this session.
I will tell you upfront that I’m here today not as an expert on China, like Bates Gill. And unlike Mr. Manchester, I have not been able to work for long periods of time to advance events within China.
I did learn Mandarin in college, courses supplemented with a summer in Taiwan. That year, 1981, was also the first time that individual visas were being granted for travel in the mainland. I got my visa in Hong Kong and bought my ticket for the slow boat up the Pearl River. I was so excited that I called my mother and told her that I was taking an additional year off college to travel through China. A wise woman, she responded that if I took any more time off I could foot the bill for my senior year at Reed. So my journey through southern China was rather truncated.
But that trip, short as it was, provided me with a useful baseline on political and economic developments in both Taiwan and China. It proved useful to me in the 1990s, when the International Republican Institute (IRI) was among the very first western nongovernmental organizations (NGO) to attempt to advance China’s village elections and legal reforms. At the State Department these past few years, I worked to change the building’s perspective on human rights in China from how many dissidents were released this year, to did we advance structural change. Structural change in China, a phrase you’ve heard more and more frequently from this administration, means working to ensure that today’s dissidents can be tomorrow’s editorial writers and loyal opposition, or, if they choose, members of the government. Anyone who doubts it can happen in Chinese culture would do well to remember how well Taiwan tolerated dissent just two decades ago.
China itself has made astonishing economic progress – and important, if more limited, advances in societal freedoms over the last two decades. Beginning in the mid-eighties, leaders in Beijing understood that changes were needed if China’s economy was to reach its potential. It is also clear that important structural reforms have taken place over the last 15 to 20 years. Village-level elections are now commonplace, public legislative hearings are being conducted, students are flocking the newly prestigious legal profession, and space is expanding for Chinese citizens to live without government interference.
Those of us engaged in democracy and human rights work around the world recognize that these developments could be the beginnings of the components necessary in building a democracy, because we’ve seen them before in places from South Korea and Thailand to Mali and Chile. There is no single blueprint for democracy, but democracies of whatever form have elements in common: citizens have a say in who rules them, they are able to make their views known to rulers, and they have the opportunity to appeal unjust decisions to an impartial judiciary, what we call the rule of law.
Such democratic practices are buttressed, as de Tocqueville noted in his study of American politics, by the existence of independent associations or what we now call civil society. Around the world, independent groups are important in service delivery such as health care, poverty alleviation and adult education. These activities, particularly in a country where a government cannot or chooses not to be involved in every element of the society’s existence, are most important in the socioeconomic sense.
I know there is a debate in political science circles about whether civil society can exist in a state like China. I’ll leave that debate to political scientists; I was a history major, and I judge developments in China by what I see there and other countries in which I’ve worked. Like other nascent democratic developments in China, civil society organizations arose because of economically-driven changes in state policy. Beginning about five years ago, NGOs across China began increasingly to occupy the space once monopolized by the government. Paralleling the early development of civil society in other countries, NGOs were initially focused on service delivery in such areas as children’s issues and care for the ill or disadvantaged.
The need for expansion of these programs is evident in the incredible growth of the NGO sector in China. Given time, the multiplication of service delivery NGOs can provide the fabric of a private sector solution to China’s developmental challenges. And just as the growth of China’s private sector began to change the dependence of Chinese citizens away from their government, so too can the growth of service delivery NGOs reduce a dependence on Beijing.
But we have learned in two decades of democracy building that as important as a service delivery NGO’s work can be in socioeconomic terms, its greatest sociopolitical effect comes with advocacy, specifically in advocating for changes in government policy. Why is advocacy by civil society important? As de Toqueville noted, one cannot rely unquestioningly on the wisdom and good judgment of a government, for no government (even one elected democratically) is omniscient.
Advocacy with the government gives voice to the concerns of ordinary people and acts as a check on corruption and government abuse. Advocacy by independent associations and groups helps to ensure that liberty is not squandered and that law is not abused. We need only look at our own experience in the 20th century – the right of women and African-Americans to vote – to see the value of advocacy by civil society organizations. To put it in economic terms, one cannot be assured of the supply of good governance if the demand side – a component of which is a healthy civil society – does not exist.
This distinction has not escaped the Chinese government. Chinese officials are clearly aware of the need for NGOs to fulfill domestic service needs. But the same fear of alternate forms of political organization that leads them to severely limit religious freedom and ban labor unions drives their attitude towards NGOs. This is particularly true after the events that led to the crackdown on Falun Gong in 1999, but can be seen in regulations issued the previous year intended to govern NGOs.
The regulations prohibited NGOs from establishing branches, and prohibited individuals from serving as the leader of more than one NGO. The effect has been to impede the establishment of true NGOs capable of marshalling members across the country for advocacy on any particular issue of importance to them. That said, as I noted before, a variety of NGOs have begun, in their corners of China, to advocate their causes before both the government and the courts, including in the areas of migrant worker rights, environmental issues and legal consultation and services. Some well known examples of these new civil society organizations are the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, the Peking University Human Rights Research Center, the Center for Women’s Law Research and Service, the Institute for Contemporary Observation, the Aizhixing Health Education Institute, and Rural Women Knowing All.
What are the implications of all this for U.S. policy? I mentioned earlier the supply and demand issue in good government. Most American, European and other organizations working in China – including, for the last decade, IRI – have been working to catalyze the supply of good government. I’m very pleased that over the last few years the United States government recognized the importance of such changes and stepped forward to begin investing in them, becoming the single largest donor country for such programs. All of this has been a factor in increasing the supply of well run village elections, more independent legislative drafting, better trained judges and other important developments. But I think that it is time for those of us who are working in China to begin to turn our attention to the demand side of ensuring good government, to aiding China’s media, to helping those working through a nascent legal system to increase political space, and to civil society groups advocating greater rights for ordinary citizens.
For decades, it was at best thought inconvenient to talk about democracy coming to China. One of the contributions that has been made these past few years is talking openly about wanting to see that happen, as President Bush, Secretary Rice, Senator John McCain, Congressman Tom Lantos and others have done. It is also important that we have begun to invest in such change. As Tim Manchester is about to illustrate, working with NGOs in China, outsiders can help ensure a more responsive government in Beijing. When China is democratic, I know we will read of how civil society played a part in the transition. Perhaps even more importantly, civil society will have been prepared for its critical role in cementing democratic practices in a rising China.