Lecture: Civil society and social movements in transforming Asia

Folks, I’m gonna mix things up a bit by sharing the first of a two-part audio recording…. of, lucky you, a lecture by yours truly, delivered just last night (!) on the theme of Civil Society and Social Movements in Transforming Asia. My decision to record the lecture was quasi-spontaneous; but yes, I reached for my phone at the beginning of class on a whim, pressed voice-memo, record, and presto – potential knowledge-transfer!


 (Warning: there is a 3 minute introduction that you may find amusing or boring!)

The  post-hoc rationale is as follows: I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about sharing my lectures in some format as part of some Massive Open Online Course (Or MOOC, a.k.a. the world’s most annoying abbreviation.)

Unfortunately or fortunately for you, I’m starting in week 10 of the semester…. so whatever poor desperate souls who are inclined to listen to my analysis of some of the reasons why the world is the way it is in relation to social movements in Asia, you’re not going to get the full class this time around. So I will leave it to you to do some research and find out what social movements are. I’m not gonna bother with posting readings either…. perhaps next semester.

Below, please find a course description and click here for a PDF of the lecture notes, which you may use to follow the lecture. Please refer to the course description below. To bring you up to speed, we spent several weeks unpacking various theories of politics in development contexts, reading, critiquing, and occasionally unceremoniously trashing famous scholars… examining, deconstructing (I’m never totally serious when I say deconstructing), exploring various concepts, such as institutions, civil society, etc.

In the previous week we discussed why labor movements have proven not to be (or at least not recently) a lasting political force. This week we’re moving on to talk about civil society, social movements, social movement organizations, and NGOs in the context of contemporary East Asia. Again this is the first hour of a two hour lecture. I will post next week’s lecture along with some additional comments next week. Is this a hopeless waste of time? You tell me. Or better yet, don’t. Actually, just kidding. I’d be happy to have any feedback. Perhaps this fall I will follow through on my threat to do a whole MOOC!

By the way, just because I’m lecturing doesn’t mean I presume to have all (or even all that many!) of the answers. More modestly I hope I bring some value to efforts to understand the issues hand. Cheers.


Core Course/ Masters of Social Sciences in Development Studies
City University of Hong Kong

Course themes and aims

This course concerns politics and political development in late industrializing countries. The course is particularly interested in the development of political institutions in the contemporary context and the tensions that emerge within these institutions and their organizational environments in the context of rapid social change. The course is especially concerned to probe the dynamics of social movements and other forms of unconventional politics that have developed in these countries in the context of diverse efforts to achieve more transparent and democratically accountable forms of governance. 

Across Asia, processes of industrialization and globalization have occasioned social disruptions on a grand scale. At a time when states are increasingly accountable to markets, people joined together in social movements and other non-conventional forms of politics have sought to influence development processes and outcomes in their own interests. In a context where no late-industrializing country in Asia has a political system demonstrably capable of managing these tensions, an understanding of significance and limitations of social movements and the politics of development is of great practical significance.

At the outset, it is important to address certain three basic questions.

  1. What are political institutions and why do they matter?
  2. What, if any, is the relationship between political development and development?
  3. And why are social movements in development contexts worthy of our attention?

The development of political institutions profoundly shapes developmental processes. Political institutions are significant because they dictate the precise relationship between politics and the economy and as such have major implications for the manner in which economic production and distribution occurs. While political institutions are designed to achieve stable governance and resolve conflicts, they often fail to do so.

There has always been awareness about the link between politics and development but their relationship has been the subject of considerable controversy. Some have tended to deny any inherent link between political development and economic development, emphasizing instead the importance of stable, effective governance.

In the contemporary context, however, such a perspective has come into question. The problem is not with stability, of course, but with hazards of non-transparency and un-accountability. In the face of these conditions, restricted political rights, and a world-encompassing market, people and communities across East Asia have increasingly resorted to unconventional political means to advance their political interests. Such unconventional politics take diverse forms; from petitioning in China to democracy struggles in Myanmar, from political tensions in Singapore to the explosion of internet politics across the region. We will examine these political dynamics and their practical and theoretical significance.


Is the glass half full?

About ten months ago, when I started this blog, my feelings about Vietnam’s prospects were different than today. That said, within the past ten months, my understanding of Vietnam has increased greatly, thanks largely to my daily consumption of all things related to politics in Vietnam.

I have especially benefited though direct and indirect exchanges with Vietnamese readers of my Vietnamese language blog Xin Lỗi Ông (‘Excuse me Sir’), whose responses to my posts have served as correctives or confirmations of my tentative ideas about their country. Thanks to all of you, friendly and hostile critics alike.

When I started out blogging, I did not expect to devote so many energies to matters concerning human rights. And yet the more time I devoted to my blog, to trying to understand what is going on in Vietnam, the more I was confronted with the harsh and depressing realities that (1) human rights in Vietnam are routinely violated and (2) that this fact profoundly undermines the country’s development prospects. What about China, one might ask. China has achieve record-shattering economic growth and has a rights record even worse than Vietnam. True. But who really respects China? Who would want to move there? Who would want to be a migrant worker in one of China’s factories or a victim of its police state?

Within the past two weeks two Vietnamese bloggers have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for ‘abusing democratic freedoms,’ while a prominent and especially vocal political reform advocate has been taken into state custody, her whereabouts and health status unknown. From where I sit, these are positively depressing developments that make Vietnam look ugly on the world stage.

In his much-discussed New Year’s message, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung discussed at length conditions that would be necessary for a more democratic republic. The disconnect between the reform rhetoric and realities on the ground would be profoundly dispiriting if it were not for the fact that those advocating for real reforms in Vietnam, myself included, refuse to be dispirited.

There is no need for Vietnam to remain a police state. Indeed, Vietnam stands to benefit from the development of a robust civil society. I am not Vietnamese. But I care about Vietnam as much as any Vietnamese and in my capacity as a social scientist and scholar my job is to try to understand and explain Vietnam. My blogging activities are mainly a response to my desire to share my thoughts and, yes, rant, about what is occurring in Vietnam. So as a blogger I ask you, with respect to Vietnam’s political development, is the glass half full?



Days not forgotten

Internationally, the rhythms of Vietnam’s political calendar are not frequently discussed. And yet in the context of escalating regional tensions and of fragile efforts to address them, it is worth knowing that January, February, and March of each year are months in which Vietnamese political passions toward China burn especially hot. An appreciation of the reasons for this provides insights into Vietnamese perspectives on the China’s current expansionary tilt and the complexities Hanoi faces in coping with it.

Relations between Vietnam and China stretch back thousands of years and have had rough patches stretching across centuries. Yet current tensions between the two countries’ states have strikingly recent origins. In the context of Beijing’s creeping efforts to enforce its outsized and legally baseless claims, three days on the Vietnamese calendar stand out.

The first is January 19, on which day in 1974 mainland forces launched a murderous assault and seizure of key islands in the Hoang Sa chain, over which Vietnam had demonstrated sovereignty for centuries, up through the colonial and post-colonial periods. Incensed by Beijing’s acts, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Party Secretary’s dependence on China made constraint the only option. Today, the 74 young soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam who perished in the defense of Vietnamese islands are hailed as national heroes across northern and southern Vietnam, but not officially. Wisely or not, and to the ire of many Vietnamese, Hanoi has mostly repressed public commemorations.

Next comes 17 February, on which day in 1979 Beijing launched its full-scale if ill-fated invasion of northern Vietnam. Unfolding amid a US-Sino detente, Beijing’s was intent on “teaching Vietnam a lesson” for Hanoi’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia which, we might recall, removed the genocidal Beijing-backed regime of Pol Pot from power. A failure in military terms, the war resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese. Given Washington’s current concern over China’s military expansion, it is worth remembering that Beijing’s invasion was, among others, an attempt to signal its readiness to ally with the US against Vietnam and a perceived Soviet threat. Indeed, most analysts trace the origins of China’s current militarization to lingering paranoia associated with the abject failure of its adventures in Vietnam.

In Vietnam itself, Beijing’s 1979 invasion is remembered, but again unofficially. This year, untold thousands of Vietnamese took to wearing pins and displaying Facebook profile pictures bearing the image of the Rose Myrtle flower, which is native to the region where hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese perished in war more stupid than most.

Finally we come to the current week and the date March 14, as it was on this day in 1988 that Beijing launched its most recent illegitimate bid, this time in an effort to seize islands in the Spratly chain, including islands over which Vietnam had demonstrated clear historical sovereignty. On this occasion, PLA open fired on their “socialist brothers” before reportedly overseeing the watery death of dozens in decidedly sadistic fashion. To date, Hanoi’s official death toll from the incident remains set at 64. Though some in Hanoi claim the actual figure was closer to 200. On that day, first-hand accounts recall, mainland forces encircled dozens of Vietnamese sailors set adrift from their sunken ship, shooting at them, denying them exit, and watching them drown over a period of hours.

These wounds are not forgotten in Hanoi, but nor are they given voice. Nor typically is anger about Beijing’s maritime conduct. For since 1988 Vietnamese fishermen have been subject to innumerable beatings, ransomed detentions, and killings.

Hanoi’s record of official silence in one of the world’s most fiercely independent countries is remarkable in its own right. It is also consistent with an ancient but deeply controversial set of assumptions regarding the best way of coping with China. According to this perspective, to maintain independence and sovereignty it is necessary to be silent, to pay respects to Beijing, and to assume the conduct of a ‘little brother,’ or even a vassal state. Unsurprisingly, this approach is despised among legions of Vietnamese worldwide. More importantly for Hanoi, it is an approach that may have outlived its usefulness.