This Thursday, China passed a new law that has attracted the world’s attention. It is a law that increases police supervision of foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and affects almost 7,000 foreign NGOs. The law gives the government more control over the workings of these organizations and makes it mandatory for the NGOs to have local partners. And China is not alone in this move towards more regulation of NGOs — it is a part of a much larger trend that includes countries like Russia, India, Uganda and Kenya.
A lot has been said about the missteps of countries trying to police NGOs, and the arguments pointing out that this is a dangerous trend make sense — it is concerning that humanitarian efforts are being scrutinized and that politically sensitive topics may be further silenced. NGOs often fill the gaps left by governments and are an important source of information about issues that governments are not paying attention to.
But while the international coverage of these laws has explored the dangers of these laws thoroughly, the primary arguments tend to converge on a tone of disapproval that betrays their claims to objectivity.
The coverage of these laws fails to give the reasoning behind these laws — to “limit Western influences on Chinese society” — much moral weight. On the one hand, that is really not surprising considering I am writing about Western coverage of these laws — but on the other hand, it is a deeply disappointing failure for publications that set the standard for journalistic practices.
The Western consensus, that these laws do seem severe, doesn’t seem misguided — until the law is looked at from a historical perspective. And taking that long view reveals why China, and several other countries that have a colonial legacy, are making this move.
While China may not have been a colony in the traditional sense, it does have its own history of grappling with British imperialism. Part and parcel of that colonial legacy is the defensiveness around culture — as V.S Naipaul describes it, they are left as “wounded civilizations.” The fight to reclaim lost traditions and to find an authentic national character is not regressive — it is an inevitable consequence of a culture that was subjugated. A part of that fight is to decouple Western cultural power from local social narrative — and to rewrite, in some capacity, what it means to be Chinese and successful or powerful or good, without having to rely on western standards.
It has been pointed out that it is ironic that President Xi Jinping’s daughter went to Harvard — but then again, it is an obvious irony for countries that experienced colonization. After all, it is simply the truth of the matter that these countries were rebuilt and restructured to reward behavior in line with Western ideals. In India, that philosophy of creating a native elite in the form of western ideals found an advocate in Thomas Macaulay — and he articulated it as, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour [sic], but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” What this quote and his legacy meant in the broader sense was a large country where success often depended in some measure on learning Western cultural norms, and with those forms of knowledge came the implicit beliefs ingrained in them — of the Western civilization being superior to other cultures.
That dichotomous position that that puts leaders in, of having to play to Western standards and yet fight the inferiority complex that comes with that, is dangerous — and the baggage of racial shame that it saddles “Macaulay’s children” with is insidious. That paradox fuels the ongoing debate in these developing countries as to what is progress and what is simply a move to copy the West. It means that even humanitarian efforts are tinged with the question of whether it is a part of moral evolution or a betrayal of the authentic character of the country.
To relieve humanitarian efforts of their political power is to forget history — it is to turn a blind eye to the “civilization project” used to justify colonialism, and the missionaries who came hand in hand with colonizers to reform local traditions. NGOs come into countries with agendas — and no matter how innocent in intent, those agendas are hard, if not impossible, to uncouple from the moral codes of their society. When that society is foreign, the enforcing of those moral codes can feel like an exertion of soft cultural power to undermine a country’s national character.
That is not to say that the fight for LGBT rights, for example, is a Western copyright — or that it is a part of some insidious strategy of the West to dominate the world. I’m not arguing that foreign NGOs are evil — because they can, and most often do, create substantial and beneficial changes to people’s lives. I simply want to draw attention to the very real worries of countries trying to stand up to Western powers and to reveal that those worries are not irrational.
That cultural power of the West is not something to be taken lightly — and the fact that China recognizes that is lost in translation when these laws are covered in the Western news. That kind of omission in news coverage strips Western countries of any blame they might share in the way countries like China or India or Kenya react to foreign organizations — and distorts the truth.
Keeping the ramifications of a colonial legacy active in our collective consciousness is not only important to understand the truth of international politics, but it is also a homage to the suffering that British imperialism caused — and while it is hard to make amends for all that colonization did, we can demand that this reckoning should be the white man’s burden.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.