Is there digital activism in China? What is it like to be an activist running a grassroots NGO in a land of censors? Is the state-public relationship in China antagonistic by default as our mainstream media would like us to believe? Are citizens of illiberal societies brainwashed or complicit, either imprisoned for speaking out or paralyzed by fear? This talk challenges some of the binary assumptions we make about activism and China by bringing our attention to the gray zones in China where nonconfrontational activists are building an invisible and quiet coalition to bring incremental progress to their society. Wang will talk about NGO2.0, a grassroots organization she founded in China, provide examples of nonconfrontational activism staged on Weibo and WeChat, and introduce Future Village, a design4good project that calls for multi-sectoral collaboration that NGO2.0 is building.
Jing Wang is the founder and director of MIT New Media Action Lab and serves as the Chair of the International Advisory Board for Creative Commons China. She is also the founder and secretary-general of NGO2.0, a grassroots nonprofit organization based in Beijing and Shenzhen. Her current research interests include entertainment media in China and the US, advertising and marketing, civic media and communication, social media action research, and nonprofit technology.
The following is a transcript generated by Otter.ai, with human corrections during and after. For any errors the human missed, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jing Wang 00:33
So back to NGO 2.0 because we wanted to introduce 2.0 thinking and practice to NGOs. Therefore, we started off with a social media literacy training. We teach grassroots NGOs and western and central provinces of China to learn how to use social media to engage in participatory thinking, launch interactive advocacy campaigns, increase the transparency of NGO operation, design online crowdfunding projects and learn Human Centered Design to create solutions to the problems that NGOs are tackling. To date, we have trained approximately 2200 NGOs. And this is a part of our curriculum. We also created other programs, for example, we developed a web 2.0 toolbox for NGOs.
We also build a crowdsource philanthropy map, over which more than 27,000 NGOs have registered their project data and organization data. We also run civic hackathons in collaboration with transnational IT companies, domestic Chinese, IT companies, software developer and maker communities and universities, especially departments of computer science and design. in universities, we have worked with Ching Hua University, and the University of Science and Technology of China and senior sign University etc. Non confrontational activism is a thematic thread running through my new book, the other digital China. Now, during my 10 year long experience of running NGO 2.0, I encountered a variety of puzzled responses from my colleagues and friends in the US, they ask, how could a foreign NGO specializing ICT activism survive at all in such an adverse environment like China? This question, however, is a false question.
Because, first of all, and to 2.0 is not an international NGO. From day one, I made sure that we set it up as a local Chinese NGO operated by a largely indigenous Chinese team. We now have seven full time employees in China. So the challenges at the core of our operation are not much different from those faced by the other grassroots NGOs in China. So we should so the question we should ask instead is, how have the Chinese NGOs fared through the success of reigns of an authoritarian regime? Well, to farewell in China requires a different mindset and a different strategy, which is learning the art of restraint and following the centuries old cultural logic of finding the middle ground whereby emissions however difficult will get accomplished. This for the Chinese activists, this means producing social good without throwing a street revolution, or confronting the state openly and aggressively.
During the past 10 years, I was exposed bit by a bit to a gradually unfolding captivating picture of social media activism in China, in which multiple players from diverse sectors are leveraging the network effect of 2.0 to equate incremental change in China. And this book is devoted to the ICT practices emerging from China’s social sector caught at a specific, particular historical moment, thanks partly to the arrival of 2.0 technology, and cyber utopianism, and partly to the Communist Party’s alleged commitment to policies and energizing the weak social sector. Now with this book, I was trying to answer to ask the question, what is the ecosystem of social media activism looking like in China today in the old media environment of the major civic actors for NGOs, but since 2009, after social media had gone mainstream in China, Mike did this old ecosystem has changed.
Because microblogging brought in four new groups of social actors, they are the free agents, corporate sector, software, developer communities and maker labs and the university sector, and NGO 2.0 designed projects that involve participants from all those sectors. I should also note that the great majority of social actors we collaborate with are Chinese millennials and members of the generation seeing all those social actors share a commitment to making incremental change rather than throwing a street revolution.
And together, those actors from diverse sectors are building an invisible coalition to bring incremental change to Chinese society in spite of censorship. If you want me to choose a single sentence to describe this book, it would be this is a book about the gray zones in China, integrate zones Chinese activists practice non contentious social actions. So let’s take a deeper dive into this keyword, non confrontational activism and and ask what kind of politics it implies. And how does the concept and practice of non confrontational ism challenged the mainstream Western liberal thinking about activism?
Chinese social actors I named above don’t fit squarely into the profile of activists prescribed in the western liberal tradition, because Chinese changemakers are walking around obstacles rather than breaking through them. And they navigate tactfully between what is lawful and what is illegitimate. We’re all familiar with a Western paradigm that tend to equate action with resistance and social change with street revolutions. And I think it is time that non confrontational activism is conceptualized, fully documented with case studies so that we can put on the front burner, a very important question, which is the agency of activists operating in authoritarian countries. Now generally speaking, activists practicing non confrontational ism are anonymous because their actions purposefully attract no attention. They stay on the margins of history, and they remain peripheral to academic discussions about social actions, even though it prevails in all autocratic societies, where activists resort to other means of serving social good, then openly rebelling and openly critiquing. In my book, I incorporated a chapter on the critical literature revolving around the concept of practice of non confrontational this.
Here, I want to single out one such book James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Week: Everyday Forms of Personal Resistance. James guard introduced the concept of invisible agents and their quiet and piecemeal tactics. He also gave credit to what he called the practice of calculated conformity. He did well, James Scott’s peasants typically avoid a direct and dramatic confrontation with the authorities. But instead of condemning the peasant silence, as complicitous, or devoid of politics, Scott locates the sights of peasant action in micro and conspicuous everyday forms of food tracking, false compliance, feigned ignorance and so on. And this book represents a significant milestone in valorizing the powerless as political agents. Now when we turn to a country like China or other illiberal societies, where open resistance is an exception rather than the norm.
We, as researchers are called upon to go beyond the dichotomous mode of thinking to solve a puzzle. The puzzle is why are they exploited in those countries accept their situation as a normal, or even as a justifiable part of social order? Are Chinese people fatalistic, complicitous or paralyzed by fear and cowardice? So this question has been sitting on a lot of people’s mind. Surely, if the Chinese government could hire as many as 2 million people to insert deceptive writings into social media posts, shouldn’t we have good reasons to believe that Chinese censorship has penetrated every corner of that society, and that the censors have manipulated the public opinions effortlessly?
Well, that is the conventional reading of the muted consensus of Chinese people over maintaining the status quo. And that formulation relegates the entire population of China into the category of the brainwashed. In reality, though, we know that Chinese people have more choices than being brainwashed and becoming martyrs. So what is missing? In the scholarly research on China is the massive middle ground in which conformity is often a self conscious strategy, and that it might be possible to think of a continuum of situations ranging from the free dialogue, what carbon was called ideal speech situation, or the public sphere, all the way to the concentration camp.
So what is understudied in the China field is that continuum of situations, or the middle ground, or the gray zones, in which the Chinese activists navigate day in and day out quite successfully. As we all knew that the favorite topic, the hottest topic for digital China’s scholars in the West is Chinese censorship, with this book and taking a different path. If we want to understand the real everyday China, it is imperative we go beyond the simple dichotomy of white and black and turn our gaze toward the gray. So all this may sound a bit abstract. What did I mean when I say Chinese activists operate in the gray zones? So let’s take NGOs for example, and illustrate how NGOs in China function in a tightly controlled social space? Or we could ask a slightly different question.
What is the relationship between Chinese NGOs and Chinese state? The shorthand answer to that question is NGOs in China are compelled obliged to learn how to navigate within the state apparatus. Now, if you want me to choose three adjectives to describe Chinese NGOs, they would be semi official semi popular semi autonomous, semi official refer to the NGOs navigating within the state structure, somehow popular refers to the self identification of grassroots NGOs. Semi autonomy is the concept I will explain later. There is a Chinese saying, don’t start, hey, if you’re going to learn quite a few Chinese sayings tonight, the most invisible place is the spot right underneath the light this the spot the spot, which means no place is safer than the place of danger. In other words, under the surveillance of the party state, it is easier to carve out breathing spaces within the state structure within the plant space, then create an outside. So here, hence the Chinese paradox.
The closer the relationship of NGO is to the Chinese state, the more autonomous, the more autonomous, it would become. Now, this may still sound abstract, so let me share with you an anecdote. In the late 1990s, I started a collaborative research project with a professor at Peking University on popular media and popular culture in China. We wanted to hold an international conference in Beijing.
But finding a safe conference venue was very difficult because the word media in the conference title is politically sensitive in China. We eventually overcame the problem by holding our conference at a state owned and state run hotel, we were able to do this because one of our participants had a personal relationship with a hotel manager. So there was no surveillance, no questions asked, and the conference went on very smoothly. So this is a very good example that illustrates what I meant by the safest place is the place of danger. The most invisible place is the spot right underneath the light. So those habitually cling on to the Western binary thinking and Western binary dichotomous paradigms will have difficulties grasping how Chinese people navigate in the seemingly seamless web of political control.
Now, I want to emphasize that all Chinese people, not just Chinese activists have a half a circle mindset. They are very good at finding creative ways of walking around obstacles.
That’s the set of NGOs in a liberal societies tend to practice non confrontational activism by default, and it is imperative they make change within the system. I’m going to give you a quote, to further unbundle this paradox. This is this quote was from Anthony sage, he was the former chief of Ford Foundation in Beijing. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. So he says Chinese NGOs voluntary subordination to the existing state structure should be viewed not as a measure of expediency but a strategic move to enhance the ability to manipulate the official and semi official institutions for their own advantage, which means making more impact on society and gaining a louder voice in policymaking discussion stand if they were to remain completely autonomous. And I may add a risk being crushed immediately by the authorities if they create the NGO outside of the state structure. So fearing lies the fundamental difference between Western NGOs and their Chinese counterpart, I want to take this opportunity to point out another level another set of difference between Western civil society and Chinese Civil Society, what sense civil society came into existence as a result of the agitating growth of the social, the Chinese Civil society could only be born and flourished as a result of the voluntary retreat of the state home society. And that retreat of the state from society, of course, has been a gradual and measured process.
There is no doubt that the gray zones in China were much bigger in size under the hooting Tao region than under the current region. However, I would say there will always be a gray zone for Chinese activists, you will never disappear when a politically sensitive issue areas occur that may endanger an NGO, the NGOs well and its ability to negotiate with the local state out of the out of the dilemma is critical to its survival. In the q&a, I would be glad to share with you more examples or more strategies of how to cope with that the sensors so bearing nonconfrontational ethos in mind, let’s move on to the examples of social media activism staged Weibo. First, a quick definition of social media activism. It refers to social actions triggered through peer to peer networking between weak ties and furthermore, those social actions have mobilized the viral communications to create online support communities at scale, so I picked out five examples.
The first example is called a shaved head action. In the mid 2000s Guangzhou based activists Anil Hwei wrote a web blog, calling for 1000 netizens fellow netizens to shave their heads as a symbolic gesture to stop the city’s night illumination project on the program which would cost the city taxpayers more than 150 million yen without much justification. pamunkey posted his photos before and after the shave, and on Weibo, and in 20 hours, he attracted 4000 retweets and recruited more than 20 people to follow him and shaved their heads, including a young woman and a few children. So what does shading one’s head have anything to do with energy conservation? Well, Anil Hwei argued mockingly that 1000 shaved heads could generate enough brightness to light up the Pearl River and render the level the leverage city project unnecessary.
So we know that every joke is a tiny revolution because it upsets the established order. And polio cheeky Weibo post went viral precisely because protests triggered by humor. Humor is an is a potent form of non confrontational ism. So protests triggered by humor camouflage the agitators and down funding the censors. under the pressure of public outcry and media exposure, the city government eventually trimmed down the original the original budget of night illumination by four fifths, which is quite a victory for Anil Hwei.
My second example deals with a thumbs up sister. Now, when [?] was made his protest against the city city’s native illumination project, this young woman who dropped out herself some subsystem that a simultaneous protest against the city government for is a lack of transparency about the decision making process that led to the creation of such a wasteful project. So in the name of safeguarding public interest, and in pursuit of governmental accountability, she demanded that the city government make available a crucial document that underwrote the night illumination project, her petition for a copy of that document, hit the stone wall. It was like they were passing the buck from one office to the next and never gave her a response. So she was feeling very frustrated. She then turned to Weibo, to recruit 1000 netizens willing to post their thumbs up photos. Now thumbs up really is a satirical play, signifying just the opposite thumbs down. While waiting for the the the responding posts to trickle in. This feisty young woman raised the stakes by praying to special presence gifts to the city to the city hall to further embarrass the authorities. What did she bring, she brought jumbo white pear. Now in Chinese, this kind of pear is pronounced as yali, which is homophonous to another Chinese word, pressure,
The under so she was actually bringing the more pressure to the city hall. The other presence she brought to the city officials. It was a plastic ball shaped like a porcupine, alluding to the government’s antics of passing citizen petitions like hot potatoes from court to court. So hundreds of thumbs up photos turned up under the hashtag thumbs up sister, delivering the facetious message to targeted officials.
The tactic that she resorted to was meanwhile [?] theming by fake pressing, which is a form of indirect sanction. familiar to the Chinese schooled and the politics of sarcasm for thousands of years. Other playful Weibo fans understood her strategy instantaneously. So a small sensation was created online. And not surprisingly, this feisty young woman got finally got a face to face interview with the city officials. My next example is a LGBTQ example. When Iceland’s Prime Minister johannah and his and her lesbian lover, were paying a state visit to China.
This NGO supported for gay love strategized ways of using social media to promote social acceptance of homosexuality. Now during it after the state visit, her wife was nowhere to be seen in mainstream media because she was removed predictably from all media reports. So the NGO founder spread the news through a blog post, which saina.com the host publisher featured on its homepage for several days. And you can imagine this blog was an instantaneous attention grabber with a click rate of more than 600 I’m sorry 800,000 times. Within a few days it kicked off a tongue in cheek campaign slogan. Let’s search for the Prime Minister’s harmonised wife.
Okay, so my next example is free lunch for children, which is a very famous Weibo campaign. launched by some fake piece of free agent, a journalist, he discovered that Guizhou province lacked contains so he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Weibo on free lunch for children. He successfully mobilized the millions, hundreds of millions of Chinese netizens to participate in the campaign by donating one un. He then use the funds raised to feed more than 80,000 children per day, in more than 300 schools spread over central and western parts of China. Now, most significantly, the network effect of that campaign forced the Chinese government to respond in kind. In 2012, China’s State Council rolled out the policy which allocated 16 billion yen per year to improve the nutrition of rural students.
By early 2015 32 million children in 1300 counties have benefited from the governmental subsidy program. This case shows how micro charity can actually lead to successful advocacy. Why I call this shadow advocacy because neither Deng Fei nor his Weibo supporters were consciously engaged in policy advocacy. Well, other people may also say this is a case of wrong hi Jen shoe human see military tactics. The messaging goes like this Chinese style okay.
Beware the crowd has spoken can the government please pay attention? Okay, so, my final example is an environmental activism example. The arrival of social media platforms have made environmental advocacy easier and more efficient and faster. Now, since 2009, there has been a proliferating number of air monitoring, soil monitoring matter, water testing campaigns, galvanizing citizen participation. They exactly example I wanted to share his screen Pico, the NGO launched a Pm 2.0 air monitoring campaign, and they loaned portable air monitors to local residents, who then report who then reported their testing results on Weibo. Green Beagle also integrated a crowdfunding campaign initiated into the multi city advocacy campaign. Simply put, their goal was to mobilize 1000 donors per city, requesting a minimum of 25 un per person to purchase air monitoring equipments for each city.
Now Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and window have all reached the goal. True to the spirit of web 2.0, the original Beijing based movement was decentralized and and the spread over into multiple local campaigns with another sense all over China responding to the call by setting up their own city named Weibo hashtag, for example, will have Pm 2.0 to 2.5 error monitoring, or Shanghai Pm 2.5. They are monitoring and so on. So all those campaigns were created with the purpose of bringing incremental change. By now it should be obvious that there are many activists in China and they are making social change in measured non contentious and measured steps.
Scholars in China and the other parts of the world have been debating over the vice and virtue of scatter slacktivism or fingertip philanthropy. Those turns out the rogatory descriptions of casual random acts such as taking a snapshot of polluted river or sending a virtual leaf to create a virtual tree as opposed to engaging in sustained environmental activism and longer term systemic operations of actions on the ground as an activist myself A practitioner of both online and offline activism. I support the argument that Twitter and other social media platforms have enabled activists to create new communities and spread their social courses to a wider public. I also believe that small acts can add up and can trigger qualitative change over time. So why do activists have to choose between online and offline action? And why do we as researchers have to arbitrate which which form is superior to the other? While we have another saying that runs parallel to all roads lead to Rome, the same goes all rivers find their ways to the ocean. So the ocean of compassion does not discriminate against small streams or drops of dew. Okay, now we come to the final topic on my menu, future village, which is designed for good project that I launched last summer in China. We all knew about smart city paradigms, right, which is a top down investment driven and governmental sponsored project that gives a digital facelift to big cities. NGO 2.0 is interested in helping out villages, not cities, we are committed to energizing grassroots network and reviving grassroots culture and we are naturally drawn to methods filled down grassroots mobilization. In a nutshell, the future they’re just driven by three horses, designed for good tech for good and poverty alleviation. The future program, the future village program was inspired by the MIT Fab Lab model. As some of you may know, the Fab Lab model emphasizes the making of open source hardware and collaborative design with the clientele and in this case, our clientele or the villages.
The Fackler model demonstrates how an underserved community can be powered by technology and other means at the grassroots level. So how do we go about this program? After we identify a future village candidate, we first asked the villages to identify and to articulate a collected need. We then mobilize researchers and practitioners from different sectors to run a civic to run the Civic hackathon as the first step.
And I emphasize this is the first step of building trust and the working relationship with the villages. Here is a working definition of this first step of the future village. Through hackathons. We bring together makers and tacky software developers, researchers from material science, architecture, bio ecology, design thinking public art, art, practitioners and more. And the participants include the villagers, university teachers and students, high school students, programmers, designers, engineers, artists, etc. and jointly, we design vision for future village. We have implemented this program in four villages. So here I want to share with you one village. This is a village in the Curtin desert in North China, and environmental NGO, they’re contacted us. Now in China. The most conventional way of greening The desert is to drop the seed bombs into the desert, and then leave the siblings there to survive by themselves, which, as you can imagine, is not a very effective method of greening the desert. So this NGO, instead of planting trees in the desert, they hand in a sandy area and build a fence around it to ward off intruding animals, including humans, to let the land recover by itself.
Their experiment was very successful, as you can tell by looking at the satellite image, they just see the square square that has turned green. That was their first experiment. But very few people knew about what they were doing. So they came to us they came to NGO 2.0 with a communication need. They wanted more people to know about their unique method of greening the desert. So we ran a hackathon for them. We, the hackathon produced four solutions. Then I’m going to share three solutions with you. The first solution, the first one team resorted to the concept of Earth art. By working with artists to design Earth shapes that look cool. We know that interesting Earth art is communication intensive by itself. So it would create a very cool satellite image better than that square result. That’s powerful communication. The second solution is a son project.
We’re working with music artists, to design ways of collecting sand in the in the in the windy desert, each season would create yield different sense, we then treat the sound and sell the sound bites as ringtones to help the NGO raise funds and to also raise public awareness of the village. And our third solution is a WeChat game.
The game starts with a green, a piece of Greenland, and the player has to eject animals and humans that were dropped from above onto the Greenland. And if the ejection is successful, then the green expanse if it fails, and the green shrinks. Alright, so those are the solutions that came out of the hackathon. So what about the next steps? Well, after the hackathon is done, we then enter the village with experts, high school students, university students. at regular intervals, are we engaging on site conversation with villagers and the village leadership to explore other needs that could be tackled by our team. And the goal of those regular visits is to explore the possibilities of helping villagers to discover new forces of production, improve their environment, their livelihood, and also enrich the cultural life of village children. Most of them were left behind children, because their parents usually go to big cities to to work to make their ends to make a living. So the cultural life of village children would like to enrich the cultural life of village children through a variety of measures, some of which would involve media and technology and technology.
But not everything we do is technological, because we also involve other other people, public art practitioners in the program, for example. This is a quick bird’s eye view of our collaborators on the future village program. You can tell by that there are three universities to IT companies or museum and tacky communities. I’m sharing the future village program with you for a purpose I wanted to illustrate how NGO 2.0 operates. Building multi sectoral collaboration is our DNA. We work with different sectors to produce social good. And the sectors include not only the NGO sector, but also the universities, IT companies, design companies, packy communities and so on. I should call all those social actors, nonconfrontational change makers. And together, we are building a decentralized multi sectoral coalition that is purposeful, but non contentious, driven by a powerful and spoken consensus of all the parties involved to build a better society. This is the end of my presentation. And I welcome comments and questions. Thank you.
Vivek Bald 39:11
Um, so, if you don’t mind, I’m, I have a question that I wanted. in some ways, you know, you could say that that is, is confrontational, but it’s, it’s not, right. And, and, but there, you know, that young woman, you know, must have felt like the, the, the that the risks were not as Hi, as you know that that there was enough that she would have enough of a response, a popular response, so that whatever risks involved might have been minimized. Right. And I so I guess my question, I have a couple of questions that branch off from that example. And that is, one, you know, what, in, in terms of your own understanding or definition of what counts as confrontational? What is not what is non confrontational? Okay. No, is that based upon just the western ideas of that you’re pushing back against of sort of direct on, you know, boots on the ground action? And then just quickly, the second part of that is, you know, have you seen examples where, where the, where individuals or NGOs have engaged in what might have felt like or seemed like, non confrontational activism in the way that you’re describing it? But the state saw that as crossing a certain line? back?
Jing Wang 41:25
Yeah, sure. This is a very good question, because it allows me to talk about several things that I didn’t have time to address my talk. First of all, the the thumbs up sister and the guy who shaved his head, he lives in Guangzhou. Now, locale is very important. China is not a homogenous entity. Guangzhou is known to be one of the most liberal, one of the most open minded and the liberal city, in China. And also okay. So here I can I can share with you our experience in the in 2010, and 2011. We did. We did two, literacy, so social media literacy training workshops, one evening nine and one in unquie. And we, we had a very bad time, because we were pursued by public security officers in those provinces. So this is something fascinating about China, because it the world, every locale, has a different definition of what is tolerable. What is tolerable? What is, what is the boundary, right? Every locale sort of, is semi autonomous in deciding on what is allowed to take place within my province. So after 2010, after those two bad experiences, I made a decision in 2011, to hold a workshop in Beijing, right under the nose of the Emperor. And I, my logic went that if they didn’t, if the center, if the central government didn’t like what I’m doing, then just shut me down. I wouldn’t, I don’t want to play the Catan and, and, and mice game with the local with the local governments. So this is one thing I’ve gone through is fairly liberal, that allowed them to do what they did. I don’t think what they did will be tolerated in England, for example, or in Beijing. The other thing I wanted to point out is that the guidelines for censorship is not what we thought, in the West. The Chinese censors do not necessarily disallow individual dissent, what they care about is to prevent individual dissent from escalating into a collective action against the government. So to a to a certain extent, individual dissent is allowed. It is because of the discrepancies of locale, it allows activists to navigate. So if I couldn’t do something Beijing I I can do it in in Jiangsu province or other places.
Ámbar Reyes 44:47
Hi. And thank you so much for your stuff. I was wondering what themes or cases have you noticed that get more like positive responses in activism, and also how to cope with the I get like pro government but who made want to upset catalyze the collective action online? Like, yeah,
Jing Wang 45:12
I didn’t get the second part of
Ámbar Reyes 45:15
like, how to cope with the government but online got out of the box, but like yeah, like b-o-t-s
Ámbar Reyes 45:27
like the fake profiles that might want to like prohibit you know, like these like actions online.
Jing Wang 45:38
Okay. All right. Um, first question What kinds of NGO issue areas that are more acceptable right to the to the government? Well, many Chinese NGOs create state sanctioned nonprofit programs, for example, providing educational assistance to children living in poor families, in poor families in rural and urban China, or providing social welfare to the elderly and the, the other friend disfranchise scopes and so on. I didn’t quite understand the second question. So, could somebody maybe help me phrasing the question Emily,
Eric Gordon 46:29
I another word, I think you might be reaching for umbar is moderators like how do moderators work on online forums to censor what people say? Oh,
Jing Wang 46:41
they they have a list of taboos terms and concepts. Internally, they every social media platform has hired those officers to monitor the posts, so they have a list is that and I learned
Ámbar Reyes 47:05
but how, how an activist could like try to go their own like campaign without, you know, like, getting like censored. Okay. Oh, yeah, sure.
Jing Wang 47:19
Okay. They are different strategies. Okay. Yeah, a different strategy. So, one strategy is to, to, to make incremental change, which is crucial, you know, measured step by step change agenda, alleviates the anxieties of the state. So that’s rules of the thumb. First, one second, it has to do how you position yourself, for example, into 2.0, I could have positioned into 2.0 as a media focused NGO, but media is too sensitive. So instead, I position ourselves as a technology driven NGO, I very rarely use the word media in China. The other strategy would be resorting to the to the tactics of camouflage, study, strategic hiding, or systemic mimicry aimed at facing one some presence from the photographic media of surveillance. And there are many examples of, of, of camouflage. The other very, very popular method of coping with censors is to resort to the rhetoric of the powerful to curb the exercise of power. What I meant is legitimize legitimizing and framing your contention by employing state laws, official policy, discourse, state propaganda, governmental commitments to hamstring concerned party elites for support and for collaboration. In more concrete terms, so let me give you an example about organizations run by Tibetans and Muslims in China. They typically framed their mission as cultural perseverance rather than the promotion of religious diversity. And take NGR take HIV AIDS organizations, they typically frame resort to public health approach rather than dwelling on the issues of human rights. So there are many, many ways to work around the obstacles. But incremental ism is what everybody sort of. Yeah. resorts to. I’m very happy that I am in the US. Because that sort of prevented us from making jumps and leaps in our activities, which is good for us. The other thing, the other thing is that one has to have a low profile. So for the first five years, during the NGO 2.0, while I was running into a compiler, I rejected all interviews by media. Because we were too weak at that time at the beginning, and I didn’t want to be identified. So it was not until after 2014, after we were officially registered as an NPO, that I began to talk to journalists in China. I
Vivek Bald 50:49
think both Eric and Diego had Hands up. But I didn’t see who raised their hands first.
Diego Cerna Aragon 51:03
I guess I guess I can go. Thank you. For high for your presentation. I really love the reference to James Scott’s work, I think was really good. So I have a question, probably related to Professor bolt question about like Northwestern and Western, this kind of like differentiation. I was thinking about the dissociation, because there is also some times where actions that that seek social change in our Western context, a confrontational stance, right? Especially like, in the countries of Latin America, probably not in China, right. There are sometimes like other [?] or friends that occupy certain terrains in some of the bigger shores build a, a shanty town, because they are fighting for housing rights. And this obviously breaks the rule of law, right, as we understand that in like, kind of, like Western city context, right. So I know your work is focused on China specifically, but I guess my my, my question would be, how if we can think about like, activism from a global perspective, taking not into account so much binary between no Western Western perspective, but more like a gradient or a more nuanced view of what is like actually confrontational approach rolling also conditional strategies. This Yeah. Oh,
Jing Wang 52:53
do you mind rephrasing your question?
Diego Cerna Aragon 52:56
Yeah, I think if we can, like so prolly surpass binaries, conceptions, binary concepts of activism between Western Western and think more about probably a nuanced view of like, probably something is more confrontational at other and not so much assignment. Or confrontational?
Jing Wang 53:28
Yeah, it is. Well, as I said earlier, there is a continuum of situations. So there are different great different shades of grey, right. So I, I, I actually don’t know how to how to how to respond to your question, except that that, that there that it is what the gray zones is really, really, I think big, right? Even though it varies from region to region, but but it is there. And one, you know, I think one has to our as an activist, you always try to walk the fine line between or in authoritarians countries, you walk a fine line between compliance and self empowerment, which is not intuitive exercise. So yeah, well, well, in China now, it’s quite impossible to openly challenge the Chinese government and I think Hong Kong, the Hong Kong protests, services, a good example that well, that The Hong Kong situation, I think a cause for a total of a an entirely different response than what I talked about. Yeah. What What do you think? I mean, what? Since since I’m not sure I completely understood your question, and I would like to get a sense of how you approach your own question.
Diego Cerna Aragon 55:27
So I guess there is like, there are, there are not necessarily a correspondence between like non confrontational and non Western activism, but probably not in a Western context, you can have confrontational extra days. And so I, I guess, I, I tried to complicate the issue of like, not necessarily approaching certain contexts with a certain framing of how activists should be in this context.
Jing Wang 56:08
Well, you know, non confrontational ism is just a, a term that incorporates all kinds of approaches. Right. Um,
Vivek Bald 56:23
um, Eric, would you like to go next? And then it looks like Tomás, and then Emily.
Eric Gordon 56:32
Great, thanks. And thanks for the really interesting talk. I have a number of questions, but I’m gonna keep it to one. I’m specifically interested in what you talked about that kind of multi sectoral collaboration that you talked about at the end. And, and my question comes from work that I’m actually doing in Eastern Europe around the same, this the same concept and trying to understand ways in which multiple, you know, groups from multiple sectors can effectively collaborate towards common cause. In in, in, in Eastern European context, there is government involved, I imagine that in, in the Chinese context, government is not one of the sectors that is that is involved. But what I’m interested in is, and I know the difficulty in this work is aligning the incentives of the different the different players. And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how sure how you’ve how you’ve addressed that how you work to align those incentives to achieve your goals.
Jing Wang 57:36
All right. Thank you, Eric. First of all, I want to say that MIT is a powerful brand name, which allowed me to really quickly round up collaborators. It took me like a couple of months to set up into 2.0 in 2008. And I think Asian people, including the Chinese are, really worship their university like my MIT. I remember one son riding in a taxi in Beijing, and got into a conversation with the taxi cab driver. And he asked me, he, he knew that I was not local paper. So I just didn’t look like a local painting. So I told him that I’m a professor. And he said, Oh, yeah, he thought his Chinese professor, but then I said, MIT, he went like, Oh, my God, MIT. Can I have a photo with you? So that kind of positive. Very response to MIT. So the brand name helped a great deal. The MIT brand name helped me round up, techies. And the universities. It is effortless for me to set up. To set up collaborative ties with Chinese universities. I think, always the challenges is easier to invite collaborators, but it’s difficult to let them go. So now I’m getting very cautious about inviting people to join incentives. And the those people, okay, the social sector in China is a rather small sector. Everybody knew each other sort of, so if you identified one, collaborator, they you will be led to the others. We work with it corporations, we really don’t work with the IT companies themselves. We work with the volunteers within the IT company. They are techies. They are programmers. So they’re hardware makers. So I guess well, did I did I? Did I answer some of your questions? Or do you want to sort of keep keep keep asking if I didn’t give you a? a full answer?
Eric Gordon 1:00:21
Well, I can follow up with you later. I know, we’re almost out of time. So I’ll let other people.
Jing Wang 1:00:26
Other questions. All right. Thank you.
Vivek Bald 1:00:30
Tomás Guarna 1:00:32
Good. So I’m interested in the in the role of funding. So I know that a very common to illiberal regimes used to constrain the role of NGOs is to not allow them to receive external funding or to Yeah, to find a way to indirectly restrain them in that sense. And I was wondering, um, yeah, in your work, how has this resulted in, in bringing funding probably from the US, right? And how do Chinese NGOs work with that?
Jing Wang 1:01:02
Okay, so funding, kept me, kept me awake at night. Actually, since I started NGO, 2.0, my insomnia got worse, I have to pay for my employees. Right? We were funded by for the beginning. for 10 years, actually, they continue to fund us. And because of their funding, we were sort of suspect right in the eyes of the public security officers and also in the eyes of other collaborators. Before we got registered in 2014, it was difficult for us to really attract funding in China. But I do not want to get more funding from the US because they would make us look even more dangerous, right? So I was able to, again, use my MIT the logo, MIT logo, to attract funding from, from companies like a financial company, actually, they funded us to develop our crowdsource philanthropy map. We My goal is to diversify our funding so that we will not be left in the code if one founder walked away. For time, we had a very difficult year in 2008, because the Chinese government clamped down on foreign NGOs, meaning Ford Foundation was monitored. And they are for the whole year, I would not have any funding. And it was a very difficult year. But now things got better fourth Foundation, I think, past the past another hurdle, and they are fine. They are under the jurisdiction of the US China friendship Association. And they continue to fund us, but they are not the only funder, so we are in a better situation. Did I answer your question, Tomás?
Tomás Guarna 1:03:16
perfectly. Thank you.
Jing Wang 1:03:17
Vivek Bald 1:03:20
Emily, and then we have a question from the attendee q&a after Emily. Sure.
Emily Grandjean 1:03:29
Thank you very much for speaking to us today. I have a question about the people who are leading these movements to create incremental in writing. Like the woman whose photo you showed who brought that pair to the like city, and then the young man who shaved his head. And I’m wondering whether there’s a certain threshold beyond which if they lead to many movements, they become kind of a person of interest, and can’t really continue to try to create change in different ways. And then also how that varies by by region, I’m imagining it might, based on what you were talking about earlier, and then also by their
Eric Gordon 1:04:15
kind of, like level of awareness or level of, like high profile, high profile illness, like if you are, you know, at, for example, your level versus someone who’s just a young person in a in a city, whether your relative sort of command of power might affect your ability to continue to create incremental incremental change across different movements. And sorry, that was really convoluted. Let me know if I should.
Jing Wang 1:04:45
I will, I will adjust your question. If I if I didn’t give you a satisfactory answer. You can always follow up with another question. So yeah, I would imagine that that the thumbs up sister will not do another way boy campaign, because then that she would be inviting the spotlight, which is not good. That explains why I have stayed low. I had I have kept a low profile until 2015. Because I do not want to incremental ism is about anonymous tea. So why are you going to Why? Why do you want to attract the media attention to you? In Chinese we have another saying a pig is afraid of being fat, because that would be the time for the for the pig to be slaughtered. So so so that, yeah, you you’re supposed to keep a low profile. And I don’t think she will keep protesting, or at another occasion, it would be very dangerous. But Amina wakey. He, he has been working with an NGO in Guangzhou all the time. So he is fine. One or the other. I think you probably brought up another question, but I think I lost my focus. I knew that was very helpful. Yeah. Now, did you have another question that I haven’t addressed? I think you you covered it. Thank you. All right. Great. Thank you.
Vivek Bald 1:06:30
Well, I have a question from hamidreza. In the QA, who asks, or about culture, specifically? And here’s the question, I was wondering about non confrontational activism in the art scene, especially in underground spaces, music, cinema, literature, etc. Two things, one, their modes of production and distribution. And second, how does your argument regarding the paradox of invisibility under the light hold for that scene? Do you find ground?
Jing Wang 1:07:11
Do you mind pasting that question onto the chat box? Sure. I can look at it.
Jing Wang 1:07:31
Vivek Bald 1:07:34
Well, you may be able to see it actually.
Oh, here we go. Okay. All right. Man, I’m in the art
Jing Wang 1:07:43
spaces nonconfrontational in the heart sing. Um, in the art scene, which is say that the, the earth art example, I think that that is an example of, of non confrontational activism. And how this? Well, you see, the thing about non confrontational this of is that you shouldn’t be afraid of being exposed, because it is non confrontation. Does that make sense?
Vivek Bald 1:08:35
Is let me Why don’t I follow up on that a little bit? And that is there? Yeah. Is there a vibrant kind of underground music scene, for example, where, both in terms of lyrically and in terms of the kind of spaces that the young people are building? You know, do those also become spaces that are under this rubric of non confrontational action.
Jing Wang 1:09:01
Well, listen, the album, the company, the music company will not will not release a song or an album, that is considered problematic. So and also, you know, I think, in China is not just the censorship imposed on practitioners, but internal censorship. you internalize the internalize, as a citizen, you internalize things that you think might create a stir or invite the the unnecessary attention from the public, from the state or from the public. So I would I would say, China relies more on those kinds of internal censorship, inner policing, inner policing. Then external censorship. But to answer your question quickly, no art new music that is made public will be will be problematic because they’re already filtered. There is already a filtering system that is going out the the the the, the so called dangerous or politically incorrect messaging. But there’s one thing that I think you all need to know is that the censors are not like, they’re not like devils, they, they communicate with, you know, if they spot something problematic like with us we were approached by by sensors sometimes you know, they didn’t understand why we were doing this. So they came to us they said, Can we have a conversation? You know, I have a question about this. So you explain it to them. And that example I had was years ago, I had an article published, I wanted to seek a publisher in, in China. And eventually I got that piece published in Beijing, not in Shanghai, contrary to your intuitive perception, Beijing is a is a place that has more free room to for us to navigate then Shanghai, because there are two governments in Beijing, there is a central government there is the municipal government. So you if you, if you lost the favor with one with the Father, you could go to your grandfather, and you get your things done. So I got article had a few words that sort of hit the button, hit the hit the flag. So I got an email one day from the publisher saying, hey, Professor Wong, this article is great. We’d like to publish it. But there are a few words, I wonder if you would consider revising what you would consider replacing. So to my big surprise, one word that they singled out was capitalism. It’s like, What on earth, you know, capitalism. So I replaced that word with the commodity economy. So they communicated with you. If an NGO is in trouble, you will get a call from the local government and the, the ufan the euphemism is you will be invited out to have tea. You’re invited out of tea, meaning the sensor wants to talk to you. So you sit down, you sorted things out, and you make some adjustment. Communication dialogues is crucial for NGOs to operate smoothly. Something that the Hong Kong protesters didn’t do or didn’t want to do, which was really sad.
Vivek Bald 1:13:03
Okay, okay. I think we’re just coming up on 630. So, just wanted to thank you sincerely, for for this really rich talk and discussion. And thank all of you who attended