Why have so many human rights campaigns, such as Free Tibet and the Falun Gong, failed in China? Why have others, such as better environmental protection and HIV/Aids care, fared better? What have the costs been on political movements with the more successful campaigns? What activism can work in the authoritarian country? Maria Armoudian speaks with Stephen Noakes.

Stephen Noakes is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in contemporary Chinese politics and is the author of Advocacy Trap: Transnational Activism and State Power in China.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Why is advocacy a trap in China?

Stephen Noakes: I call it the advocacy trap because most of the international actors – NGOs, foundations, and so forth – that initially flowed into China thought that they were going to change China from the outside in. And what has happened, more often than not, is that the reverse is true, they themselves wound up in a position where their mission and message was shaped through their engagement with China’s government.

MA: The way you approached the book is you contextualised it within this context of international NGOs and human rights groups that other scholars have studied about how they do manage to change things through this inter-connectedness. You sort of debunked that it works over time.

SN: Engagement was supposed to be an alternative to isolation. Isolation had not worked. For example, the United States had attempted to do this with Cuba, an embargo that was supposed to bring the Castro regime to its knees, and then fifty years later was still in place and simply had to be abandoned for a lack of a desired effect. Engagement, on the other hand, was supposed to be about bringing non-democratic regimes like China into the global conversation, “Let’s make them play by the same global trading rules as everyone else. Who knows, maybe we can socialise these countries to liberal values in one way or another”. It seems that is not the case either.

MA: Now the previous scholars who had looked at NGO advocacy – what do you think it was that they missed?

SN: There was a time when NGOs in the study of international politics were supposed to be the tip of the spear at a time where states, governments as traditionally defined, were in decline. This is the immediate post-Cold War era and scholars were writing very openly about the declining relevance of states, about the obsolescence of states in both real and conceptual terms. What was replacing those states and that international system of states was a global civil society, they said. This was what globalisation was about a borderless world. It turns out borders and states actually matter quite a bit. I of course have the benefit of hindsight it has been twenty-five-thirty years now since a lot of these writings came out. But governments matter an enormous amount. State policies matter an enormous amount for the crafting of the mission and message for advocacy networks and NGOs.

MA: So the idea of it just being civil society mattering and being interconnected. It seems states matter, but economic connections matter more?

SN: They may do, and there are elements of economics at play in all of the groups that I have studied for this book, each of the six different advocacy networks. Other things may matter just as much. For example, personal connections, knowing someone on the inside is often three-quarters of the battle, but we can’t sit here and pretend that material interests aren’t at play, even in those groups which might not necessarily advertise that that is how they work.

MA: I supposed somebody could say that what you are guilty of is something that you actually said in the book, “We now have to look at the often unromantic and often uncomfortable realities”. Maybe you are guilty of saying to the optimists, “Let’s get real”?

SN: I think that is right in some sense. I see the book as a bit of a bucket of cold water on that excessively rosy picture of transnational civil society, of global civil society that we had back in the mid to late nineties. When I say uncomfortable and unromantic, what I am really asking that community of practitioners is: How willing are you to get your hands dirty? What would you sacrifice to get just an inch of what you want actually done?

MA: You talked about some of the changes that these organisations that maybe wanted to be pure, but had to shift. You said it was kind of like mission creep, but it was a compromised position they had to go into to even to see an ounce of change.

SN: I call it advocacy drift. The allusion to mission creep works, but only up to a certain point. Mission creep is actually about the administrative bloat, that fattening up of institutions through bureaucratisation over time. Advocacy drift can actually be just the opposite. What it refers to is a scaling back, in some instances a complete reversal, of the principled core that defines an international NGO or movement. So, for example, one of the examples I talk about in the book is the Tibetan independence movement. For sixty years it was driven and bound to this commitment to the idea that there ought to be a free and independent Tibet. That is no longer the core idea, the core mission. What exactly happened here? I think it was sixty years of banging one’s head against the wall. It was very clear that China’s government was never in a million years going to go for that, so there had to be this strategic tailoring of the central objective in a manner that was palatable to those who actually comprised that movement.

MA: So if you were going to describe what that achieved, what would you say that is?

SN: In that particular case I don’t think that is clear yet. I do couch that at the end of the book and say I don’t think the story is finished. Normally what I would say, at least in the context of the Tibetan Independence Movement, is that with the head cut off the body will die. So what will happen as one Dalai Lama passes away and another takes his place? What will that mean for the coherence of the movement? If I was to make a prediction I would say the movement as we now know it is not likely to be in a few years’ time.

MA: That is largely because China’s government just refused to play in the ways that they wanted them to?

SN: That is right. It is almost never the case that foreign activists succeed in convincing China to change its mind, to change its policies on a given issue. It is incredibly rare that China’s government adopts a position for reasons other than something it didn’t already favour anyway for its own purposes. And so that can actually create a great deal of confusion when we actually attribute certain effects to advocacy networks, it can look like they are having some kind of meaningful impact, when in reality it is just a coincidence.

MA: How would you compare the Tibetan case with say the Falun Gong case?

SN: They both fall under what I would generally term human rights, and both have achieved exactly nothing – no aspect of their original mission and message. What actually differentiates one from the other is that the Falun Gong case does not exemplify advocacy drift. It has shown much greater commitment to its core principle despite the fact that it really doesn’t have any credible hope of succeeding. I don’t think that necessarily means that Falun Gong practitioners are more ideologically pure, and the goal of the book isn’t to criticise the sincerity of everyone’s convictions, but what I do say is that their incentives may be different. When there is nothing but the fall left, how one takes the fall might matter a great deal, and I think that is exactly what Falun Gong practitioners are thinking when they remain committed to this objective when the odds are so strongly stacked against them. The same might not be true for the Free Tibet Movement.

MA: If we were to look at the campaigns that did succeed, and you listed some of them in your book, they were quite different. Their mission was different, their approach was different, what were those?

SN: The first and most obvious successful instance was the campaign to improve China’s intellectual property rights regime for exactly the reason you might think of. It has everything to do with keeping China attractive as a place to invest by convincing foreign investors that their proprietary technology is going to be safe and not ripped off, and that brand integrity actually means something. The Chinese government actually does itself a solid. It gets to continue to improve the lot of the middle class, general growth in the country’s wealth and its redistribution as well. There are other more successful examples, the one that comes immediately to mind is the Greenpeace campaign which was initially aimed at getting China to adopt a cap and trade – a firm cap on its carbon emissions. It exemplified advocacy drift in the sense that China rejected that cap and trade scheme believing, probably pretty accurately, that it would be bad for growth. It actually was worth it in the context of this Greenpeace campaign to amend the central goal. What they actually said was, “Maybe it doesn’t matter so much how China’s carbons outputs are reduced as long as they get reduced”. So they and others within this transnational campaign took to partnering more actively with state agencies and government actors in order to see that new targets were set.

MA: Do you think that in some cases it is not quite drift as much as it is strategic overshooting, and with the idea well yes, we will compromise at some point?

SN: That might be true, I can’t actually think of a concrete example where I know that a false target, a high bar was set knowing very well that it was unachievable so that any impact that came in below that bar seemed phenomenal nevertheless given the impossible-looking odds. What I say in the book is there is something at the core of these advocacy networks where these groups can face a real conflict of interest. At what point does pragmatism actually undermine principle? I don’t know that there is a clear or consistent answer to that question, but what I wanted to do here [was] call attention to that issue which the international relations and political science literature that I am addressing has not done a great job of.

MA: So you would think that in the case of the environment and in the case of the intellectual property where China did change, did address the goal of the advocacy group but they did it really more for their own advantage? Would you say that is right?

SN: What I develop in the later chapters is what I call a “domestic legitimacy-based explanation”. “Legitimacy” simply means the right to rule: How does this government retain its moral authority? How does it contain the consent of those it governs over? And when you look at this question of the impact of advocacy networks through this prism of legitimacy, the decisions that the Chinese government makes actually make a lot more sense. It can, for example, ignore the claims of Falun Gong practitioners and Free Tibet activists, because those things are largely not important for its domestic legitimacy. On the other hand, it has to address issues that affect economic productivity or the cleanliness of the air – its fitness to be breathed by people. Those are the kinds of issues that if not properly address will affect the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and its ability to govern.

MA: So it is really largely about power and maintaining power?

SN: That is exactly it. It’s a study in authoritarian resilience.

MA: There were two other cases that come to mind. One was dealing with Aids and HIV treatment, and the other was about trying to abolish the death penalty. What happened in those cases?

SN: I refer to these jointly as instances of intercessory advocacy. In the HIV/AIDS case, it was scholars and scientists and medical experts who were shrewd enough to recognise a moment where it presented itself, to see an opportunity to influence the about-face that China was itself making for many years. China’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which was clustered in the South-West of the country, was ideologically driven. The sense was that, because this was a disease of intravenous drug users and sex workers, they got what they deserved. These were depraved people who deserve to die. There were other much more pointed statements that the Chinese leadership made in the early 1980s that HIV/AIDS was symptomatic of sick capitalist societies. It wasn’t until quite a while later when the disease threatened to undermine the Party’s own legitimacy in action in addressing a public health crisis, for example, that there came a moment when [United Nations] scientists and sympathetic others from around the world were able to say, “You know what, we think we could present information to China’s government in such a way that they will find palatable”. They spoke the value-neutral language of science and said “Here is our data, here is what we think you can do to address this problem”. And that for China’s government was a win-win, they got to address the concerns of the Chinese public and show themselves to be accountable, responsible, able to deal with an emerging health crisis.

The case of the death penalty abolition campaign is somewhat different. This is one of those instances where attributing a causal effect to the international campaign is, I believe, a mistake. There have been vast reductions in the numbers of the executed in China in recent times. We are not in a position to say exactly what those numbers are, because technically the number of death sentences carried out each year remains a state secret. However, the best available information, which comes from Amnesty International, says that it is roughly half what it was a decade ago. One might be tempted, therefore, to assume that international pressure, international scrutiny has had something to do with it. This is actually not the case at all. Beginning in 2007 a new policy was introduced known in English as “Kill fewer, Kill carefully”. The idea was to retain the death penalty for the most serious offenders, while making it more institutionalised, more juridical. In this way China’s Communist Party got to appear both tough on crime, where circumstances warranted, and increasingly law-bound. It was about demonstrating a commitment to stability and order, but also a commitment to the rule of law. These are announced and well-known priorities for China’s Communist Party. So, again, it scores a victory, but it is not clear that international activists really had anything to do with it at all.

MA: It seems like one of the arguments in your book is that there can be, if framed properly and if focussed properly, changes in particular policies in an incremental way in a country like China, an authoritarian country, but don’t expect anything major?

SN: That is right. It really is about redrawing what we mean by success, reconceptualising success, and understanding that in the extremely unlikely situation that an international group succeeds in getting China to change its mind, these are really baby steps that are being taken. You cannot expect major changes overnight, and if those changes were to occur, it is probably not because of something an NGO did.

MA: One of the journalists I interviewed before for a book was using the sentence “Those with the guns make the laws”, and it sounds like what you are saying is “Those with the power will say yes or no and it doesn’t matter what the rest of us say”.

SN: That’s mostly true. That original framing of powerful transnational civil societies versus increasingly inconsequential obsolete states – I don’t think there is necessarily a tone of truth to that. That original puzzle in the research was presented as one of the soft power of advocacy networks triumphing over the hard power of states. Why should that be? After all states have tanks and armies and guns whereas international advocates have to make do with beauty and truth. The tanks, the guns, the armies, the hard power actually does prevail most of the time.

MA: So you don’t see an Arab Revolution happening in China?

SN: No, no I do not. Were it to occur, it would be unrelated to international pressure.

MA: So in the end you are saying maybe we have to think through what is achievable. You said good governance, for example, but is that really the enemy of say human rights and democracy, or is it just, “Look, we can get this done maybe we should”.

SN: When I mentioned good governance, no, it is not necessarily the enemy of human rights and democracy. In this part of the world, New Zealand, we know democracy and good governance to be to sides of the same coin, I just mean that China is taking baby steps. It is a better-governed country, substantially better governed than it was forty years ago, for example. It’s just extremely unlikely that outsiders are going to promote larger changes… It is substantially more likely to come from within, because of this focus that the Party has, some might say obsession with domestic legitimacy. The loss of that would mean big things for the Communist Party and the ability of the regime to survive. But at the moment the best available information tells us that the Communist Party actually enjoys rather high popular legitimacy. There is not the widespread opposition to its rule that so many imagine that there is. And this means that certain things, like Falun Gong and the Free Tibet Movement, are not terribly important, and can just be shunted aside with no political cost. Other things that is not necessarily true of. There would be a reckoning for a party that did not take responsibility for a major public health crisis or failed to deliver a public good like drinkable water, clean air, something like that.

MA: You mentioned that sometimes they used the frame for example in the AIDS crisis of, “Oh this is ugly dirty capitalism rearing its ugly head”. But isn’t China in fact a capitalist country?

SN: That rhetoric is very old now, they tend not to talk like that anymore. But it was incredibly common back in the mid-70s.

MA: Until they became capitalist themselves?

SN: That is right. It was really not until after seventy-six when the second generation of leadership came to power and there was a more market-oriented model of socialism for China. The term “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” covers all sins, right? I think it is fancy talk for reinventing the rules, making them up as we go along. The official slogan given to this is “Crossing the river by feeling the stones” – practice is the sole criteria for determining truth. It means we are making it up as we go along. But you can’t simply back away from all that old time socialist rhetoric. It would mean telling a country of 1.3 billion people that they had been lied to. What you have to do is tweak what Chinese socialism actually means, continue to reinvent the Party’s own mission and message in accordance with social expectations and demands. That is how China’s Communist Party can survive when so many other strong communist states didn’t twenty-five to thirty years ago.

MA: Part of that is it is not really communist.

SN: It helps that people are able to afford a little more.

MA: So they use the term Communist Party, but it is not really communist at all?

SN: It looks different to us from the outside.

MA: It certainly wasn’t the communism that Marx talked about.

SN: It is incredibly different from that. It is not an old-time Leninist state. But, equally, some of those old time institutions have not faded away nearly as quickly as you might have thought. There are distinct socialist mentalities that remain, one of which is an intense distrust for civil society actors, whether those are domestic or foreign. You would think that along with market reforms and opening up that there would be greater space for transnational civil society, for domestic civil society. It is not true. If anything, it has gotten much tighter. And China comes by this stance quite honestly, given its origins of Leninist stock and it’s not so great interactions with foreigners in recent history.

MA: And when you talk about this tweaking that it has been doing, is that how you would contextualise the most recent governance advances of expanding the presidency into additional terms? Is that just tweaking or is that something else?

SN: I think that is a little bigger now. I understood the recent proposed constitutional changes as mostly an undoing of the informal mechanisms that the second, third, and fourth generations of Party leadership had put in place. It seemed since the late nineteen-eighties what was emerging in China was a group think model, a form of collegial rule in which certain informal institutions mattered a great deal and were important for ensuring the survival of the party at moments of political transition and leadership succession. So one of these was mandatory retirement. Another was a formal cap on the term limits of the presidency. Now it seems that these things are actually not as important when you can have one leader with a great deal of power concentrated around them – simply move those principles to the side when it suits them.

MA: So, alternately, what do you think it will mean for China and for the rest of us?

SN: I don’t think you are likely to see big changes in China for quite some time. When I say big changes, I mean regime change. It is probably time to stop talking about a liberal democratic China. I would only add parenthetically that China considers itself a paragon democracy. In fact, the Chinese indigenous understanding is that it is a more genuine democracy than is the United States. Why? Because instead of having someone sit down and write the constitution and create institutions that then shape and guide the behaviour of ordinary citizens, the Chinese system is one that attempts to build the institutions out of the culture. In that sense, the domestic argument in China is that it is actually more authentically democratic because it is more attuned to what people actually want.

MA: So the final thing in terms of China and the world that I wanted to ask you about that is less tuned into the advocacy trap but more just as you as a China scholar, is the move to militarise some of the islands in the South Pacific what do you think has in store?

SN: It certainly matters a great deal to New Zealand, because it retains a certain caretaker role in conducting the foreign and any military affairs associated with these island countries. The most recent example of the thing you are talking about was the report that came out that China had been in discussions with Vanuatu over some sort of permanent military installation there. I think it just means that the balance of power in the region is slowly but palpably shifting and that there is now an emerging tug of war between traditional aid powers, traditional superpowers – by which I mean the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and so forth – and newcomers like China. Were I in a position to be speaking to Jacinda Ardern here and now, I think I would say “Pay attention Prime Minister to the message of the advocacy trap. Ask yourself those hard questions exactly what are your principles? How committed to them are you? How dirty are you willing to get your hands? Would you walk away from some of the trade commitments that New Zealand has made? Would you keep those commitments by shutting up when it is in the interests of shutting up?”

MA: Tough questions.

It is really about searching one’s soul because it is almost surely not the case that by bringing China closer to Pacific Island societies that China is going to be the one to change.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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