Power to the People: Taking Diplomacy to the Streets

February 26, 2015 Topic: SocietyPolitics

Power to the People: Taking Diplomacy to the Streets

A more nimble, realistic foreign-policy strategy requires diplomacy with civil society. At best, it will contribute constructively to political change brought about by domestic actors, serving more liberal rule and U.S. interests.

Still, societal diplomacy is more than aid. It could involve two possible future foci in China. First, the United States could try to foster dialogue with various emerging autonomous civil-society groups and political-reform advocates. It must take into account the reality that increasing support to nonstate actors in China will surely have negative effects—for example, civil-society groups may come under threat from the state. Yet, in the spirit of hedging U.S. bets about potential political futures in China, this effort would build lines of communication and relations of trust.

The question of whom precisely to lend support to deserves careful consideration. Even those NGOs more autonomous from the state may be elite-led rather than representative of the mass public. Yet civil-society groups are commonly also led by elites in other nondemocratic, transitioning and consolidated democratic countries. In a 2014 Brookings Institution volume, China’s Political Development, Tsinghua University professor Wang Ming identifies political, intellectual or economic elites as possible proponents for democratization. Of these groups, intellectuals seem most promising and uncompromised, as embodied by the literary scholar, political prisoner and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

The question of who to engage in China raises the question of where. Societal diplomacy should prioritize four already-emerging trends of social mobilization in China. First, major coastal cities are growing as centers of political and economic power—and expectations are rising, too. Second, other cities and rural areas are not benefiting as markedly from China’s economic transformation, leading to popular grievances. Third, in Xinjiang and Tibet, ostensibly autonomous regions with indigenous cultural majorities, those groups are being supplanted by Han Chinese settling and running them. Fourth, in Hong Kong, a model for economic prosperity under veritable rule of law, civil-society vitality was embodied by massive demonstrations starting in July 2014.

As for the second focus, information independent of state control is crucial to empowering civil society. As Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang note in their insightful 2013 book A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China, the 2012 media stories about relatives of ostensibly reformist Premier Wen Jiabao and other so-called princelings corruptly enriching themselves showed that “the foreign media, including the Chinese-language media overseas, now plays the civic role of supervision that should belong to the Chinese domestic media.” U.S. societal diplomacy should amplify these surrogates for the absent independent media in China, including through enhanced use of Radio Free Asia.

In the case of China, societal diplomacy could catalyze particular ideas; rather than exclusively championing concepts like “democracy,” “freedom” and “human rights,” U.S. diplomats can assist indigenous actors raising specific questions about the internal contradictions of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. As Stanford University sociologist Andrew G. Walder notes in China’s Political Development, “If it is possible to police the Internet and monitor the flow of information within China, surely it is possible to monitor the incomes and the behavior of officials and strike hard when malfeasance and abuse of power is detected.” One might also ask why, if the Chinese state cares about the welfare of its people, having pursued economic policies lifting millions out of poverty, it does not (1) provide for a clear legal status and government services for those moving from rural areas to cities to work; (2) grapple with health-endangering pollution yielded by breakneck growth; and (3) provide open information about other public-health issues like SARS and avian flu.


SAUDI ARABIA may be an even more difficult test for societal diplomacy. Bilateral relations with the Saudi monarchy form a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a partner in U.S. counterterrorism efforts and counterbalancing Iran in the region. Economically, Saudi Arabia possesses the world’s largest crude-oil production capacity and has been a key supplier to U.S. domestic as well as world markets. Thus, there is much at stake in considering a strategy that might distance the United States from the royal family, which has been firmly in control of the country since 1932, especially at a time of a succession of kings and when tensions between the two allies have run high due to disputes over involvement in the Syria conflict and U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Moreover, civil society in Saudi Arabia is feeble. Few actors or organizations are permitted to act as intermediaries between the state and the citizenry. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL):

Although there are hundreds of civil society organizations working in various fields in Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of them are government-affiliated, and there are few, if any, truly independent organizations. Civil society remains underdeveloped, due in large part to a restrictive legal framework that limits organizations’ activities and funding and a lack of expertise in establishing effective and sustainable institutions.

Only charities or missionary organizations are permitted to operate in an official, registered capacity in Saudi Arabia; advocacy organizations, on the other hand, are legally prohibited. Registered organizations are severely restricted in their activities and are subject to “invasive supervision and monitoring of internal affairs, through government attendance of organizational meetings,” according to the ICNL, preventing the broadening of existing NGOs’ mandates. Finally, according to Saudi law, NGOs must obtain approval before communicating with regional and international actors, and they are barred from receiving foreign funding in practice.

Accordingly, current U.S. support for civil society in Saudi Arabia consists of initiatives uncontroversial with the Saudi government. For instance, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, in its own words, “works with local organizations to support Saudi reforms to improve education, the situation of women, economic development, civic participation, and the rule of law.”

The United States does have more opportunities to engage Saudi civil society, however, than meet the eye. Moderate and even liberal voices do exist in the Kingdom. Since the early 2000s, they have pressured the ruling family for greater respect for civil and human rights. They include Saudi intellectuals who in 2001 began calling for reform on websites and in newspapers, organizing lectures, leading meetings in the diwaniyat (the Gulf region’s intellectual and social salons), and—most importantly—submitting petitions to the king that demanded greater civil liberties and institutional reforms.

In implementing a successful societal-diplomacy strategy in Saudi Arabia, the United States must also acknowledge the role and influence of Islamist actors. As Mariwan Kanie of the University of Amsterdam wrote in an analysis of Saudi civil society for the Clingendael Institute, Islamists belonging to the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement were more successful than liberal intellectuals in calling for respect of human rights during the early 2000s. Using sermons, lectures in religious centers and materials circulated widely throughout society, Islamists campaigned for important benchmarks including a ban on torture and the right to legal defense in court. As Kanie notes, the Shia intellectual and religious community has played a similar role, working to gain concessions on human rights and advocating tolerance, openness and pluralism.

The United States would be wise to open lines of communication with these actors and quietly encourage them to continue their gradual but groundbreaking work. However stalled it became, the Arab Spring showed that forces for change are bubbling beneath the surface even in Saudi Arabia, arguably the region’s most oppressive state. America should build relationships with reformers now in order to avoid the mistakes of Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, where such actors were dismissed as inconsequential to their country’s political trajectory and the United States was left awkwardly reaching out to the activists it was complicit in muzzling in its steadfast support for the regime.

Many of these actors will prove reluctant to engage with the United States. Many will avoid direct criticism of the royal family and are unlikely to risk jeopardizing their relationship with it in favor of a relationship with the United States. The United States can more visibly come to the defense of the few overtly political civil-society organizations in Saudi Arabia that organize against the state and are unregistered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, which have thus been subject to a legal crackdown in recent years. Abdullah al-Hamid and Muhammad al-Qahtani, two founders of the most prominent of these human-rights organizations, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, were punished with jail sentences and travel bans in 2013. The United States should vocally affirm the right of these reformers to operate alongside state-sanctioned organizations.

The United States could also play a significant role in shoring up the efforts of Saudi female activists seeking greater gender equality, who currently constitute the most energized and active movement for reform in the country. Gradual gains have been made in the status of women in education, employment and participation in civil society. The United States should support female activists’ own goals, which do not typically extend beyond demands for parallel female institutions in public life.

Washington could also continue to cultivate relationships with the youth of Saudi Arabia through increased cultural-exchange programs. According to Kanie, young Saudis are key participants in the country’s literary and cultural clubs that assemble to discuss culturally, religiously or politically sensitive topics. Media training, especially for youth activists, could prove particularly effective. According to Mai Yamani’s research in her book Changed Identities: The Challenge of the New Generation in Saudi Arabia, use of online media has created a “new political culture,” especially among Saudi youth. Online forums constitute rare platforms to express opinions contrary to the state’s narrative in relative safety, such as news websites where readers can take part in dialogue in the comments section.