Civil Society with Chinese Characteristics
Brian Bartholomew is a junior at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Since the start of Reform and Opening Up (改革开放), China has reinvented itself, moving in three short decades from an Asian backwater to the world’s largest economy and trading state.
Societal change has kept pace with sky-high growth rates while reform has given birth to a new generation of challenges. Pollution, capitalism-generated inequality, and pullback of the cradle-to-grave social safety net are creating tension within China’s social fabric.
With the state retreating from people’s lives, many of the most vulnerable populations including migrants, elderly, and the disabled are being left behind. This vacuum in services is in large part being filled by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which in recent years have made massive gains in both numbers and influence. Aided by an increasingly conciliatory legal framework, a resurgent civil society is stepping onto the scene. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, some 500,000 Civil Society Organizations (the Chinese designation for NGOs, foundations, and a broad range of social organizations) have registered in the past two decades while millions more operate as businesses or off the books. These organizations include everything from self-help groups for those with AIDS to budding legal coalitions defending the rights of laborers.
The CCP stands to gain from this movement. Properly harnessed, civic-minded organizations can relieve tensions and unrest that would otherwise threaten Party rule. But because independent organizations are potential incubators for bottom-up unrest – witness the role of religious and trade groups in Poland’s Solidarity movement – the development of civil society is a closely managed affair.
This has resulted in a two-track development process: groups working to address under-provision of social services and environmental issues have enjoyed a more relaxed operating space while groups promoting religious and political rights remain strictly off-limits. Indeed, amidst President Xi’s wider crackdown on political dissent, repression of some aspects of civil society has only intensified in recent years.
Just as China adopted tailored policies of economic liberalization, so too has it developed a civil society with Chinese characteristics. Civil society is typically conceptualized as a distinctly Western feature, richly conflated with grassroots uprisings and independent checks on government. The initial post-Tiananmen wave of interest in Chinese civil society focused almost entirely on its potential as the catalyst of democratization it was for Eastern Europe in the 1980s and Central Asia in the mid-2000s. Examining Chinese civil society through this lens is an excruciating exercise in grafting Western concepts onto Chinese reality. As Harvard’s Tony Saich puts it, “we are trying to fit Chinese empirical pegs into Western theoretical holes.”
Jean-Philippe Béja, an influential French researcher specializing in Chinese politics, argues that modern Chinese civil society differs not only from the independent variety found in the US but also from combative flavors found in both Eastern Europe and China in the 1980s. Differences with the US need little elaboration. Freedom of association, strong institutionalized networks, and the rule of law provide NGOs with the protection to pursue a nearly unlimited range of interests. China differs from other authoritarian cases such as 1970s Poland because of the absence of institutional protection of civil society. Whereas in Poland dissidents weathered martial law under the protection of institutions such as the Church, Chinese political activists find no refuge under the rule of law and have lacked state backers since reformers fell from power in 1989. Tiananmen marked the end of combative civil society in China. Without the institutional support and protection to pursue an independent agenda, today’s Chinese civil society is able to operate only within the space outlined by the CCP. The issues it takes on are of apolitical administration rather than policy. Civil society doesn’t set the agenda; it implements what’s been passed down from above.
On the surface, China seems to follow in the footsteps of democratic states: consulting experts, seeking the help of volunteers, and expanding space for civil society to grow into. In reality, it has strengthened only single party rule, diffusing social unrest into narrow, single-issue channels without allowing criticism or acknowledgment of problems’ systemic roots. The CCP further constrains collaboration and mass mobilization along issue-based lines by prohibiting NGOs from having provincial offices, crowding them out with Government Organized Non-Government Organization (GONGO) monopolies, and limiting civil adventurism with the power of the purse. Fundraising, for instance, is prohibited unless you work with through a GONGO. The reliance on government hamstrings civil society’s ability to champion values and interests that diverge from those of the state.
Thus, recent proliferation of NGOs and other elements of civil society does not mean that the regime is democratizing, nor does it mean that China’s growing civil society will follow in the footsteps of Eastern Europe. Those looking to a robust Chinese civil society to foster democracy and contest political space with the CCP will come away sorely disappointed.
This is not to discount the progress of recent years. Environmental and service-based organizations have enjoyed unprecedented accommodation while provinces have served admirably as laboratories of autocracy for test-driving new policies. In 2013, Guangdong reforms were translated into national changes allowing a broad range of vocational, charity, and service-based organizations to register without the endorsement of a government agency. Yunnan piloted a program allowing international NGOs to register with provincial civil affairs authorities rather than having to go through the central ministry. This has since been implemented on a national level. In local government, there has been a flurry of activity to lower barriers to registration, pass on social service responsibilities, and move from relationships of indifference or repression to cooperation. While graft and competition for funds lead to continuing harassment of some NGOs, local governments are coming to appreciate NGOs taking on the services that their offices lack the budget and will to deliver.
Even at the highest levels, the Party is adapting. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for 2011-2015 featured an entire chapter dedicated to civil society, calling for cooperation with social organizations and further devolution of government services, opening up the range of responsibilities and resources available to CSOs.
Civil society can provide outside feedback on government policies and act as an incubator for social innovation. It can boost social stability and bolster the regime’s legitimacy by dealing with the sources of dissatisfaction. The cost of harmony through force meanwhile will only grow as contradictions between China’s past and present continue to clash.
Already, millions have benefited from the expanded scope of NGO operations. But, so long as civil society lives in the shadow of June 4, 1989, the Harmonious Society that the government seeks – not to mention effective political advocacy, democratization, and broader promotion of good governance – will remain beyond reach.