Throughout 2019, the Centre’s Scanning the Horizon futures community has explored the implications of China’s growing global influence on the future work of internationally-operating civil society organisations. Following a well-attended cross-sector meeting in Hong Kong in June, we have published a new Sector Guide of practical entry points for senior civil society leaders to summarise the key themes and implications for our sector. It provides strategic guidance for organisations to think through their current strategies and capacities, and further develop future engagement and adaptation approaches to be better prepared for this major trend.
To accompany the launch of this Guide, we invited this guest blog from Amnesty International’s China Strategy Manager, Heather Hutchings.
The rise of global China is impacting human rights.
In the increasing number of countries in which China is investing and operating, much-needed infrastructure and employment can help to fulfil the human rights of the people living there. But all too often their rights are abused as China fails time and again to consult with and address the concerns of communities affected by its overseas ‘development’ projects.
Furthermore, an increasingly assertive China has worrying implications for the human rights system as a whole. We see China operating from within the UN Human Rights Council to shrink the space available for the UN and civil society to hold states accountable for their human rights records, as well as making efforts to reframe human rights as a ‘cause’, as opposed to a state’s legal obligation to its people.
But China’s ascension to the world stage is a paradigm shift that is both driving and reflecting a new world order and balance of power. As this excellent new International Civil Society Centre guide notes, this is ‘widely regarded as one of the top global trends influencing the trajectory of other major megatrends for decades ahead’. This means, in other words, we can neither ignore nor resist global China.
Amnesty International vs Global China
I’m pleased – and relieved! – to see that Amnesty International’s global China strategy responds to many of the recommendations in this guide, while some others set us challenges to meet and aspirations to fulfil.
Amnesty views global China as a complex problem, or ‘VUCA’ for those who enjoy military acronyms!:
China’s impact on human rights abroad is not a simple problem that can be solved. So, Amnesty’s aim is not to bring an end to China’s global reach in a concise campaign timeframe. Our aim is to build capacity across Amnesty’s movement of more than seven million members and supporters to influence global China, now and over time, and adapt as global China itself evolves.
Amnesty’s 16 Regional Offices and 68 national entities position us well to respond to China in and from countries where it is active, and to do so in partnership with local civil society (recommendation 3). As Strategy Manager, I draw together the relevant China expertise from our East Asia office, the local knowledge and connections of our staff in or from countries in which China is active, and Amnesty’s thematic specialists (recommendation 6). Through this network, we add value to work already identified as important by our colleagues across the movement – easily done, given the many ways in which China is showing up in Amnesty’s work around the world (recommendation 1).
Complementing this action-oriented network is a web of horizon scanners who regularly share their views of China from locations as far afield as Buenos Aires, Brussels or Bangkok (recommendations 7 and11). Their broad, light-touch insights about China in the world help deepen our analysis of China’s foreign policy and practice and better equip us to anticipate developments, spot trends and see entry points for our human rights work.
We recognise that we don’t have ready-made solutions to apply to the complex challenges arising from China’s presence abroad. We know we can only influence change together with others by forging partnerships with civil society to engage China in their countries and communities, to negotiate their interests and protect their rights (recommendation 12). And we also need to engage Chinese audiences, inside China and the diaspora of Chinese living overseas, as change agents and in solidarity with human rights defenders in countries where China is active. This is critical if we want to target Chinese state actors and corporations that perpetrate human rights violations abroad, without isolating and vilifying all Chinese people.
Challenges and aspirations
Key to Amnesty’s approach in this ‘VUCA’ context is learning and adaptation, as we actively test our theory of influence and make adjustments to strategy and action.
Learning from our experience to date, we know that the critical approach to human rights in China coming from Amnesty’s base in the ‘Global North’ serves an important watchdog function, but is readily dismissed by Beijing as hypocritical and an attempt to ‘contain’ China. Hence, we have chosen to focus on south-south engagement – influencing China with and through civil society and governments of the ‘Global South’ – and moving beyond ‘naming and shaming’ by not (only) pointing to problems. This approach – which departs from Amnesty’s usual practice – is challenging us to frame advocacy messages (recommendation 14) that propose practical solutions and, where appropriate, encourage China’s leadership to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.
Amnesty also deliberately adopts an ‘outsider’ strategy (recommendations 4 and 11). The price of our freedom to criticise China – harshly when and where deserved – is that our channels for dialogue with Beijing are few, country access for Amnesty staff is extremely limited, and our website and social media channels are blocked inside China. Understandably, this does not always make us the partner of choice for ICSOs with in-country offices (recommendations 18, 19 and 20).
Even as Amnesty aims to establish an ‘insider’ position with some Chinese actors abroad on issues of mutual interest – and indeed we have already seen promising outcomes through exchanges with Chinese companies and industry bodies – recommendation 16 is, I hope, an aspiration of the not-too-distant future when ICSOs will bring together our complementary ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ strategies for greatest impact.
For Amnesty and across the sector, we need not only to develop a specific, organisation-wide global China strategy now. But also to continue developing and evolving our organisational responses over time, so that we may continually adapt ourselves to better influence the impact China has on the landscape for human rights and development. And thanks to the Centre and our sector Scanning the Horizon community, we now have a guide to help us do just that.
The timing of the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting 2019 in June coincided with the huge demonstrations against the Extradition Bill in Hong Kong, which created strong fluctuations in every citizen of Hong Kong, including myself. What was happening beyond our air-conditioned meeting room coincidentally matched with the main theme of our discussions, China’s global role. While we were taking advantage of this space, our discussion served as a timely and meaningful start for exchange of experiences.
We shared with each other the context, the analysis and the strategy in dealing with the changing and emerging role of China in overseas investments, in global governance, philanthropy and other areas. China’s technological innovation in particular is one of the most interesting trends which might have big implications for inequality and poverty issues around the world. As it will have an impact on our work, this will need to be considered by many INGOs, including Oxfam.
The most timely and valuable overall message from the meeting was the importance of structural reflection on a regular basis. We shared and understood each other’s constraints in operationalising different strategies and approaches. Practitioners were meeting with a whole range of challenges and might deal with them in a practical way, for example, by stopping certain areas of work or not using particular approaches to avoid risk. However, more structured and regular reflection can help us learn lessons and explore how we could work differently.
My main points of reflection, especially in the context of constrained civil society space in developing countries, are:
It is now a critical moment to reflect on the role of international NGOs in this vibrant context. Whether we stay relevant depends so much on our capability of comprehension and reflection as an organisation. We look forward to continuing to share our experiences and lessons with other organisations on this important topic.
In a world becoming increasingly dominated by geopolitical issues, authoritarian rule and populism, the role of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) has perhaps never been more threatened, or more necessary.
At the heart of many of the discussions on these issues is China, and its rise as a global power. China is no longer a minor voice in development that can be ignored. It now presents the potential to be the biggest influencer in how the development sector changes in coming years.
It is clear that China’s increasing role in global development is done through a very different lens and approach to the traditional western rules-based order that has been evident over the last 50 years or so. It is challenging the status quo.
Whilst we often portray the international civil society sector as a somewhat dissident voice to the predominantly western approach to global governance and development, it reflects and reinforces much of this approach in its work and structures. The sector’s background in the western liberal way of thinking is creating some real challenges as ICSOs look at how they engage with a new participant with a different values base and approach.
It is clear is that China is here to stay as a major player in international development. This has been recognised by governments and the private sector, and the civil society sector must also recognise this, and identify how it needs to adapt to be relevant in this changing environment it works in.
So how should the sector, and the organisations working in it, respond? Here are my reflections from the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting in June, where we met to explore these questions:
• Focus on the central vision and adapt to the operational culture
The vast majority of ICSOs were founded to meet a deep and deserving need. They are an embodiment of a vision for change. This vision gives them purpose and meaning and must remain at the heart of all they do.
However, vision shouldn’t drive rigid adherence to approach or operations. Organisations who want to remain relevant in disruptive environments need to be agile and adaptive in their operational model. To work with different values, different approaches and different cultures, you need to be willing to invest in understanding them, how they think and work and how you can work with them. Engaging with China, and others, should be a part of every ICSO’s global strategy.
• Focus on building relationships
We work with people we like. What we do is not a transaction, but a relationship. This is especially true in working with the Chinese, who value understanding and relationship and think in a much longer timeframe than many of us in the West. Engaging with Chinese development partners will need a long-term approach and investment.
• Build real cross-sector partnerships
The traditional development model is being replaced by a much more diverse approach which includes increased engagement with the private sector. Much of this work is happening in sectoral silos at the moment, including the work of Chinese state and private organisations. Building capacity within ICSOs for real cross-sector partnerships, including creating the right culture for these to be a success and developing or recruiting the right skills, will be crucial to ensuring civil society can increase its influence and reach.
• Look to opportunities
ICSOs work in communities where there is an identified need. With the expanded development model, many more opportunities exist for partnerships that will enhance the effectiveness of the work being done by all involved. Whether it is partnering for economic development, environmental gains or acting as a constructive watchdog and community advocate, many new opportunities are presented through cross-sector partnerships.
This creates increased opportunities to influence the delivery and effectiveness of projects by Chinese organisations.
• Understand the risks and mitigate them where possible
Engaging with new partners who have different values presents real risks that can’t be ignored. Be realistic about these. Look to mitigate them wherever possible. An agile and informed operating model will help this immensely. However, if mitigation isn’t possible, don’t enter into partnerships that undermine your vision and values.
• Identify ways to engage in the new funding landscape of loans and grants that flow to the private sector
Organisations that have invested in understanding, in building relationships, who are open to cross-sector partnership and have an agile operational approach will be well positioned to engage in new models of funding. The final part is to look differently at how they can add value and where this will benefit both the community and the other partners in delivering better impact.
This has particular potential in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where partnering with implementing contractors to make BRI projects more effective through community engagement and development, or with local communities and governments to build negotiating capacity, are both areas where ICSOs could add real value.
In summary, China is one of many disruptors influencing ICSOs today. It is here to stay as a dominant player.
The implications of not adapting how the sector engages with the various Chinese development organisations and initiatives are large and serious.
The benefits of making this a strategically important focus are potentially larger.
What is required to deliver this is what is required to build the future of ICSOs.