Swans Commentary » swans.com July 28, 2008  



Waging Democracy On China
Human Rights and an Endowment for Democracy


by Michael Barker





(ed. Michael Barker has just submitted his doctoral thesis, and is currently co-editing a book with Daniel Faber and Joan Roelofs that will critically evaluate the influence of philanthropic foundations on the public sphere.)


(Swans - July 28, 2008)   Rather than undertaking a destructive military war against China, the world's leading imperialists, United States' power elite, are instead waging a "democratic" war. Modern-day imperialists implement the double truncheon of human rights and democracy to bring "problem" states into line along with the traditional strategy of fabricating enemies to be destroyed. In this regard some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) -- working hand-in-hand with the most influential liberal foundations -- have served a critical role in effecting imperial humanitarian interventions. Two particularly prominent examples of imperial NGOs are the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Human Rights Watch.

It is problematic that while most imperial organizations are well known and renounced by the broader progressive community, the work of Human Rights Watch, in particular, is still widely celebrated on the Left, even though the organization's modus operandi have long been delegitimized by writers like Edward S. Herman, and its intimate links to the key democracy manipulating organization, the NED, have been well established. Unfortunately, the links between progressive publishing house, Seven Stories Press, the NED, and Human Rights Watch provide a useful illustration of the blind spot that the progressive community has for "democratic" warfare. This is because while Seven Stories Press publishes a range of excellent radical books it also proudly publishes Human Rights Watch's annual report. (1)

With the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, it should be entirely expected that the NED/Human Rights Watch propaganda offensive would be ramped up. Fulfilling a critical part in this propaganda campaign is Human Rights Watch's latest book, China's Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges (Seven Stories Press, 2008). This publication was edited by Minky Worden, who currently serves as Human Rights Watch's Media Director, (2) and is notably also a member of the imperial brain trust that goes by the name of the Council on Foreign Relations -- which is, the elite planning group to which Human Rights Watch owes its origins.

To demonstrate the propaganda value of Worden's book it is useful to briefly review the "democratic" credentials of some of its contributors. A fitting place to start is to introduce the author of the foreword to China's Great Leap, Nicholas Kristof. In addition, to having written since 1984 for the media guardian of the establishment, The New York Times, Kristof is also a member of the strategy group of the Aspen Institute -- a high level US-based elite planning organization. (3) The background of Kristof's wife, Sheryl WuDunn, with whom he shared the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China's Tiananmen Square democracy movement, is also of interest. She is presently a vice president in private wealth management at Goldman Sachs and serves on the Asia Society's jury for their Osborn Elliott Award for Excellence in Journalism on Asia (the "Oz" Award). The Asia Society provides an early example of a key democracy manipulating organization, which was founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III to "foster understanding between Asians and Americans." (4) Interestingly, the chair of the Oz Award's jury is Norman Pearlstine, an advisor to the infamous Carlyle Group, whose other democracy manipulating credentials include his being a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and a director of the NED-funded International Center for Journalists. (5)

More than twenty people contributed chapters to China's Great Leap, but seven individual contributors with especially noteworthy "democratic" connections are:

•   Wang Dan, who is the co-founder of the NED-funded Beijing Spring magazine, and in 1998 received the NED's 1998 Democracy Award.

•   Liu Xiaobo, who is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and in 2004 received the NED-linked Reporters Without Borders annual Fondation de France Prize.

•   Han Dongfang, who received the NED's Democracy Award in 1993, and is the Director of China Labour Bulletin (which is a group that has obtained ample funding from the NED (pdf) via the Asian-American Free Labor Institute), a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia, and is a member of the steering committee of the NED-initiated World Movement for Democracy (he is also a former director of the NED-funded Human Rights in China).

•   Kenneth Roth, who has been the executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993, and serves on the advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations, misnamed Center for Preventive Action.

•   Sharon Hom, who is currently the Executive Director of the NED-funded Human Rights in China. She also serves on Human Rights Watch Asia Advisory Committee.

•   Jerome Cohen, who is a senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on Human Rights Watch Asia Advisory Committee. He is an emeriti trustee of the Asia Society, and formerly served as vice chairman of the advisory council for the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Joint Center in China (the current honorary chair of the Center's advisory board is President George H.W. Bush). Cohen presently acts as a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (6) and as a director of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

•   R. Scott Greathead, who is a director of the NED-funded Human Rights in China, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and was one of the original (1977) founders of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First). Greathead is also the CEO of World Monitors Inc. -- a public affairs consultancy that specialises in advising clients (e.g., Amnesty International, ChevronTexaco, Pfizer) on handling human rights issues.

Given the elite backgrounds of many contributors to Human Right Watch's latest project, it seems more than wise to consider the analyses presented in their book with a grain of salt. It is also critical to contextualize the role of Human Rights Watch's current tome, within the broader propaganda offensive that is being waged against China. For example, just last month, on June 17, the NED awarded its annual Democracy Award to numerous "Chinese workers, lawyers, and writers working to advance democratic values and fundamental rights within China"; and unsurprisingly, two of Human Rights Watch's "democratic" book contributors (Han Dongfang and Sharon Hom) were in attendance at the award ceremony. (7)

Other related but seldom discussed components of the "democratic" war being conducted against China include the NED's support of Tibetan democracy activists, and the Western media's love affair with the Falun Gong. The intriguing relationship that exists between the corporate media, the Falun Gong, (8) and Western efforts to demonize China, is particularly interesting. The following section briefly surmises the important work of New Zealand based academic, Dr. Heather Kavan, who notes how the Falun Gong has been "locked in (pdf) a propaganda war with the Chinese government since 1999."

Writing in 2005, with reference to the Australian and New Zealand mainstream media, Kavan observed how "Falun Gong appears to have received more media attention than any other new religious movement." While previous studies of the Australian media have shown "that the press tend to discredit new religious movements and magnify their deviance," she notes that, "reporters seem to be receptive to Falun Gong, minimising the religion's unusual beliefs and presenting the movement as compatible with mainstream activities." Given the corporate media's well established desire to manufacture public consent for elite interests, the fact that the mainstream media portrays the Falun Gong as being engaged in a battle between good (the Falun Gong forces for human rights and democracy) and evil (that of the repressive "Communists") is not surprising. Consequently it is noteworthy, as Kavan points out, that: (9)

The Western media get most of their international information about Falun Gong from press releases from the Rachlin media group. What we are not told is that this group is essentially a public relations firm for Falun Gong, managed by Gail Rachlin -- one of Li's most avid disciples who is also spokesperson of Falun Data Information Centre.

Likewise, Kavan suggests that similar problems plague supposedly independent media sources like the...

Epoch Times, a free newspaper with a pro-United States flavour, which prints only unfavourable news about China. Although Falun Gong members say that the paper is not a Falun Gong publication, as Rahn (2005) observes, Falun Gong adherents are involved in its founding, and the paper is staffed by volunteers who are often disciples and whose main jobs are unrelated to journalism.

On top of biased media coverage, Kavan makes the point that "Falun Gong's ability to mobilise large numbers of members quickly, and their propensity for law suits and protests, make it difficult to publish unfavourable material." Either way, international media outlets (both mainstream and progressive) tend to be supportive of Falun Gong's cause, and as Kavan observed in 2008: "With some exceptions (especially Hitchens, 2000), [Falun Gong founder] Li [Hongzhi] is portrayed as a hero, a man who, like Gandhi, mobilised millions of disciples to non-violently resist an oppressive regime." Indeed, in 1999 Falun Gong's founder was "nominated by six countries for the Nobel peace prize, and in 2001 Asia Week named Li the most powerful communicator in Asia."


Concluding Thoughts

This article aimed to shed some light on the people and groups that are regularly held out by Western foreign policy elites to promote what has been recently referred to, by Jean Bricmont, as humanitarian imperialism. As Bricmont notes:

The ideology of our times, at least when it comes to legitimizing war, is no longer Christianity, nor Kipling's "white man's burden" or the "civilizing mission" of the French Republic, but is a certain discourse on human rights and democracy, mixed in with a particular representation of the Second World War. This discourse justifies Western interventions in the Third World in the name of the defense of democracy and human rights or against the "new Hitlers." This is the discourse and the representation that must be challenged in order to build a radical and self-confident opposition to current and future wars. (p.20) (10)

Unfortunately, as Judy Carnoy and Louise Levison commented in their 1974 article "The Humanitarians," the abuse of humanitarian aid to serve imperial objectives is "nothing new"; and as their prescient study demonstrated, the humanitarian activities of "United Nations relief agencies and key private groups -- CARE, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and IRC [International Rescue Committee]" simply prove "just how political 'nonpolitical' aid can be." (11)

So the question remains: "How can this problematic state of affairs be altered?" The starting point for concerned progressive citizens should be a systematic exposure of the problems associated with the mainstream human rights community, and elite cooption/manipulation of civil society more generally. For example, the work of critical scholars like Professor Joan Roelofs should be extended, and the manner in which extra-constitutional liberal elites, working through their well endowed liberal foundations (e.g., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), act as global level social engineers, should be extensively documented. Another important way for citizens to counter the insidious influence of "humanitarian" elites over civil society is to participate in the disassociation of progressive activism from liberal philanthropy (further examples of elite funding bodies that fund human rights work are provided by the International Human Rights Funders Group's Funding Directory). At the same time it is critical for concerned citizens to endeavour to create sustainable democratic revenue streams to enable their work to continue. This will be a difficult task for progressive activists, who have long relied upon the largess of elitist philanthropists, but it is necessary in order to contribute towards emancipatory projects that are separated from, and opposed to, the corrosive social engineering of liberal elites.




1.  Seven Stories Press also publishes the Project Censored annual report, it is to be presumed that Seven Stories Press is well aware of the NED's antidemocratic role in international affairs. Project Censored is a US-based media research program that publicises "national news stories that are underreported, ignored, misrepresented, or censored by the US corporate media." On numerous occasions Project Censored has drawn attention to the antidemocratic activities of the NED. In consideration of these close ties between the NED and Human Rights Watch it is probably time for Seven Stories to reconsider publishing Human Rights Watch's reports.  (back)

2.  Minky Worden serves on the board of governors of the Overseas Press Club -- a group whose president, Marshall Loeb, is also a director of the World Press Freedom Committee. Interestingly, Worden's previous Human Rights Watch co-edited collection, entitled Torture: Does it Make Us Safer? Is it Ever OK?: A Human Rights Perspective was published in 2005 by the publishers, The New Press. This is noteworthy because one member of The New Press's board of directors, Peter Kwong, also serves as a director of the International Endowment for Democracy -- a group that was formed in 2006 to critique the work of the NED.  (back)

3.  In recent years, Kristof has been a strong booster of Humanitarian Imperialism, while he has also indirectly supported the work of the National Endowment for Democracy by providing "one-sided criticisms (pdf) of Russia and in singularly assigning Cold War motives to the Kremlin."  (back)

4.  Former chair of the Asia Society, Richard Holbrooke, currently serves on the board of the NED. The current president of the Asia Society, Vishakha Desai, is married to Robert Oxnam, who is president emeritus of the Asia Society, is a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and "often accompanies prominent Americans -- such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, former President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush -- as they seek in-depth, first hand knowledge of China." For a critical review of the life of John D. Rockefeller III, see Michael Barker, The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection, Capitalism Nature Socialism (2008), 19 (2), pp. 15-42.  (back)

5.  Other notable members of the Oz Award's jury include Carroll Bogert (who is the Associate Director of Human Rights Watch), Marcus Brauchli (who is a director of the Overseas Press Club, and is a director of the NED-funded International Center for Journalists), Henry Cornell (who is a director of the Japan Society, and a former trustee of the Asia Society), and Dorinda Elliott (who is the First Vice President of the Overseas Press Club).  (back)

6.  The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was founded in 1910 and describes itself as a "private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and promoting active international engagement by the United States." Inderjeet Parmar notes that the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace "has enjoyed a thoroughly respectable status within the American elite for 90 years. Yet it remains an organization that has received little scholarly attention."

According to their website, the Carnegie Endowment receives funding from a range of liberal foundations (e.g., Ford and Rockefeller), conservative foundations (e.g., Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation), corporations (e.g., Boeing Company and General Electric), and even Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Inderjeet Parmar, "Engineering Consent: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Mobilization of American Public Opinion 1939-1945," Review of International Studies (2000), 26, p.35.  (back)

7.  For a critique of the backgrounds of the winners of the NED 2007 Democracy Awards, see Michael Barker (2007) Washington Promotes "Independent" Media in Venezuela, Upside Down World.  (back)

8.  Dr. Kavan writes that: "Li Hongzhi, founded Falun Gong in 1991 as an offshoot of Qi Gong. Qi Gong is mainly comprised of breathing exercises that are believed to activate one's qi (life force), but Li added teachings of a world filled with demons, aliens and apocalyptic adventures. His first two books, Zhuan Falun (Revolving the Law Wheel) and Falun Gong, were published by the Chinese Communist Party. These books read like an Asian equivalent of the X Files, and were instant best sellers. At the height of Falun Gong's popularity, Li shifted to New York. At first Falun Gong received little media attention. However, Li's opposition to official ideology and to science, and his claim that only he could save China (and humanity) inevitably brought controversy, and by mid 1996 Chinese journalists began to publish critical articles about his practices. In response, Li preached that members must defend the fa (way or principle as outlined in his teachings) whenever it was attacked." (p.74)

Kavan writes that: "Falun Gong is not about doing the exercises at all; in fact Li is contemptuous of those who just do the exercises everyday. The real purpose of Falun Gong, as set out in Li's teachings, is to save people from the imminent apocalypse." (p.79) With regard to the Chinese governments alleged human rights abuses against members of Falun Gong, Kavan points out that: "The press often quote Amnesty International, but Amnesty's reports are not independently verified, and mainly come from Falun Gong sources (for example, Amnesty, 2000). A slightly more reliable source is the Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights, which is actually not an organisation, but one man -- Lu Si Ging. However, statistics of arrests from both Amnesty and the Hong Kong Centre are often much higher than those reported by Western journalists who were at the scene in China (Rahn, 2000), which suggests that other information may be similarly exaggerated." (p.80) In 2008, Kavan observed (pdf): "Western governments' policies regarding human rights issues in China are often largely based on media reports (or on the reports of agencies, such as Amnesty International, who use the media as a source), so the information's credibility is vital." (p.1)  (back)

9.  With regard to US media coverage, in 2004, Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on China's repression of the Falun Gong: to read the articles that Johnson wrote to win the prize, click here.  (back)

10.  In Bricmont's (2007) book, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, he notes that: "Today's secular priesthood is made up of opinion makers, media stars of all kinds, and a considerable number of academics and journalists. They largely monopolize public debate, channelling it in certain directions and setting the limits on what can be said, while giving the impression of a free exchange of ideas. One of the most common ideological reinforcement mechanisms is to focus debate on the means employed to achieve the supposedly altruistic ends claimed by those in power, instead of asking whether the proclaimed aims are the real ones, or whether those pursuing them have the right to do so. To take a current example, the question will be debated as to whether the United States has the means and intelligence to impose democracy on the Middle East, or, eventually, whether the price to pay (the war) is not too high. All these debates only reinforce the idea that the proclaimed intentions (to liberate peoples, to spread democracy) are the real ones and that less noble consequences, such as control of oil or strengthening American hegemony (globally) and Israeli hegemony (locally) are only collateral effects of a generous enterprise." (p.32)  (back)

11.  Judy Carnoy and Louise Levison (1974) The Humanitarians, In: Steve Weissman, The Trojan Horse: A Radical Look at Foreign Aid (Ramparts Press, 1974), p.117. For another useful resource, see Stephen Shalom's book, Imperial Alibis: Rationalizing U.S. Intervention After the Cold War (South End Press, 1992).  (back)


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Internal Resources

Armies of Compassion: The Missionary, the Businessman and the Military - Gilles d'Aymery, August 2000.

The Circle of Deception: Mapping the Human Rights Crowd in the Balkans - Gilles d'Aymery, July 2001.

Sharp Reflection Warranted: Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism - Michael Barker, June 2008.

Activism under the Radar Screen

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Michael Barker is a doctoral student at Griffith University in Australia, where he studies the influence of the National Endowment for Democracy on global media systems. He is currently co-editing a book with Daniel Faber and Joan Roelofs that will critically evaluate the influence of philanthropic foundations on the public sphere. This article was presented as a refereed paper at the Australian & New Zealand Communication Association International Conference, 2008: Power and Place, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, July 9-11, 2008.



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Published July 28, 2008