Flag Waving

March 18, 2008

I had originally intended my first post on this to be a sweepingly epic analysis of Lib Dem campaigning strategy as viewed from a philosophical perspective, but events have forced me to write about something people might actually want to read instead. Lucky for you.

Yesterday I was driven to attend a protest outside the Chinese Embassy (or, given the police cordon around the embassy itself, outside the Royal Institute of British Architects) by my anger at the violence of the Chinese crackdown on the Tibetan protesters. For me, this is a very emotional issue – seeing people who look remarkably like some of my friends from Samdrub Darjay Choling being beaten up by the police brings the protests to life in very visceral way. This holds true for many members of Students for a Free Tibet, which I discovered at Edinburgh University to be a support group for people who’d spent their gap year with Tibetans.

This connection caused SFT to leap into action as soon as the scale of the Chinese crackdown became apparent, and many events are taking place over the next few days – more protests, hunger strikes and other arrows of the left-wing quiver. But there was a very real need to do something now, and so I dragged my intern to Portland Place.

Protesting, though, is very odd. You agree to meet a large number of people in a particular place to be angry about something. The anger isn’t going to lead to violence, but after a certain amount of milling around people feel the need to do something, and so the chanting begins. I’ve always been uncomfortable with chanting, partly because it makes me feel like I’m participating in Naziesque groupthink, but also because I feel a compulsion to analyse each chant to make sure I agree with it. This is the product of too many marches wherein the Palestinian group has started yelling, “Death to Israel!”, and I’ve begun to worry about our choice of protesting allies.

Luckily, the Tibetan chants tended to be quite nice, and mostly focused around telling the Chinese they should be ashamed of themselves. Inasmuch as one can measure the success of a peaceful protest by the amount of police presence it attracts, we scored six riot vans and one chopper on the Excessive Force scale. There were candles and Tibetan flags, women carrying small dogs and babies, and people in yellow vests. It wasn’t a threat to national security.

The Chinese thought differently though, and had stationed a black-clad photographer on the roof of the assembly to take stealthy photos of the individuals in the crowd for future visa-refusal reasons. Unfortunately for him he forgot to switch off his flash, making him look a bit silly.

I thought it went well. But what does it all mean? Protests don’t make a difference, do they? Not in absolute terms, no – our protest will not lead to the withdrawal of the Chinese from Tibet via a direct causal link. But to look for this is to really misunderstand the nature of this sort of campaigning. Like everything else in this managerial age, it’s about working the odds. This occurs in several ways:

1) Awareness Raising. Large protests generate media coverage, and attention from passers by. This small amount of knowledge about how people feel about a particular issue is unlikely to directly sway the judgement of a particular person, but will become a factor – no matter how small – in their feelings about which way they vote, or the stance they take in political discussions. If there was some way of measuring such things, I would anticipate a (very) small rise in the average positive feeling towards the Tibetan Human Rights movement across London over the next few days, which is directly attributable to the protest as separate from the media coverage of the events in Tibet.

2) Affecting the protested. Seeing many people opposed to what you’re doing has an unavoidable psychological effect on all but the most psychotic. A small wedge of doubt may over time build up in the minds of employees which, with other contributing factors may cause one or two to actually leave government employee and become trampolinists, or something similarly less repressive.

3) Maintaining campaign morale. The last may be the most important. Group activity encourages its members to continue to identify with the group, and thus carry out more actions related to its success, like letter-writing or petitioning. More people are likely to become active in the campaign as a consequence of the protest than would otherwise be the case if it hadn’t taken place.

So, in summary, protest good, Chinese government bad. I plan on analysing the latter in my next post, but in the mean time it largely speaks for itself.

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