Impact: China’s growing civil society

Hope for the people in China is not in the government, it’s not in the Communist Party. Hope is in civil society.

Listening to Teng Biao, renowned Chinese human rights lawyer, speaking today in Amsterdam, this quote stuck with me as one of his few positive comments on contemporary China.

He spoke about his career and experiences as a university lecturer and part-time lawyer in Beijing. His work focuses mostly on human rights cases, such as cases related to Tibet, Falun Gong or other politically sensitive topics. Doing this work at first meant that he was hindered in acting as a lawyer in these cases and he was faced with progressively increasing pressure: being disbarred, having his passport taken away, being kidnapped, being locked up, being tortured. He now lives in Hong Kong unable to return to his native Beijing for fear of being arrested. Again.

Over the past two months I have been speaking with over 40 Dutch companies about the business opportunities for them in China and how to go about making the most of these opportunities. And while talking about many of the positive developments in China that have happened in the last few years, it is sometimes easy to not look at all those things that are not improving in China. Such as the position of human rights defenders. And today’s talk was a bleak reminder of actually how dire a state they are in.

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership the political climate for these lawyers and other activists has been getting worse, in Teng’s view, with an increasing crackdown on movements such as the New Citizens Movement. In his talk, Teng called on foreign governments and ngo’s to keep putting pressure on the Chinese government so that this crackdown will relax. At the same time, it is unclear what effect this pressure has – but as Teng rightly points out: if you don’t say anything, you can be sure nothing changes.

Fortunately, despite the doom and gloom of Teng’s perspective he also sees positive developments. Influenced by amongst others globalization, the growing penetration of the internet and ongoing activities from the pro-democracy movement civil society is growing stronger.

Despite government pressure, despite the lack of an independent judicial system and many other forces working against it, the impact of civil society in China is increasing. During his talk, Teng shows pictures of protests in all forms across China. Pictures of events which wouldn’t have been allowed in any way in the 1990’s, as a keen listener from the audience observed.

As Teng states, the hope of the people in China is in a strengthening civil society to contribute towards change in China. Hopefully, the commitment and dedication of courageous and admirable people like Teng and his fellow human rights lawyers and other activists will see this happen.

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