Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dissidents in China: "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"?

I have a theory: I think many political activists in the U.S. don't know what to think about dissent in China.  We know there are dissidents in China, and we think that we should be in solidarity with them, but we also don't know how to do anything truly constructive, and we are afraid that trying to be public about the rights of dissidents in China will play into U.S. government attempts to demonize China.

I am focusing on this issue right now in part because this weekend I will attend the CODEPINK conference on resistance to drone wars.  One of the main things we will be talking about is how to strengthen the international movement for peace and against drones. China is particularly important in this, because if the U.S. is the biggest user of drones, China stands poised to become the biggest dealer in drones.

Thus, the question is particularly timely:  is there an antiwar movement in China? More fundamentally, what do we need to do to build solidarity with peace and justice activists in China? (Can we really imagine Americans and Chinese speaking openly against militarism, and being effective at it?)

The China agenda

Advocates of change in China have a different agenda than U.S. peace and justice activists.

Broadly speaking, they are focused on civil society in China: getting some kind of functioning democratic institutions, insisting on the rule of law, trying to get out from under the primacy of party and state.

Resisting Chinese militarism is not a primary concern. In fact, in light of the magnitude of American militarism, and its history, it's not clear that resistance to Chinese militarism is appropriate, at least not at present.

There are big penalties for dissent in China, and activism in China looks more than anything else like a battle for free speech.

The cost of solidarity

We won't be serious about solidarity with activists in China until we are honest about the costs. Some of the main ones are:

(1) We will need to invest time in understanding the context. Because the agenda of activists in China is directed to such a large degree toward the domestic situation, being supportive of them requires a big effort to understand the issues they are working on.  The good news is that there is more and more English-language coverage of these issues.  Nonetheless, understanding the concerns of any given dissident often involves cracking open the doors a local political, social, economic, and intellectual situation of Dickensian peculiarity and complexity.

(2) We will have to puzzle out the bilateral aspects.  Every time I read an account about another dissident in China, I pause and ask, "Is this story just a U.S. government plant, an effort to show that China is a bad place, that China's leadership is evil, that there is an inherent conflict between U.S. and Chinese values? Is China being teed up for its role in some future place in the succession of targets of U.S. military action?"

This requires us to be able to contain two conflicting ideas in our minds at the same time: (a) Yes, individual Chinese activists are entitled to engage in acts of free speech and dissent; and (b) No, we are not obligated to carry water for the U.S. government in its anti-China campaigns.

(3) The names are confusing. Yes, I admit it.  I speak Chinese, and even I have trouble remembering the names of the public figures in China, and keeping them all straight. 

When I figure out a way around this, you'll be the first to know. (Who knows? Maybe the solution is dissident flash cards?)

(4) And, yes, there are a lot of them. Add to (3) above the fact that there are so many people in China that need our support, and it becomes taxing to deal with.

(5) No one really knows what an effective campaign of support looks like. This is the really daunting part. 

As far as I can tell, China is still at the stage of releasing dissidents on a case-by-case basis, usually in order to gain some temporary leverage from the standpoint of PR, or in the context of high-level diplomatic negotiations, or other important international events. In other words, advocacy on behalf of dissidents in China is still in its infancy.

Despite the magnitude of the task -- the costs of solidarity enumerated above, and others -- I believe this work must be taken on.

A common cause: the right to dissent

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort.

A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

It may be difficult to see today that the success of our movement in the future will depend on Chinese activists having the same freedoms that activists in the West enjoy.  But, I predict, that is precisely what will make all the difference.

And so we begin . . . .

Related posts

When you hear "panda," think "China jails journalists." Yes, pandas are soft, cuddly, cute, and adorable . . . . They're also black and white and live behind bars.

(See CHINA: What's Black and White and Lives Behind Bars?)

Beijing has an intuitive understanding that, in a way that is determined by conditions of unequal information, it can monolithically dictate terms, and that other, "distributed," parties will be hard-pressed to stand up to those terms. Specifically, Beijing observes a cynical cost/benefit calculus which says, "Sure, a few players will always wise up and exercise their options to move away from us; but, by and large, everyone else is too paralyzed to move."

(See Merry Christmas, Mr. Liu: The Prisoner's Dilemma in China)

"How can it be that no one is speaking directly to what happened?" I wondered. "Should I say something? Is it just me? Can it be possible that most people aren't like me, tremendously troubled by how we should respond to what has happened in China?"

(See Remember June 4)

"There's one thing you don't understand," he said. "What you are calling 'the best and the brightest,' the leaders in China call 'troublemakers.; A hundred thousand Ph.D.'s stay behind in the U.S.? Two hundred thousand? A million? Fine! Let them! There's more where that came from! China's got nothing if not people!"

(See Why Beijing Always "Wins")

I think they are sending a message to their adherents: "We're in a struggle. Not everyone is with us -- yet. But we know what we stand for. And we're not alone!"

(See Shen Yun: Performance Posters as Resistance Art )

Other related links

September 17, 2014 - Edward Wong in the New York Times reported "Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti Goes on Trial in China on Separatist Charges": "Mr. Tohti has become the foremost symbol of the state’s repression of the Uighurs. 'Mr. Tohti is an advocate for Uighur rights and religious freedom for the Uighur people, but he was never an advocate for Xinjiang independence or any kind of separatism,' [said his lawyer, Li Fangping]."

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