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Chinese civil society: a promising evolution despite the obstacles

Développement et Civilisations, October 2008, n°367

by Fu Tao(1)

Yesterday, no matter whether it was the speeches given by scholars or representatives of NGOs, they were all excellent, helping us to enrich our understanding of thinking on Sino-African relations from the perspective of civil society, and promoting understanding between civil society in China and Africa, and building a base for constructive cooperation in the future, though this process will necessarily take some time.

Among yesterday’s speeches, one point I thought very important was the concept of a ‘people centred approach’ raised by one delegate, who also raised the question of the equity of distribution of the benefits of economic growth in China and Africa, and questions of the environment and of sustainable development. The interest shown by African NGOs and scholars concerned with Sino-African relations in China’s presence in Africa and in China’s overseas investment reflects high expectations of China on behalf of African countries, due to its status as a fellow country of the south. Sino-African relations are not just about political, economic and trade relations, nor are they simply a question of creating a win-win economic situation for all. They are simultaneously a process of social development, of improving systems, and a question touching on the promotion of public participation in policy-making in Africa and the equitable distribution of the benefits and opportunities arising from economic development.

This perspective is not limited to African civil society. I believe, rather, that it is also relevant to China. Just now, Professor Wen Tiejun brought up the question of China’s rich-poor divide, which is also to say that China should take its environmental and social responsibilities more to heart during the process of economic development. All Chinese economic activity, no matter whether it is domestic or foreign investment, should pay attention to environmental and social equity. Extrapolating from this point, Chinese and African civil society have the same demands.

"Harmony" an open door for NGOs

There is a phrase that is very popular in China right now: building a harmonious society. Without environmental and social equity, there can be no harmonious society. In putting forward this concept and in making large adjustments to social policies, I believe that Chinese leaders show that they understand the importance of this problem. China has also rolled this concept out into the field of international relations, with the aim of building a ‘harmonious world’. Of course, action and practice are more important than concepts, and this is something that is unattainable without civil society acting to mobilise forces outside the political system.

Returning to the main topic of my presentation – the current state of civil society in China. Ten years ago, people spoke doubtfully about civil society in China, ‘Does China have NGOs?’ was the question. Or, ‘Does China have real bottom-up NGOs?’. At the time, this question was very meaningful; however, it is only necessary to compare the situation in which Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO, was set up in 1994 and today’s Sino-African meeting, organised by civil society groups, to see that Chinese civil society today has acquired a certain amount of space for action.

When Friends of Nature was founded, the founder and supporters of the organisation came to Beijing, to the suburbs, and held their meeting in a park. Because at the time, unofficial public assemblies were extremely sensitive, Liang Congjie, the founder of Friends of Nature, used his birthday as a pretext for holding the meeting.

Our meeting today, organised by civil society groups, would have been unimaginable at that time. Representatives at today’s meeting are from different countries and different backgrounds, whether from NGOs or academic organisations. This shows clearly that China’s society now benefits from greater space and openness as compared to previously.

The emergence of citizens’ actions

Of course, the development of civil society in China has not all been plain sailing, but has also had its share of ups and downs. In fact, it is easy to see the continued presence of many obstacles, of limitations, originating in legal policy or public consciousness, or from the limitations in capacity of the NGOs themselves. However, I believe that China is making progress, though there is, of course, a long way left to go and we look forward to the time when progress will get a little faster.

Before China started the reform process in the 1980s, there defnitely wasn’t this kind of space for civil society. At the time, it was very uncommon to see citizens carrying out independent action as individuals, or individuals forming associations and expressing opinions on public matters and taking action independently of government. On the subject of the spirit of volunteering, at that time we studied Lei Feng and suchlike social campaigns – what could be described as politicised volunteering. However, because these were government-organised and top-down, individuals were passive and such campaigns cannot be considered real citizen action.

The market reforms which sprang up in the 1980s created a resource base for individuals and organisations to survive and exist independently of government. With a reduction in the role of government, civil society was able to gain a degree of control over social resources and their distribution, and was able to organise to carry out volunteering activities for the public good. Another important factor has been the growth of citizen awareness, shown by the apparition of a growing number of bottom-up, grassroots organisations from the middle and late 1990s. Similarly, many university students join clubs and societies during their studies, and then move into this field after graduation.

In comparison with the past, individuals have much more choice and freedom, and citizen association and rights consciousness are growing. Social transition has also produced a pluralisation of interests within society, and NGOs are more and more active, providing social services, while some are taking on the role of representatives of the public and of environmental interests. NGOs are most active in the fields of environmental protection, poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS, charitable and educational assistance, legal aid, etc. Among those present today, Professor Wen Tiejun, as well as some international and domestic NGOs, all make use of volunteers. We should strive for more choice and for more space for the development of civil society.

Behind the good news…

Currently, a growing number of academics are paying attention to the study of NGOs, while traditional and new online media are showing a greater interest in NGO affairs, and the frequency and depth of their reports is increasing.

However, the development of Chinese civil society is still encumbered by a number of policy restrictions.
1. For the most part, the legal environment and government policy are restrictive of NGO activity:

  • NGO dual management principles: registration is a large problem, with some scholars estimating that 10% of NGOs are registered, while 90% remain unregistered.
  • Tax breaks for charitable giving: this remains uncommon, and is judged on a case by case basis. Comparing government-organised NGOs (GONGOs) and grassroots NGOs, the former are the beneficiaries of preferential government policies in fundraising and organising activities.

2. Actual practices: while NGOs are officially encouraged to develop social service provision, government remains extremely wary of NGO advocacy efforts, and the overall policy environment remains restrictive.

The Chinese government has realised the ability of NGOs to mobilise social resources, and encourages NGOs to engage in charitable activities, at the same time directly intervening and encourgaging the inclusion of public interest activities in the government agenda. For example, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has tried all number of methods, including fine-sounding publicity activities, to propagate the idea of charity, to encourage public giving, aid to vulnerable groups and the provision of social services, as well as trying to lead or encourage charitable and volunteering activities. Another example is that of government inviting public bidding for the provision of social services. Faced with the low effectiveness of its poverty alleviation activities, government has started studying and using the creativity of NGOs, by providing funding for NGOs to carry out participatory poverty alleviation activities in rural areas. Similarly, in the case of provision of social services, such as those to the elderly, government may provide subsidies to the organisations providing these services.

Despite an avowed commitment to ‘small government, big society’, government remains strong and influential. Dictated by a need to survive and develop, the majority of NGOs seek to cooperate with government and to engage in public education and social service activities. A study carried out by China Development Brief, found that the majority of NGOs do not engage in challenging or oppositional advocacy. The survey also found, however, that more and more organisations are linking up policy advocacy and social service provision.

Civil society transformations

At the same time, NGOs have also become ‘pluralised’. Within the NGO field, there has arisen a debate as to whether NGOs act as a ‘supplement’ to government. That is to say, are NGOs a supplement to government, or a partner to government? When cooperating with government, how can NGOs preserve independent values? Is the value of NGOs in making up for the shortcomings of government, or in preserving independence and in influencing government, including exerting pressure on government when necessary?

The small number of challenging organisations that exist, when working to exert pressure on government, do their utmost to increase their legality through use of existing policies and laws, and try to get support from government departments or sympathetic officials. The role played by the media and academics should also be pointed out. Their involvement has given NGOs a greater voice and capacity to raise their demands. At some levels of government, there exists a relatively effective interaction between government agencies and NGOs, for example as regards public participation in the formulation of environmental policy. NGOs also try to make use of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and similar channels within the system to make their views heard. However, the number of representatives in the NPC and the CPPCC able to act as spokespersons for NGOs and vulnerable groups is limited. A small number of NGO activists have tried to use democratic methods and self-nomination through the electoral process to gain positions on the NPC, but these people have faced restrictions and their influence has been small.

Overall, China still lacks formal channels for the participation of NGOs and the public in the policy making process. Government trust in NGOs is still limited, and there is need of a more open attitude, for a recognition of different voices and for systemic guarantees to be put in place to effect these changes.

Networks: essential but risky

Some NGOs engage in advocacy through making issues public, and build public pressure through public debate and opinion and in this way influence policy and some public debates involving NGOs, academics and the media are very lively. While there remains a degree of media control, the liberalisation of public space brought by the internet is having an effect on public opinion, and is also having an effect on traditional media, which are still the subject of relatively strict offical control. Although China still doesn’t have free media, the forces of marketisation are starting to force media to have a certain degree of independence and there can sometimes be space for flexibility in reporting, despite the periodic tightening and strict controls on the media carried out by government.

NGOs also try to build networks. The majority of this is concerned with circulating the results of research and meetings, though some NGOs try to carry out joined-up action around individual issues. Of course, for the most part, networking has been seen as quite sensitive, though obviously the degree of sensitivity is related to the degree of sensitivity of the issue the NGO is working on.

Another situation which can occur is the transformation of GONGOs. Normally, GONGOs have the trust of government, but are also clearly influenced by government, and oriented towards government interests. Saying this, in some fields, GONGOs can be more oriented towards the interests of society, and some realise the importance of meeting the requirements of society and of the non-governmental sector and such organisations can become supportive of grassroots NGOs and can act as a bridge, facilitating communication between grassroots organisations and government. Of course, there are also GONGOs which vacillate between a government line and greater engagement with civil society, and there are those organisations that have returned to their original government-oriented role.

On the question of capacity building, a number of NGOs have appeared that are dedicated to carrying out such activities, while in some cases, more mature and robust organisations may start to provide support to other grassroots NGOs. Even though growth in China’s domestic NGOs has been very fast in recent years, a number of weak points and problems remain, and examples are given here.
1. Organisations need to increase their degree of professionalism and their sensitivity to social questions.
2. A lot of organisations have only weak links with their constituencies, and they are not very participatory, meaning that they cannot effectively represent these groups to the public or to government.
3. The resource mobilisation ability of domestic NGOs is insufficient, and this has an impact on their sustainability (this is, of course, related to the limiting policy environment).
4. Many NGOs suffer from ineffective management systems, a lack of evaluation and oversight mechanisms, organisational management, and their degree of financial transparency is insufficient; they are in urgent need of building public confidence.
5. There have yet to appear Chinese NGOs whose field of vision has an international dimension, which are capable of thinking about the role that they play at the international level, and which can start to pay attention to transnational questions, such as the role of environmental and social responsibility in overseas aid. Domestic NGOs have not yet matured into international organisations able to operate in a transational context, able to rely on their own value judgements and effectively define their fields of operation, and thereby carry out advocacy independently of government concerns. Citizens’ participation in, and evaluation of, foreign affairs and foreign aid is basically zero in China. There exist certain government-organised ‘civil activities’, such as international relief activities of the Red Cross, but these are wholly top-down activities.

China is from now on plural

China is a complicated country, which is becoming increasingly pluralised with the progress of social transition. In terms of relations between NGOs and government, there are differences between the space available for NGO activity at different levels of government, between different areas and in dealing with different government bodies. Overall, Chinese NGOs are weak, as is their ability to influence policy. We should not have too high expectations of China’s civil society, or be blindly optimistic. But neither should we be overly pessimistic. Social space in China has already opened up significantly, and civil society has become an imprescriptable part of China’s transitional society. Returning to theme of today’s meeting, and Sino-African exchange, this should not just be an exchange at the level of governments or businesses. Chinese and African civil society also need to strengthen links, to come together to face problems of development in order to make Chinese and African economic development fairer and more environmentally sustainable.


[1] - Fu Tao joined the China Development Brief in 2000, in which he became Chief Editor for the Chinese Edition in 2004. This publication is dedicated to the NGOs and philanthropic sector in China (Website). This text, the writer’s input at the Shangai Conference (May 2007), was published in 2008 in the book China’s New Role in Africa and the South, Eds. Focus on the Global South (Bangkok) and Fahamu (Nairobi/Oxford).

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