Democracy Lab

The Miracle of Midland

How a West Texas oil town became an unlikely champion of human rights.

If you've been following the story of Bob Fu, the Chinese human rights activist and evangelical who describes his mission in a piece for FP this week, you might have noticed an odd geographical detail. It turns out that Fu runs his campaign for religious freedom in the People's Republic of China out of the town where he and his family have been living for the past eight years. That would be Midland, Texas, population 100,000.

Wait. Where was that again? The state of Texas boasts several big, cosmopolitan cities -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio -- but take a look at the map and you'll see that Midland is a long way from all of them. How would a Chinese democracy campaigner end up in a place that far from anything?

Actually, though, the name of Midland is rather more familiar in international human rights circles than you might expect. Bob Fu's sudden notoriety is just the latest twist in a tale that vividly illustrates how even the most unlikely places can leverage globalization to become big players in issues of international import.

I know Midland well. I grew up there, and have many fond memories of the place. Still, I couldn't help feeling bemused when, a few years back, my reporting on underground churches in North Korea led me straight back to my own hometown. It turned out that evangelical Christians there had joined forces with Korean-American churches to lobby the U.S. government to lobby for legislation promoting religious freedom in the North. At one point, Midland's popular Christian rock concert, "Rock the Desert," even included a "North Korea Genocide Exhibit."

This all came as a bit of a surprise. When I was a kid in Midland, North Korea was not a subject that would have drawn the attention of many people there. The town is located smack dab in the middle of the vast emptiness of West Texas, which consists of hundreds of miles of arid prairie sitting atop some of the richest petroleum reserves in the United States. After World War II, Midland gradually evolved into the business headquarters of the oil-producing region that surrounded it, becoming home to oil entrepreneurs, corporate executives, geologists, and lawyers. It's an unabashedly white-collar community that has long boasted a disproportionate number of PhDs and self-made millionaires. Thanks to the petroleum business -- a thoroughly globalized industry long before the concept of globalization became fashionable -- Midlanders have a habit of turning up in unexpected places around the world. If a place has oil, someone in Midland has been there.

The town has also long been a place with a solidly conservative ethos, and Midlanders were voting overwhelmingly Republican even back when this was by no means a given. (Yes, hard to imagine, but there was once a time when Texas had a thriving Democratic Party.)

Among the people who gravitated there in the years after the war was George Herbert Walker Bush, the scion of a patrician New England family who wanted to show that he could make his own way in the unruly West. The Bush clan presence in the town continued right up until George W. Bush and his wife Laura (like her husband, a native Midlander) departed for the White House in 2001. At least two prominent Bush-era policymakers, General Tommy Franks and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, also hailed from the town.

Perhaps because the first President Bush didn't have a particularly powerful following among conservative Christians, Midland activism didn't really flower under his administration. It wasn't until George Jr. took office in 2002 that a new spirit of political engagement began to make itself felt in the town -- perhaps because its evangelicals suddenly realized that the new president, a self-avowed born-again Christian, offered them a perfect opportunity to move their own concerns about human rights to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. By the fall of 2002, Midland evangelicals already lobbying for a tougher policy toward Sudan joined a coalition of groups lobbying Congress to sanction Khartoum for its abuses during the civil war, an effort that culminated in the Sudan Peace Act. In 2003, the Midland Ministerial Alliance, a group of local churches, even sent an open letter to the government in Khartoum demanding that it clean up its act. This was clout.

Michael Horowitz, a human rights activist based at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, says that he first began to make common cause with Midlanders when he became involved in the case of Getaneh Getaneh, an Ethiopian evangelical tortured by the government for his beliefs who claimed asylum in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Horowitz says that Getaneh's tales of religious persecution back home prompted him to organize a full-blown campaign for legislation to promote religious freedom overseas, culminating in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Horowitz was particularly struck by the way that the Getaneh case resonated among Midlanders: "These people opened up their hearts, their wallets, their homes." Ultimately, indeed, a group of them brought Getaneh and his family to the town and settled them there. Like Fu (who was invited to Midland eight years ago by representatives of a local church), Getaneh has made the town his base ever since.

To be sure, the Midland activists are particularly keen on helping those who share their religious beliefs. But Horowitz soon discovered that his allies there were perfectly happy to join his strategy of building issue-specific coalitions that often crossed traditional political lines. The Midlanders for example, joined a broad alliance of groups -- including feminists and leftists -- that cooperated to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act just before Bush became president. Preventing human trafficking isn't necessarily a cause that one might see as high on the evangelical task list. But the Midlanders set to with a will.

As always in politics, certain key individuals figured prominently in Midland's high political profile as the Bush Administration wore on. Horowitz singles out Deborah Fikes, a passionate organizer who played a big role in coordinating efforts to ratchet up U.S. government pressure on North Korea for its persecution of Christians. (Fikes went on to get a degree in international relations at Oxford and now lives in Dallas.) But the town still has more than its share of church leaders intent on maintaining support for their pet causes -- just witness their continued support for Fu.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Midlanders can keep up the momentum now that their local boy has left the White House. The town's activists still have a lot going for them. The past decade has given them unparalleled experience in lobbying and advocacy. The local economy is booming. Church attendance has never slackened. Midland has punched above its weight before, and there's no reason it can't do so again. In the meantime, other communities would be well-advised to learn from its example.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

Spring Is Over

Has the Russian protest movement fatally weakened Vladimir Putin? Don’t bet on it.

Vladimir Putin has returned to the Kremlin. A lot of commentators are writing about how his regime is doomed for failure. Russia, they say, has been transformed by the new culture of civic activism and public protest that has swept across Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past few months. A few months back, Tom Friedman even compared Russia's demonstrators to the activists of the Arab Spring.

Let me be clear about one thing: The protests were amazing. I applaud the courage and initiative of those who took part, and I wish them the best of luck. Russia needs change. Change would be good.

But even though I sympathize with the protesters' concerns, I don't think we should allow our sentiments to cloud the quality of our analysis. Let's be clear: Do the demonstrators pose any kind of serious threat to the next six years of Vladimir Putin's presidency? Certainly not at the moment. Arab Spring in Russia? Not going to happen.

There are two numbers that you should keep in mind as Putin launches his next six-year term. The first comes from the Levada Center, a respected independent polling agency. The pollsters asked Russians whether they intend to participate in protests with political demands. 81 percent said no (in Russian).

No question about it, Russia is rife with problems. Corruption is all-encompassing. The economy is still heavily dependent on the sale of oil and gas. The political system is based on fraud and nationalist bombast. Surely, you would think, such a rickety construct must be unsustainable.

Actually, the old Soviet Union was arguably a lot more of a mess than the current version of Russia. Central planning was amazingly inefficient. The state spent vast amounts of cash policing its own citizens and keeping them locked inside its borders. Yet the USSR still survived for 69 years. As for Putin, he only became president (for the first time!) 12 years ago. (And while we're at it: Hosni Mubarak remained in office for 30 years.)

Okay, it's true that a rising Russian middle class is demanding accountability. But in stark contrast to the protesters who took to the streets in Cairo and Tunis, virtually none of the demonstrators in Moscow or St. Petersburg wants to dismantle the existing system. Indeed, during the biggest demo on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square last year, speakers who called for revolution were booed off the stage. It's important to understand why. Over the past century, Russians have endured wave after wave of politically motivated violence. In the 1990s, they finally achieved a relatively liberal state -- and along with it came hyperinflation, chaos, and an explosion of organized crime. So it's understandable that no one really has an appetite for starting over.

So what do members of Russia's opposition movement want? First and foremost, an end to corruption (a demand embodied by the anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny). They want their votes to count, meaning that they want more of a say in how things are run. And they want to be treated like adults. (Remember, the real starting point of the protest movement was Putin's high-handed declaration in September of 2011 that he had decided to return to the presidency. A few weeks later he was jeered at by spectators at a sporting event.)

The leaders of the protests have said that they want to achieve their aims through non-violent activism. This presupposes, in turn, that the current system is reformable. It would be great if that assumption turned out to be true. But it sounds wildly optimistic.

The system that reigns in Russia today is a highly adaptable form of authoritarianism. The regime is a hybrid of the post-Soviet secret police and organized crime. The current powers-that-be don't need Brezhnev-style 99-percent election results; a simple majority is enough to give them the sheen of legitimacy. They haven't closed the borders, and they show little inclination to waste time legislating morality. (Just the opposite, in fact -- witness the Putin camp's gleeful use of sex in campaign advertising.) And, in stark contrast to the Chinese, they feel comfortable enough in the saddle that they don't see a rationale for unleashing thought police against the internet. Keeping all the national TV stations in state hands works fine.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of sound empirical evidence to suggest that Putin remains popular among many Russians. (Indeed, it's worth noting that Medvedev, long regarded as the regime's stalking horse for "modernizing" reform, has a much lower approval rating.) In stark contrast to the Boris Yeltsin years, the governments of the Putin era have always taken care to keep up social spending, including paying out salaries and pensions on time -- vital in a country where so many people are still dependent on the state.

It's these people who make up a big part of that 81 percent. (See, for example, this piece by Michael Schwirtz of The New York Times, one of the few reporters to pay substantive attention to this slice of the electorate.) The members of this passive majority might not be happy about everything that's going on in Russia, but their deep-seated doubts about the virtues of radical change mean that they can be counted on to keep giving their votes to the incumbent for many years to come. Perhaps the rise of middle-income entrepreneurs will ultimately stymie this bloc, but I wouldn't bet on it any time soon.

All this gives the current regime plenty of safety valves. Until late last year, Russia's rulers weren't prepared to tolerate public demonstrations. The fact that they did for a time evinces a notable degree of tactical flexibility. Now that Putin is back in office, he and his cronies appear to be reverting to old form by cracking down. So far, at least, the protest movement isn't really fighting back.

No one should confuse these shifts in government policy with vacillation or weakness. Over the past 12 years, the authorities and their proxies have frequently resorted to selective but brutal force to safeguard their interests. Quite a few journalists and activists have been killed for crossing those in power. Make no mistake: If anyone tries to challenge the current rulers' control over Russia's major economic assets in a comprehensive way, things will get nasty very fast.

Let's not forget: Putin and his ilk are not German Social Democrats. They aren't waiting philosophically for someone to come along and tell them to leave office. Given Russian history, they are perfectly justified in assuming that losing power will mean losing their ill-gotten gains, their personal freedom, and perhaps their lives as well. I doubt that they can be persuaded to leave through the power of moral suasion.

But you certainly can't blame educated Russians for wanting to choose the latter path. For their sake, I hope it works. I'm just not optimistic.

I earlier mentioned two numbers worth keeping in mind as Putin's second presidency takes shape. The second is the price of oil -- which, I would argue, is a far more likely agent of change than public demonstrations. Even today, after years of putative reform, Russia's economy remains lopsidedly dependent on petroleum. If the price of oil tanks, all of Putin's economic promises to his people go out the window, and that vast silent majority cannot be counted on to remain quiescent.

So how do Putin's prospects look on that front? Right now Brent crude is trading at around $112, near its lowest point for the year. But that's still healthy enough to keep Russia's economy cruising along for the foreseeable future, and there are plenty of analysts who believe that prices can only go up. And as my FP colleague Steve LeVine recently noted, Putin has just made a series of shrewd business deals designed to keep the black gold flowing. Whether you like him or not, Vladimir Vladimirovich is still a formidable player, and he hasn't lost his mojo yet.

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images