Reflections on the NGO Forum or What I Didn't Learn From the New York Times
Issue #21, October 1995
A key word of the contemporary political lexicon is freedom. The term and some (usually ill-defined) version of the ideal are repeatedly invoked by all quarters, from the state to grassroots organizations to citizen's militias to individuals to the media. Following close on the heels of freedom is the notion that rights serve to guarantee different freedoms. In countries like the US, invocations of freedom are most often made to demonstrate how rights are being curtailed, thereby impinging on freedom. And we learn of these instances through the mechanism of the "free" press, which is charged with the noble function of disseminating information and opinions through its innumerable channels. The media, however, is "free" in another sense as well — it is free to decide what it chooses to cover and what it chooses to ignore. In other words, the media decides what is news-/media-worthy and what isn't. As it happens, the large media machinery in the US (as elsewhere) does not find the activities of most NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) to be particularly interesting and thus we rarely hear what they are doing and what they have to say. Despite the lack of mainstream media attention, however, the number and membership of NGOs has been on the increase world-wide — this is apparent from the fact that over 30 thousand women attended the recent NGO Forum on Women in Huairou, on the outskirts of Beijing. Together with the official, UN sponsored, Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held simultaneously in Beijing, this constitutes the largest gathering of women ever in history. And what did the free, mainstream US media have to say on the matter? Let us look at the New York Times, that liberal arm of the free press, as one example of how this global event was framed and consider some consequences of the framing.
The NGO Forum on Women began in Huairou on 29 August, 1995. The Forum was already the focus of much controversy: not only had the Chinese government reneged on its agreement to provide venues for the forum in Beijing, where the official UN sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women was scheduled to begin on 4 September, it had also put many a bureaucratic cog in the machine responsible for issuing the relevant papers (visas, hotel reservations, etc.) to the more than 30,000 participants, mainly women, who wished to attend the meeting. Over the next week, this is how the New York Times covered the event:
30 August. The title for the New York Times article reads: "Forum on Women is Vexed by Chinese Security Agency." Alongside we have an innocuous picture of women consulting maps etc. with the following caption: "Women who poured into China from around the world yesterday for the forum of non-governmental organizations, a gathering parallel to the Fourth World Conference on Women, were greeted by tough security measures, police interference, administrative hurdles and frustration."
31 August. We get a reprint of the 30 August article, with the title, "Chinese Aides Vex a Women's Forum," as it had somehow been omitted from some editions on 30 August. Presumably, no additional or fresh stories regarding the repressive actions of the Chinese government are available.
1 September. The front page carries a photo of the video-taped message of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize winning opposition leader of Myanmar (Burma). In the accompanying story, in addition to a quick summary of her speech, the New York Times speculates, without evidence, that she was unable to attend the meeting due to the intolerance of the Chinese government to people who represent the forces of democracy and freedom. (The tolerance of the US government and populace to such people is evident from the fact that Hollywood has given us Beyond Rangoon where the politics of Aung San Suu Kyi and the larger political climate in Burma function as therapy for a depressed Patricia Arquette.)
2 September. The activities of the Chinese government manage to grab front page coverage again with the article: "Meddling by China is Seen as Marring Meeting on Women."
3 September. More of the same, the front page proclaims: "Meeting of Women Says Surveillance Must End" and the subtitle tells us that the women are threatening to halt the forum. On page 10, where the coverage is continued, the article highlight says that "A non-democratic country finds calls for more freedom much too loud." Other than the two columns devoted to the article, the page is consumed by five photographs of pregnant women, women in hospitals, and abandoned baby girls in Tamil Nadu, in southern India. The one paragraph explanation for these photographs tells us that "Women in southern India face some of the starkest forms of the kind of violence and discrimination that will be topics at the Fourth World Conference on Women that opens in Beijing tomorrow."
4 September. A day before the official UN sponsored conference is to begin, the "Women at [the] Forum Agree to Press On."
5 September. The front page carries a picture of Hillary Clinton disembarking from her airplane. Page 3 has an article with the title "Women in Black Defy China's Police," alongside the obligatory crowd shot of several hundred women, and the article highlight reads: "Silently, 1,000 protesters oppose violence." On reading the article one learns the surprising fact that the demonstration was not directed against the Chinese police, but is a more generalized protest against the different forms of violence women undergo the world over.
With the start of the official conference, media attention shifts to the official, state sanctioned positions being negotiated to devise a statement all participating countries can agree to. The treatment of women attending the NGO Forum is now less significant. I have already indicated that the activities of NGOs and the positions they advance are of little interest to the mainstream media. Anyone engaged in protest politics and grassroots organizing is aware that securing such media attention is a Herculean task. Given this, how are we to assess the New York Times coverage of the NGO Forum on Women? All we learn from it is the well known fact that the government responsible for squelching the large student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is still engaged in repressive activities. In other words, the Chinese government, while treating official delegates by the rules of international protocol, did not extend such privileges to the participants of the NGO Forum. The ironic point, of course, is that the New York Times can be charged with precisely the same "crime." It refuses to tell us the issues discussed by the NGOs in the two weeks they spent at Huairou — surely there was more on their agenda than jostling with Chinese security. What, for instance, did women of NGOs have to say about the "starkest forms of the kinds of violence and discrimination" that were to be "topics at the Fourth World Conference on Women?" What is their relationship to State policy and politics? What are their organizational strategies? What specific projects are they engaged in and how are these different from state sponsored projects? What are their prospects and goals for the future? Instead of covering the NGO Forum, the mainstream media, or the New York Times at any rate, has been obsessed with establishing the repressiveness of the Chinese government, implicitly counterposing it to the free and democratic West, where, presumably, the "calls for more freedom" are never "too loud." Thus, by making certain parochial invocations to freedom, the fulcrum of this global event, the media manages to pull off a most amazing trick: it covers the NGO forum without providing us with any substantive coverage.
This brief piece of what might be called "media criticism" is important for at least two reasons: first, it forces one to (re)consider the role and politics of NGOs and, second, it asks one to question what is accomplished by western media's obsessive framing of the NGO Forum in terms of the free (the West)-unfree (China) opposition. In terms of the first point, it is worth noting that most NGOs conduct extensive grassroots organizing, have popular support in the regions where they work, are often structured in non-hierarchical ways that lend themselves to broad democratic participation, attempt to be funded through channels that do not require them to be answerable to the State, frequently espouse and generate radical politics and, lastly, are most often not-for-profit organizations. They are not the same as "private" organizations, an error the media is intent on repeatedly making (for example, the New York Times September 1, September 5). To most, a private organization is a profit making venture — so, for instance, General Motors or CNN are private organizations, while technically also non-governmental. Given these factors, NGOs occupy a certain adversarial role with respect to both government and private organizations. They represent a volatile threat to most, indeed, all current governments in the world. It is not merely "repressive regimes" such China's that are made nervous when over 30 thousand activist women gather together. I believe we would be hard pressed to find a country in the world today which would have welcomed such a gathering with open arms, ready to listen to their critiques, criticisms, and alternative political and policy recommendations. Hence, when readers of the New York Times, unable to attend the forum, are not offered any substantive coverage of the proceedings of this forum, we should be able to recognize the many and refined ways in which repression works.
This point should not be read in terms of the Biblical "Let he who has never sinned throw the first stone" dictum. My point is not to say that since the NGO Forum would likely have been greeted with mechanisms of repression anywhere, as I hope my analysis of the New York Times coverage demonstrates it was, we should refrain from criticizing China. Instead, and this is my second point, what are the consequences of such coverage? What is gained by using freedom as the organizing principle to frame the coverage of the NGO Forum? This behooves us to look skeptically at the critical position China occupies in the post-cold war world. China is both the most populated country in the world and has one of the fastest growing economies. It is thus both the source of cheap labor and products for the US and other countries and it constitutes a huge market that western corporations can't wait to "penetrate." However, at the same time, not only is it the last significant anti-capitalist force left in the world today, it has the largest military force, nuclear capability, a permanent position on the UN security council, and is not easily intimidated by "the West." The usual forms of economic arm-twisting the West uses to install political change beneficial to its politico-economic interests do not work very well on China — recall the fact that despite all the political outrage over the events of Summer 1989, China managed to retain its Most Favored Nation trade status with the US. Hence when the New York Times uses the NGO Forum on Women as an occasion to tell us, day after day for over a week, of the repression of freedom in China, we should not jump onto the bandwagon, beating China with the stick of freedom. We should reflect, rather, on the broader politics of silencing radical women's voices in order to talk about the tensions generated by the conflict between economic and politico-ideological imperatives as the corporate US state attempts to "normalize" its relations with China.
There have already been murmurs that a cold war between the US and China might be in the offing. In fact, the very same New York Times has engaged in this murmuring. In light of this, when invocations to freedom became the grounds for establishing who gets to be the "good guy" and who is the "bad guy" we should recall how that other, now seemingly distant, cold war was conducted largely on the terrain of ideological politics. Keeping this in mind will have a lot to do with our understanding of the politics of politics.
For Further Reading:
New York Times 30 August to 15 September, 1995.
I would like to thank Samantha King, for discussing several issues related to this paper with me and assuring me that it was a paper worth writing; Jonathan Sterne and Carrie Rentschler for taking the time to read drafts and making useful suggestions. As such, all comments of commendation or criticism may be directed to any of them.
Radhika Mongia is a graduate student in Speech Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.