I don’t really think that it is much of a public relations disaster. People who call it such seem to have this notion that there weren’t any protests that maybe the “free Tibet” and “human rights” crowd would suddenly realize the error of their ways and start singing the praises of the Communist Party.
People are going to end up believing more strongly what they did before. The problem for the “human rights” crowd is that these protests are just going to strengthen the idea that “human rights” means “anti-China.” But on the other hand, that battle was lost a decade ago when you had major Western NGO come out against China joining WTO. That destroyed what existed of the overseas Chinese democracy movement, and at this point, it’s pounding rubble.
So why do people really demonstrate, if it actually hurts their cause, as it is doing in this case.
The conspiracy theorist would see all sorts of evil underhanded things happening. But the reality is more prosaic. Non-profits tend to be extremely underfunded, and they are always fighting against apathy. If you have to “do nothing” then people just stay home and watch television, and the movement dissolves. Whereas if you have a good old-fashion demonstration, you get everyone together “doing something” and that helps keep up morale. The olympic torch is a convenient focus for all of the groups that have a problem with the Chinese government to get together and have a party. The danger in these sorts of movements, is apathy and boredom, and most of all, of being totally ignored. So getting people together to “DO SOMETHING” is something of a team building exercise, the fact that what you are doing might be useless or worse counterproductive to your stated goals isn’t all that important. What is important is that you have something to do, and if you are lucky, you get noticed by the press, rather than being ignored. And being ignored is the worst thing that can happen to a non-profit.
Which makes me wonder about these news article, about Tibetan monks once again protesting during a scripted Chinese government tour of Tibet.
It seems like a public relations disaster. After all, the world thought that the Tibetans were happy under PRC rule, but surprise, surprise, Tibetan monks are complaining about freedom of religion and the Dalai Lama. It makes you wonder why the Chinese government took foreign journalists to see this, unless they figure out that the first time it happens, it’s big news, the second time it happens, it’s less big, pretty soon you’ll have the Chinese government taking journalists out to see the monasteries with the expectation that there will be protesters, and at that point, it’s not news anymore.
This points out something about freedom of speech. There is a lot of freedom of speech and a high degree of tolerence for demonstrations in major democracies, because most of the time it really doesn’t matter. There are thousands of protests with hundreds of people that happen, and these are mostly ignored. If you have a protest with tens of thousands of people, then it won’t get ignored, but if you can mobilize this amount of support, its in your interest to become part of the system rather than overthrowing or changing it in any fundamental way.