The degree to which Chen Guangcheng has put the planet's two most powerful nations in uncomfortable positions and forced a delicate diplomatic dance reflects, in part, the rising power of activists and protesters. Recall that Time magazine's Person of the Year was, appropriately, the protester. This is a new reality that will disrupt many long-standing assumptions, elevate some to new heights of power, and undermine the roles of those whose power had been paramount.
Those who have relied on opaque dealing will have the rudest of awakenings.
Key drivers of this dramatic power shift are
• the degree to which our media has become more horizontal,
• the expansion of transparency,
• the poor track record of long-standing powers in adapting, and
• the agility and the dexterity that protesters and activists have exhibited in exploiting this new media landscape.
No longer do three television networks inform everyone about what constitutes news; instead, individuals are telling everyone else -- including the media, in many cases -- what constitutes news. Information can circumnavigate the world in a flash, long before once standard coverage in a 6 p.m. newscast. Today, we have so much information from so many people, from so many sources, moving so fast that traditional powers too often find themselves challenged to respond in a timely enough fashion. Instead of setting the agenda, these once powerful sources now are having the agenda set for them.
The imposition of transparency -- with or without permission -- has been particularly disruptive to historical relationships. While the revelation of U.S. diplomatic cables was a surprise to America, it was much more uncomfortable to those nations and those individuals that had grown accustomed to working in the shadows of obscurity. In countries like China where governments have fastidiously controlled outgoing messages, the evolving communications landscape is resulting in particular challenges. This is a breach that Chen and his followers are exploiting.
Activists have become extremely savvy at leveraging the news cycle to their benefit. They have used known events as backboards for their bank shots. The fact that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had visits scheduled with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo clearly shines more light on Chen's cause.
All of this requires those who represent governments, political leaders, companies, and other organizations to
• have more foresight in anticipating activists' actions,
• develop more timely decision making on the appropriate response, and
• establish more extensive channels of communication with key constituencies.
It might be reasonable to assume that the activist or the protester, in his many forms, will qualify for being Time's Person of the Decade. In a time when everyday people have elevated powers of influence, this new communications landscape will benefit those who are nimble and transparent at the expense of those who are lethargic and opaque.
Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).