Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What's this civil society thing?

Kevin James and I picked the same article to feature on our comparative politics blogs. He often features things I miss. Check out his Albany High School blog to see what I've neglected.

China, like Russia, is trying to limit the influence of foreign ideas and organizations. Here's a main tool they're using.

BTW: Here's a new Chinese word to add to you vocabulary: faxhi. According to the quoted expert, it refers to "law-based governance," meaning that it refers to laws the Communist Party can use to stay in control, not rule of law, which is how the ruling elite likes to translate the term. (What is rule of law in Western terms?)

Non-governmental organizations: Uncivil society
RECENTLY the Communist Party has put forward a raft of proposals aimed at preventing perceived challenges to its monopoly of power. On July 1st a national-security law was passed that authorised “all measures necessary” to protect the country from hostile elements. Now a draft of China’s first law for regulating foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is expected to pass in the coming weeks. The law is deemed necessary because of the threats NGOs are presumed to pose.

The draft law represents a mixture of limited progress and major party retrenchment in a sensitive area. Under Mao Zedong, China had no space for NGOs. But they have multiplied in the past decade to fill the gaps left by the party’s retreat from people’s daily lives. Officials say the law will help NGOs by giving them legal status, a valid claim. But it will also force strict constraints on foreign or foreign-supported groups. No funding from abroad will be allowed. And all NGOs will have to find an official sponsoring organisation. They will then have to register with China’s feared public security apparatus, which will now oversee the entire foreign-backed sector…

About 1,000 foreign NGOs operate in China, with thousands more providing financial and other support. Some larger ones, such as Save the Children, have been there for decades and are welcomed. Groups overtly supporting labour or human rights are not.

Foreign money has been crucial, though it is impossible to measure exactly how much flows in. For anything sensitive, such as promoting the rule of law or policies against discrimination, the only source of funding is abroad. This is the money the party wants to shut off…

By letting some NGOs register formally, the law would allow them to open bank accounts for the first time and take part in official activities. But it would also bring closer monitoring, and requires groups to hire employees only through official channels. Any group dealing with sensitive issues would be unlikely to find a sponsor and would be forced to close…

Any foreign non-profit organization… that does not have an office in China would need a temporary permit and an official sponsor to engage in any kind of programme there. Anything from a university exchange to a visiting orchestra could be denied entry based on something said or done that is perceived to be against China. The aim may be to silence criticism of the regime abroad… The party may try to allay such fears [of business groups] because it cares about foreign business. But it seems unafraid to show that it wants non-governmental organisations to bow to the government. “They are saying: ‘We don’t want any of your values, we’ll do things our way,’” says a former diplomat in Beijing. Many Chinese officials believe foreign-funded NGOs to be Trojan horses for Western ideas…

The new draft law follows a meeting of the Communist Party last year that trumpeted how China must be ruled by fazhi, a phrase translated as the “rule of law”. But [Jia Xijin of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Centre] points out that fazhi is not the rule of law as understood in the West. It should, rather, be translated “law-based governance”, meaning that the law is a tool the party can use to maintain order.

The new law will not necessarily be implemented to the letter. As with the internet, the party is eager to see the NGO sector flourish, but only on its own terms. It will use the language of civil society to persuade the world that such a concept exists in China. Yet anyone pushing genuine civil liberties will not be tolerated. Gradual reform is possible, but control remains everything.

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