The Fate of Liu Xiaobo and the Failure of Western NGOs

17 Jul 2017
Author: Robert Precht

The fate of Liu Xiaobo spotlights the failure of Western human rights groups working in China. President Xi Jinping’s campaign against dissent has been successful. The civil society movement Liu helped to motivate is in disarray. “In the last seven years, he’s been forgotten," said activist writer and friend Yu Jie, “I think we were overly optimistic.” Partially responsible for this unjustified optimism are the scores of foreign NGOs that opened offices in the country and promoted the idea that with the proper education, over time the Chinese would start to embrace western human rights values. This approach was ineffective, and it also hobbled the development of domestic civil society in China. New strategies are needed, particularly enlisting Western businesses and universities to universalize the human rights message.

Foreign NGOs doing rule of law and democracy promotion began springing up in China in the 1990s as a result of generous funding grants from U.S. government and the European Union resources. The government donors in effect subcontracted with NGOs to conduct trainings and educational programs for Chinese professional audiences extolling the virtues of liberal values, including a fair court system, protections for people with disabilities, equal rights for women, redress for environmental harms, and the like. The general modality of such programs was for foreign NGOs based in China to convene meetings with Chinese universities and professional groups during which Western experts would talk about the best practices of their home countries. The idea was that when the Chinese heard about these best practices they would over time start implementing them. For example, when I ran the Beijing office of a New York based nonprofit, we created programs training lawyers and students about the field of public interest law as it is practiced in the West. One of our signature programs was the Public Interest Summer School which we hosted with Peking University and Wuhan University. The two-day conference featured local Chinese lawyers and professors, as well as foreign experts, to talk about how law could be used as a tool to help marginalized populations -- people with disabilities, gay and lesbian citizens, farmers who fell victim to environmental disasters.

Fuelled by a continuing stream of donor dollars and the need to please donors with innovative programs, Western groups ventured outside the purely educational realm and started to organize professional groups to take action. One foreign organization was instrumental in creating and funding a group of law school clinical professors in an attempt to introduce clinical methodology in Chinese classrooms to show students the real life legal needs of poor people.  A program paid the salaries of recent law school graduates to work in legal aid offices.  Another program subsidized lawyers to bring gender discrimination lawsuits in Chinese courts. These activities were well meaning, but they may have had the unintended effect of making the authorities suspicious that foreign organizations were trying to interfere in China’s domestic affairs and destabilizing Communist party rule.

Having a physical office had costs which went beyond paying the rent and spending hundreds of hours to get us properly registered as a representative office. Our Chinese staff was constantly harassed by security forces who frequently asked them “out for tea” to explain why they were working for a foreign organization that received money from the U.S. State Department. In one instance, a couple of agents went up north to the workplace of the father of one of our employees and asked him in front of his colleagues why his child was working for an American organization. In addition to exposing staff to risks, we may have unwittingly made the authorities suspicious of Chinese civil society leaders who visited our office and whom we visited.  

The rationale for these educational and organizing activities within China may have had force in the 1990s and early 2000s when China was still relatively undeveloped. This was a time before the internet, before hundreds of thousands of Chinese students went abroad to study at Western colleges, before China achieved its spectacular economic successes. This was a time when China was still hungry for Western knowledge and expertise, and the authorities were willing to tolerate the unregulated presence of foreign NGOs.

Times have changed. China has its own experts. The need for Western groups to have a physical presence in the country in order to conduct trainings and bring in foreign experts is not as great as it once was.  

There is a bigger threat to the development of human rights in China than lack of education on the part of Chinese professionals. It’s the world’s growing complacency about human rights violations committed by the Chinese government. The Western world’s indifference to human rights was brought home when the Chinese authorities released from prison critically ill Liu Xiaobo and kept him in confinement until he died. China expert Jerome Cohen writes:  “The world community had largely forgotten Liu Xiaobo. The People’s Republic, through its economic prowess, its assertiveness in the South China Sea and its inability to bring North Korea to heel has managed to divert international attention from its vicious attack on the country’s human rights lawyers and others who have sought to follow Liu Xiaobo’s courageous example in promoting freedoms of expression.”

Western businesses and universities have flocked to the country to set up joint ventures with domestic companies and local governments. Indeed, U.S. universities have received hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies from the Chinese government to set up campuses in the country. Yet CEOs and college presidents have remained silent in the face of the Chinese government’s campaign against dissent. When society’s thought leaders mutely accept human rights violations, it’s no wonder the world community is becoming more complacent.

To remedy indifference, human rights need to be seen not just a concern of liberal elites.  They need to be embraced and publicized by the role models of society including large businesses and universities and other opinion leaders. NGOs with China expertise can play an important role in the battle against indifference by using an underutilized tool to keep human rights center stage in the world community.

Adopted in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights  recognize the critical role businesses play in protecting human rights. According to the Guiding Principles, an enterprise’s corporate responsibility entails making a clear and public policy commitment, implementing due diligence processes, and providing or cooperating in the creation of remedies for human rights violations committed by their business partners.  In the China context, this would mean that businesses need to make public commitments on their websites to uphold human rights, to engage in meaning due diligence to identify the risks to human rights if the businesses partner with the Chinese government on any projects.

If companies and universities adhered to the Guiding Principles it would be less likely that the world community would forget about such people as  Liu Xiaobo. Foreign NGOs that may no longer be able to work inside China as a result of the new NGO law can still make a vital contribution. They should come together and develop a strategy for engaging the business world in making China a more just place.