Why is the Chinese Communist Party so afraid of legal activist Xu Zhiyong? 

On Jan. 22, Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement, went on trial in a Beijing court on the charge of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place"; on Jan. 26, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. The conviction relates to activities organized by Xu and other Chinese civil rights defenders to demand fair education opportunities for children of migrant workers and asset disclosure by government cadres. That might not sound like revolutionary behavior -- but it may have been the final straw in convincing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that Xu constituted a clear and present danger to its authority.

Since Xu was detained in July 2013, his case has received extensive international media coverage. In the majority of reports, Xu is described as a "legal scholar," "legal activist," "rights advocate," or "rights lawyer" -- not a "dissident." That may be because Xu has always insisted that he is a "peaceful reformer" who does not espouse radical action to bring about rapid political and social change. As Xu emphasized in his final statement in court, he and fellow rights advocates have been "moderate and reasonable" in their approach. In demanding asset disclosure by officials, for instance, they avoided organizing large crowds, choosing instead flash mob-style actions that only involved a small number of participants, as they believe that "reform requires stability and social progress needs to advance gradually." 

But despite Xu's efforts, it is hard to imagine that the Chinese authorities view him as anything other than a diehard dissident. Some well-connected Beijingers believe that party leaders think Xu and his fellow activists in the New Citizens Movement had formed an "anti-CCP clique" -- a very serious charge.  and have decided they therefore do not deserve lenient treatment. 

If this rumor is true, it should not surprise anybody with basic knowledge of the rules of the Chinese political game. Chinese civil society actors have long known there are three red lines they mustn't cross if they don't want to end up on Beijing's list of troublemakers. The first is between the political and the non-political: If the issues they engage with are political in nature, civil society actors must find ways to depoliticize them and present them as technical issues instead. The second line is between national and local: Any attempt to establish cross-regional organizations or movements must be strictly avoided. Everything must be kept localized and uncoordinated with activities in other locations. The third is street campaigns. Criticizing the authorities in conference rooms, advocacy reports, or on the web is one thing. Once critics take to the street, it's a different ballgame. 

Staying away from these red lines doesn't guarantee that civil society activities will be free from government intervention or harassment. But the consequences of crossing them is usually much worse. Xu and his fellow campaigners stepped beyond all three.

In his May 2012 essay "New Citizens' Movement," Xu was clear about the movement's true nature. The essay's opening line calls it "a political movement," one where "this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance." Xu called on Chinese citizens all over the country to participate in the movement by organizing regular meals to meet like-minded people living in the same cities to discuss the current political situation. "Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance," the essay read. The campaign has reportedly attracted 5,000 supporters across China. So much for the first two red lines. 

Xu and his friends refrained from mobilizing large-scale street rallies -- but they did organize activities in public venues, which facilitated the criminal charge of "disrupting order in public places," justified or not. That stepped beyond the third unspoken line the Communist Party has drawn in the sand.

Making things worse in the eyes of party authorities, movement advocates campaigned on the issue of asset transparency of government officials, one that resonates deeply with the Chinese public, as rampant corruption fans mounting anger. The authorities may think that Xu and other members deliberately made this issue the centerpiece of their campaign, in an effort to gain maximum popularity for their movement and cause maximum embarrassment to the party.

In short, Xu may be a moderate in his own estimate, but he and fellow activists almost certainly knew the party would see them as mounting a direct challenge to the existing political system. Those who know Xu have not accused him of naïveté, so observers have offered various speculations as to what prompted him to stride across the party's tripwires. Some international media reports have suggested that after China's new leaders took office in late 2012, promising to deepen reform, attack corruption, and promote the rule of law, Xu and other members of the movement became emboldened and decided to test the new leadership's tolerance for grassroots political activism. If indeed they felt the time was ripe for a courageous move, they were also surely aware of the great risks it entailed.

The sentencing of Xu -- and the crushing of the New Citizens Movement that it represents -- does not necessarily mean that the new leadership will not contemplate any political reform. But the party will not allow any outside force to dictate reform's timing, pace, or agenda; if reform happens, it will be from the top down. The party is convinced that the day that grassroots political movements born without party blessing can flourish is the day when it loses full control of the country's political process.

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Goodbye to All That

If American nation-building is dead, what nation remains at home?

I have spent the last three weeks teaching a class on nation-building (with Bruce Jones, director of the Center on International Cooperation at NYU). Our students, who had come to Washington from NYU Abu Dhabi, were very enthusiastic about the subject. I, however, am having my doubts. My chief conclusion from the experience is that the American experiment in state-building, to use the less jingoistic name for the subject, which began 20 years ago in Haiti and the Balkans, has come to an end. We may soon look back upon it with mingled awe and dread, as the British do upon the Raj.

This thought came to me forcefully when I went to visit Rick Barton, head of the State Department's Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), the government's emergency state-building arm. (Barton was supposed to meet with our students, but we got snowed out.) In 2010, when it was called the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS), the agency spokesman described it to me as "the Special Forces of the civilian U.S. government." Officials had pre-positioned in a warehouse what they grandly called "an embassy in a suitcase," complete with armored vehicles, tents, and communications equipment.

Those were palmy days for state-building. When South Sudan voted in early 2011 to declare itself independent, the CRS dispatched a team to help set up the new state. Today, of course, South Sudan has plunged into an ethnic bloodbath which teeters on the brink of genocide. (Negotiators in Ethiopia just announced the signing of a ceasefire agreement.) The embassy-in-a-suitcase has long since been packed away: Barton told me that he had concluded, well before the violence began, that South Sudan was, as he puts it dryly, "the gift that would keep on giving."

What about the standby team of civilian experts I used to hear about? Never used; now gone. And the Civilian Response Corps of 150 government employees prepared to deploy at a moment's notice? It's now a less formal "network of networks." "The U.S. is not going to arrive like a concert pianist playing all 88 keys," as Barton put it. "In many of these places, you'll be lucky if you can just do two-finger playing."

Barton is himself a state-builder with long experience both in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the think tank world; he is serving both a president and a secretary of state who consider themselves liberal internationalists. It's not ideology, but painful experience, which has done in the enterprise. When President Barack Obama reluctantly followed his generals' advice in 2009 to mount a limited counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan, he ordered a "civilian surge" to accompany the military one. But while the Army largely succeeded in its task of clearing and holding contested territory, the civilians failed almost completely to build decent governance in collaboration with Afghan officials; the very idea that they could have done so in two to three years seems ludicrous.

In his new book, Duty, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates harshly criticizes Obama for balking at his generals' 2009 counsel, and his own. In fact, the generals were wrong, and the skeptical Obama -- and the even more skeptical Vice President Joe Biden -- were right. (Barton has shrunk the Afghan team, too.)

COIN, as counterinsurgency is known, is another one of those piano keys we're not going to be playing, at least in the same way. In an extensive critique of the doctrine published in Foreign Affairs, Karl Eikenberry, the former commanding general in Afghanistan, and then U.S. ambassador there, pointed out, among other things, that the "civilian capacity" required for COIN operations is a fantasy, "because no U.S. government department or agency will make the major investments necessary to develop highly specialized niche skills that would be utilized only briefly or rarely." Rick Barton would agree.

One of the experts who addressed the class was David Kilcullen*, an Australian soldier-scholar who helped write the Army's counterinsurgency manual and advised the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kilcullen is a renowned COINdinista, and I thought he would refute the COIN skeptics. In fact, he views the Afghan effort as an utter failure, though not one that discredits the doctrine, since Gen. Stanley McChrystal asked Obama for 80,000 troops, and only got 36,000. This put me in mind of communist intellectuals who used to say, "Socialism hasn't failed; it's never been tried."

The list of what the United States has tried to do over the last two decades, and has now come to regard as folly, is a long one. Gates famously said that any defense secretary who advised a president to launch a land war in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East "should have his head examined." That means no more big wars, unless you think we're going to have one in Denmark or Peru.

Obama's refusal to intervene in the face of unspeakable and ongoing atrocities in Syria seems to spell an end to humanitarian intervention, save under the most extraordinarily favorable condition (as in Libya). Even large-scale aid programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- or in Mali -- don't seem to buy much democracy, or stability. In any case, we can't afford them any more, or don't think we can. As Michael Mandelbaum argued in The Frugal Superpower, less national wealth means less foreign policy -- and less adventurous policy. Mandelbaum predicted that state-building "will disappear from the foreign-policy agenda of the United States."

Where does this leave us? The problems that called forth those ambitious solutions won't disappear, and the world's greatest superpower is not about to simply wave goodbye as fragile states collapse. It will, rather, make a virtue of necessity. Barton says that his office is focusing on prevention rather than on reconstruction, and is trying to adopt a "venture-capital" model which would leverage its scarce resources. In Syria, the CSO is giving police officers a modest stipend to stay on the job in rebel-controlled Aleppo. In Libya, where Americans now fear to tread, the CSO paid a Jordanian woman to talk to the militias about disarmament and reintegration, and now "we're walking her all around Washington." That kind of low-cost, low-return, sovereignty-respecting form of intervention is, as Barton puts it, "much more in keeping with what the U.S. taxpayers and citizens are likely to tolerate."

In COIN, as in state-building, size is out, and leverage is in. Kilcullen told our students that some of the most successful counterinsurgency efforts in the past involved a handful of Americans, or even a single person, as when CIA officer Edward Lansdale helped the Philippine government put down a communist insurgency in the years after World War II. Kilcullen and others now favor a form of "counterinsurgency-lite."

Barton suggests that the venture-capital approach is not only suitably scaled down to citizens' meager appetite for international engagement, but "what's healthy for a democracy." I wouldn't go that far. I don't think it's healthy for a democracy to have a hypertrophied military -- even if it's sitting at home most of the time -- and a corps of development experts so tiny and ill-funded that all they can do is pay private companies to execute the programs hatched in Washington. I wouldn't put too much stock in that Jordanian interlocutor. You really can't play serious music if you only use a few of the keys.  

One of our students floated a majestically improbable plan to send a cadre of well-trained American civilians into the Afghan countryside for long tours to help with local government. It sounded like the kind of thing USAID tried in Vietnam 50 years ago in the heyday of American imperial arrogance. We tore her plan to ribbons -- the Taliban would use them for target practice, corrupt warlords would frustrate them at every turn, and so on. Anyway, as Eikenberry said, it will never happen. We need to scale down our hopes to the dimensions of our capacity. But I can't help hoping that the day will come when we will scale up our capacity to the dimension of our hopes.

Clarification (Jan. 31, 2014): In this column, I gave the impression that David Kilcullen is a counterinsurgency (COIN) enthusiast, albeit a disappointed one. Not true, he says. "Rather I'm a student and practitioner of guerrilla warfare who has always (and publicly) argued against large COIN interventions, for more than a decade in both print and verbally, both in and out of government." (Return to reading.)