I posted a comment to Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog, which I wanted to copy to mine, but unfortunately I didn’t save a copy. I’ve asked her to send me back a copy since it makes some points that are worth repeating.
I do think that the headlines of China suppressing dissent isn’t going to wreck its Olympic image nearly as much as she thinks. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it just is. The problem with treating human rights as a public relations issue is that it ends up being a balance between outrage and the need to stay in power, and I think there is going to be a lot less public outrage at Chinese human rights abuses than she thinks.
One big problem is compassion fatigue. At some point, if you keep talking about Chinese dissidents, people just get numb to it. People also have extremely short attention spans. For something to happen, it has to be really outrageous.
The other problem is that one thing that is in the backs of people’s minds is “maybe the Chinese government is right after all” than there was ten years ago. There are lots of people who regret going into Iraq, and Sadaam Hussein was a far, far nastier person than China is. So if going to Iraq over human rights was a bad idea and it turns out that the West really doesn’t know how to run a country, then just perhaps pushing human rights on China maybe isn’t such a good idea.
On the other side. The Chinese government has had a strategy of allowing certain types of dissent. The strongest thing going for a dissident is the Niemoeller argument, which is that if you don’t defend me, they’ll come for you.
The trouble is that this argument just doesn’t work in China, and the government has a very strong interest in not making the argument work. So as a result, as long as you don’t cross any red lines and don’t do anything that obviously threatens the Party, they government doesn’t come after you. This includes most things that people really want do discuss. There is pretty active debate on things like monetary policy or bankruptcy law, and so most people in China really don’t think that the government is going to come after them, and so people don’t really get outraged over dissidents.
In fact it works the other way. Because people *can* have debates over monetary policy and the role of Chinese courts, this keeps the Party from doing stupid things. The Party allows a lot of discussion on some issues because it has figured out that discussion on those issues *helps* it to stay in power. But if you have someone that acts in a way that clearly threatens the Party’s hold on power, that person will get stomped down. What happens in practice it that people change their demands so that “Getting rid of the Party” isn’t one of them.
People are very adaptable, and they surprising get used to restrictions on free speech. For example, I work in a large corporation and while I may or may not grumble about the management, I’m not going to put up a poster saying that the CEO should get fired or telling people that they should join my labor union. I’d get fired. However, at the same time within the limits of what I can say and do, I can get a lot done. I can and do disagree with how things are run, and by expressing those disagreements in “approved forms” I can actually get quite a bit done.
The fact that I’m used to the type of restrictions on free speech in large corporations means that I’m not likely to get outraged when the Chinese government has similar restrictions, and this goes for lots and lots of other people who also work in large corporations. That the restrictions on free speech in China are very similar to the ones in corporate America is not a coincidence as they are both large bureaucratic organizations. Yes people of a liberal bent will get annoyed at all of this, but at the end of the day, who pays your salary?
Personally, I think that there is value in being about to say what you think, and I’m doing what I can to push China into a system that is more open. But you have to look at how things are, and be able to talk about them. The strategy of “human rights through headlines” I think just doesn’t work, because in order to get anything done requires years and perhaps decades of effort, and trying to change things via outrage just causes you to get burned out.