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Chinese civil society at a time of leadership change

05 October 2012
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In this period of leadership transition, maintaining social stability is of the highest priority for decision-makers in China. While bureaucratic transparency and accountability may have gradually improved in some areas - especially in certain provinces or localities - due to more openness, better access to information and greater public oversight, the transition process at the top level is still shrouded in mystery and characterised by an almost total lack of transparency. The lack of official announcements and of coverage by the regular media of deliberations within the highest circles of the Communist Party of China (CPC) invites speculation and fuels rumours which are quickly spread via micro-blogs. While a civil society has indeed emerged in China - thanks to three decades of economic reforms and growing interaction of Chinese citizens with the outside world - its characteristics are, however, quite different from those of the West.

Civil society, Chinese style

Although no ‘civil society’ in Habermas’s original definition has emerged in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), non-governmental groups and greater social engagement of Chinese citizens have developed rapidly over the last decade. In China’s political system, party/state and civic activities are interlinked in a multitude of ways. The understanding of civil society (gongmin shehui) in China needs to be adjusted with two political conditions taken into consideration: not all existing groups in China meet the (Western) criteria for non-governmental groups of being non-profit, private, voluntary and self-governing; and many of the organisations are in fact government organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs).

From the Chinese perspective, ‘grassroots organisations’ are groups ‘without government background’ (meiyou zhengfu beijing de). Some of these might deliver social services, others are advocacy groups. However, in the official discourse, grassroots organisations can also refer to urban residents committees, relying on ‘volunteers’ – mostly party members and recipients of social welfare. In this latter sense, grassroots groups can also be formed from above in a top-down process.

In general, the Chinese political system has become more consultative over the last 10-20 years. The emerging middle class, the greatest winners of the reforms, has successfully been co-opted by the regime (mainly under the leadership of Jiang Zemin). As a result, political and economic elites are increasingly intertwined. However, consultation does not mean participation, and as such it remains a favour granted by the authorities rather than a right that can be insisted on. Such consultations mainly aim at improving the effectiveness and/or transparency of governance and thus are part of what recently has been propagated as ‘social management’. 

‘Social management’ and upholding stability as a priority

In February 2011, Hu Jintao delivered a keynote speech at the Central Party School in which he declared ‘social management’ (shehui guanli) to be a priority for the Communist Party. The term has been explained as ‘[…] party leadership, government responsibility, social coordination and public participation.’ However, the degree to which civic groups and their activities should be encouraged or even tolerated has been a matter of some debate within China’s political establishment. Fundamentally, all factions agree that civic support is necessary for providing social services which the state cannot or does not want to provide for any longer. But that does not mean that such an engagement is welcome in all cases or that it should not be controlled. Some even argue that ‘civil society’ is just another trap set by the West to undermine China’s political system.

Officially, civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been welcomed in China to fill the gap where the state lacks either the capability or the will to provide services or to supplement state efforts. Examples of action by civil society include the earthquakes in Sichuan province in May 2008 and in Qinghai province in April 2010, when tens of thousands of people either donated money or organised support for the relief efforts, and international events like the Olympic Games 2008 or the World Expo 2010, where volunteers played a central role in ensuring the smooth running of proceedings. In other cases, civic groups supplement the state where the latter lacks sufficient means to do so, acting as an ‘extension’ of the state by, for example, providing care for the growing number of elderly people. Civic groups and organisations help bridge the gap between state and society and also provide special expertise on issues such as climate change where official institutions might lack experience. The single-party regime tends to accept civil society groups and NGOs as long as they act in the service of the state and contribute to social stability.

Some groups engaged in environmental issues or fighting HIV/Aids have received official praise. Nevertheless, even if they are welcomed by the central government, they might not be welcome at a local level and are often met with strong opposition (harassment, attacks by hired thugs etc.). Moreover, if their work becomes more ‘political’, namely if they start to systemically criticise the structural roots of local problems, they may also run into difficulties with the central government.

In recent years, greater control and increasingly repressive measures have been employed by the security apparatus of the Communist Party and the government. The general mistrust of civil society by the Chinese regime stems mainly from observing the colour revolutions in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan), where civil groups were believed to have received funding from abroad in order to undermine social stability in the countries in question. Concerns that the popular reform movements in North Africa and the Middle East (the so-called ‘Arab Spring’) could spread to China and lead to similar upheavals, did not help to diffuse government scepticism. Social unrest has become widespread in China and can be triggered by a broad range of problems and grievances. The majority of protests are linked to land- and housing-related conflicts. It is not uncommon for farmers to be driven from their land or tenants driven from their houses by local authorities in order to make room for more profitable development projects. Environmental concerns such as the building of new factories or the contamination of rivers and lakes, as well as labour disputes or abuse of power by local authorities can also lead to demonstrations. However, such expressions of dissatisfaction in China – which can sometimes turn violent are usually caused by local issues with protesters blaming local authorities rather than China’s top leaders or the political system. This local character explains why nation-wide protests have yet to materialise in China. In any case, most local grievances are resolved – either through financial or repressive means– before they have a chance to spread.

So far, the urban middle class has not shown much interest in becoming the driving force of a more fundamental reform of the political system. But the willingness to speak up for one’s rights has been on the rise in China and many academics, journalists and lawyers now see the necessity for deeper reforms within the present system, such as more freedom for the media or better protection of individual rights by establishing an independent judiciary.

General problems of civic groups and NGOs in China

The number of civic groups registered with the Ministry of Public Administration has grown dramatically over the last years. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2011 there were 253,000 registered ‘social groups’, 2,510 foundations and 202,000 non-profit organisations in China. Since the year 2000, the total number of civil society groups has increased by about 12% every year. However, since registration of NGOs remains quite difficult in China, these statistics may not properly reflect the realumber of active groups. Some estimates assume the actual number to be ten times as high, since many groups do not register at all and subsequently operate in a legal grey zone. Others register as enterprises which, although easier to do, makes these organisations vulnerable in other respects, for example they can be sued for tax evasion. To register as non-profit groups, an official sponsor, which also acts as a supervisor, is required. The sponsor must also be the concerned administrative office for the activity of the NGO (e.g. State Administration for Religious Affairs for a religion-related NGO). Experiments in loosening these regulations have been introduced in some regions. For instance, in Guangdong, local Party Secretary Wang Yang - considered a supporter of political reform - has recently adjusted the system so that NGOs focusing on certain issues no longer have to find an official sponsor in order to register. There is a risk, however, that if Wang Yang’s more soft-handed approach does not work, and demonstrations and protests increase, these more liberal regulations will be seen as ill-conceived and ineffective and therefore be stopped altogether.

Despite the problems faced, the fast growth of civic groups and organisations underlines the willingness of Chinese citizens to become more engaged in their community and more active in defending their rights. This development has been greatly supported, and facilitated, by the spread of new media outlets.

The internet, mobile phones and social networks

New media like the internet, mobile phones and social networks, especially micro-blogging (weibo), have become important means of communication and mobilisation in China. In June 2012, China had 538 million internet users and in 2011, there were over 929 million mobile phones in circulation, of which more than 87 million were 3G. It should be noted that in China, mobile phones are used as the primary means of accessing the internet (388 million in June 2012) rather than desktop computers. In 2008, China surpassed the US to become the biggest internet nation, with around 40 % of China’s population now having access to the internet. According to official Chinese statistics, at the end of 2011 around 244 million users were registered on social networking sites while the number of micro-blog users had reached 170 million (with a steep increase in 2010). With Twitter blocked in China, micro-blogs have developed as the Chinese substitute. Mobile micro-blogging has become extremely popular among the young as a way of expressing personal opinions and news, as well spreading information on current events not covered by the official media. Some journalists also use micro-blogs as a private ‘extension’ of their professional work. This is a way to circumvent the many reporting restrictions in the media and flaunt the state directives which prescribe what (or what not) to write about.

Micro-blog communities can, in a way, be considered as part of civil society, even if they are rather loosely organised. In addition to spreading information (that might otherwise be lost due to non-reporting in the official media) and personal comments/opinions, they can also be used to mobilise groups of people. There are several examples where activists were successfully organised by either mobile phones (SMS) or micro-blogs. In 2007, the plan to build a chemical factory in Xiamen was prevented by a mass protest organised by text message, and in 2012 demonstrations broke out in Sichuan province after plans to build a copper plant were spread through micro-blogs. While the internet and micro-blogs have been censured for a long time, mainly by blocking certain words and names and deleting messages, the Chinese government stepped up its efforts to control micro-blogs by introducing a real name policy for registering at the end of 2011. This new regulation is intended to prevent news being spread anonymously, but whether this will turn out to be an effective way of control remains to be seen.

Implications for the EU

Despite the ambivalent attitude of the Chinese leadership towards civil society described above, the vital and positive role played by civic groups in China should be noted by the EU and integrated into its policy vis-à-vis China. Increased contact with non-governmental actors and civic groups in China should be pursued more systematically by the EU and its member states as well as by European civil society groups in order to contribute to greater mutual understanding and allow for an exchange of experiences. This cooperation could also include practical measures like providing non-governmental groups in China with a platform to organise themselves and build networks among each other.

To this end, the EU and China have already begun a ‘High Level People-to-People Dialogue’ (HPPD) in 2012 , and other projects to strengthen exchanges with GONGOs and NGOs in China are also under way, such as the establishment of an EU-China Civil Society Forum. Another option is to offer forums for dialogue for government institutions – both Chinese and European ‑ to get in contact with civic groups from both sides in order to improve communication channels. Furthermore, if this is done in informal settings, it might help to remove doubts and mistrust between the two sides.

Gudrun Wacker is a Senior Associate with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Berlin)