Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, April 21, 2014

Chinese civil society, reconsidered

Last week I posted a link to a blog on the New York Times site, Party, not civil society. Blogger Austin Ramzy presented what, to me, seemed common knowledge: anything beyond the control of the Communist Party in China would not be allowed.

This week, the editors of The Economist offer a more optimistic assessment of the state of civil society in China. However, the editorial on the topic makes clear that in China "civil society" is something very different than what is common in more open societies.

The editorial concludes: "To work properly, NGOs need their rights to be detailed, upheld and certainly enforced by law… expand the types of NGO allowed to register… [civil society groups] should be given full freedom… to raise money without official help… [and] make the disbursal of funds to NGOs more transparent…

"All these measures would help. But the most useful reforms for China’s nascent civil society are really the same things that all China needs: a stronger judiciary, more responsive people’s congresses, a more independent press. These will bring about more transparency and accountability… "

Beneath the glacier: In spite of a political clampdown, a flourishing civil society is taking hold
China has over 500,000 NGOs already registered with the state. The number comes with a big caveat. Many NGOs are quasi-official or mere shell entities attempting to get government money. Of those genuine groups that do seek to improve the common lot, nearly all carry out politically uncontentious activities. But perhaps 1.5m more are not registered…

These unregistered NGOs are growing in number and influence. They are a notable example of social forces bubbling up from below in a stubbornly top-down state. The organisations could be a way for the Communist Party to co-opt the energy and resources of civil society. They could also be a means by which that energy challenges the party’s power. And so their status has big implications…

[NGOs] engaged in any kind of political advocacy continue to be suspect. Human-rights organisations remain banned, as do most groups promoting religious, ethnic or labour rights…

Until 2012, any NGO that wanted to register—and so be legal—had to have a sponsoring official organisation, typically a government agency that worked in the area of the NGO’s interest. This ensured firm government control over all NGOs, or “social organisations”, as the party likes to call them (in Chinese, “non-government” carries a whiff of “anti-government”)…

It was a rigid regime, but it actually represented a liberalisation compared with what went before. When it seized power in 1949 the Communist Party eliminated anything that stood between the state and the individual, including churches, trade unions and independent associations of all sorts—it even tried to break traditional family bonds. In other words, what elsewhere came to be known as civil society was shut down completely in China, at least until after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The only groups allowed to function were state entities parading as non-state ones. They go by the Orwellian name of government-operated non-governmental organisations, GONGOs…

After the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and their subsequent bloody put-down, the deal China’s leaders offered the country changed: stay out of politics and you can do almost anything else you want…

There were clear limits. The collapse of the Soviet bloc, which trade unions, churches and other groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere helped precipitate, reinforced the idea among Chinese rulers that NGOs had to be kept away from issues that were or could become political. Still, local NGOs with limited, mostly charitable concerns were allowed to develop in some areas…

The growth of NGOs… has not always been a smooth one… But in recent years that tight control has relaxed again, largely out of necessity. Rapid urbanisation and a more complex society mean that the party can no longer provide everything for its citizens as once it did, or claimed to. Anger over inadequate social services could put at risk the domestic stability that underpins the party’s rule. Nor does it help that the central government has pushed responsibility for health, education and other services onto local governments that are unwilling or unable to pay for them…

Behind the growth is the irrepressible rise of a new middle class. It shares the party’s desire for stability. But some members, at least, also want new ways to participate in society. Party leaders, now only vaguely constrained by Communist ideology, have a new sense that something is to be gained by co-opting such activist citizens rather than suppressing them. It may, they think, offer a way of providing some of the social support that the party can no longer supply on its own. Thus the easing of the rules, not just allowing NGOs to register without a state sponsor but actually encouraging them to do so…

It is telling, however, that these changes come at a time of increased political repression, including against those who simply call upon an overweening party to abide by China’s own (Communist-written) constitution. Since Xi Jinping became party chief in 2012, the state has cracked down on freethinkers…

The party appears to believe that it can encourage the expansion of NGOs without relaxing its political grip. Perhaps it is the Leninist chameleon changing colour again, developing a clever new brand of “consultative authoritarianism”… that leaves the realities of power unchanged and room for dissent constrained. But many who work for NGOs suggest the opposite: allowing new freedoms for civil-society groups will slowly transform the party from the inside—just the kind of “peaceful evolution” that party hardliners have always warned against…

It is not clear that the party believes in civil society. More likely it sees NGOs as a useful tool to achieve its own ends. But with politics directed from on high unable to meet social needs, and a new generation that wants more participation, some increased role for civil society is unavoidable. So a strange, unspoken pact has evolved, where both sides accept the compromise as a way of furthering their goals in the short term, while hoping future developments work in their favor…

Yet, in their way, NGOs are starting to provide a glue that can help knit society together as the state retreats, family structures change and the social fabric is stretched to the point of tearing. Today’s NGOs are backed by a new generation of Chinese who feel better off and more empowered. The party will not find it easy to slap them back down.

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