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Chinas leaders want to foster civil society, and control it
[ Civil society ]
In search of acceptable cooperation
The Chinese government is experimenting at several different levels by encouraging partnerships between the State and independent agencies for instance, and by tolerating unregistered organisations. It is difficult to predict whether official recognition of rights will follow next. However, international cooperation can have a positive influence.
[ By Berthold Kuhn ]
It may seem strange but the Communist government of the Peoples Republic of China is very interested in civil society. While holding on to the reins of absolute power, it also wants its citizens to show political and social engagement in independent organisations.
The political leadership aims to limit Chinas meteoric growth to 10% a year. It wants to make sure that the countrys breathtaking economic dynamism and radical structural change do not disrupt society. Chinese media emphasise the governments buzzwords social harmony and cohesion. State and Party are concerned with the increasing prosperity gap between the major East coast cities and the rural areas, for instance.
Danwei is the term used for units of work and social integration, which typically dominated life in Chinas planned economy. The system still shapes many peoples day-to-day existence, but it is being eroded by the privatisation of state-run companies and the growing mobility of labour. Danwei offered security, but also restricted individual freedom. Now, Chinas political leaders hope that new forms of organisation will contribute to fostering social responsibility and cohesion. They are considering entities such as not-for-profit associations and charitable foundations. Such bodies could assume responsibility for providing various social services with State support.
Academics debate how to modernise major social, educational and cultural organisations, referred to as GONGOS (government-organised NGOs). For instance, the Disabled Persons Federation intends to raise funds on its own and engage in more international networking. Moreover, there is a growing number and variety of so-called grassroots-NGOs, the majority of which are not registered.
The legal framework for starting a public-interest association or foundation is still very restrictive. To establish a formal association, one needs 50 members and a partnership with a governmental or para-statal institution. Foundations, which may not make profits, require a large capital stock, especially if they plan to raise funds at the national level. Currently 200,000 associations and about 1,000 foundations are registered in China.
In addition, a large number of non-profit enterprises have been formed in the past few years, bringing their number to over 140,000. Officially, they must also be affiliated to a specialised supervisory body. In practice, however, they operate quite autonomously. In the case of some smaller organisations, the authorities are not even interested in matters of taxation.
The Save the Children Fund, which is involved in education in many regions, is one of several international NGOs which have registered as non-profit enterprises. Others including World Vision, the Christian relief and development agency are officially registered only in Hong Kong, and cooperate with local agencies. Some major organisations such as the Ford Foundation or the International Committee of the Red Cross have concluded special agreements with the government. Greenpeace is running activities under another name as a private-sector company, and the government is aware of that.
The NGO Research Institute of the eminent Tsinghua University openly criticises the registration requirements, which are the underlying reason for many NGOs working without official registration. As a consequence, it is very difficult for authorities and researchers to get a comprehensive picture of what is going on. It is said that there are over three million unregistered NGOs, including neighbourhood committees and self-help groups.
The Chinese leadership is paying attention to international debate, and is seeking a structured cooperation between the state and new as well as established organisations. It would like to have intermediaries to coordinate interaction of market and state. For that purpose, large-scale organisations are just as required as are small environment initiatives and self-help groups.
Presently, the State and NGOs struggle covertly over acceptable forms of cooperation. Those who found independent organisations have often enjoyed higher education and gained some overseas experience. They would like to see restrictive regulations abolished. They feel confined, because the formation of networks and umbrella organisations are still impossible in practical terms. The State and the Party, however, wish to retain their influence. Academics advocate for institutional and systematic self-regulation through legal statutes and codes of conduct, in accordance with international standards. Such an approach should limit patronage as well as political and governmental interference.
International exchange is very important to Chinese civil society; and, in principle, the political leadership is well-disposed towards forging international links. This fact provides an opportunity to press ahead with social reforms. There is a certain openness towards defining new legal norms along the model of other countries, including the regulation of civil-society organisations.
Over the past few years, the Chinese regime has appeared increasingly interested in developing rather than restricting or subjugating civil society. It aims to promote and, at the same time, control societal activity. There is wide-reaching consensus throughout the country that social cohesion is vital. The Chinese have a traumatic fear of anarchy, as becomes evident in media reports of political unrest and protest movements elsewhere.
Anybody who wants to solve social and environmental problems through other bodies than the existing state-centred agencies is welcome, as long as issues are not raised aggressively and there is no mass agitation. Harsh criticism of high-ranking personalities or the political system as such is not tolerated.
In current expert discourse, NGOs are believed to be capable of making significant contributions to eradicating poverty, fighting HIV-Aids, protecting the environment, and safeguarding the rights of marginalised groups. Experts understand the advantages of NGOs in comparison with cumbersome State authorities. NGOs are more flexible, have better access to minorities, are competent and methodical and, thanks to international exchange, able to raise additional funds and implement solutions from overseas.
NGOs act as watchdogs and social service providers, depending on the sectors they are active in. In environmental matters, they tend to become watchdogs. The Friends of Nature and Global Village Beijing are two of the most prominent organisations. Both are anything but apolitical, they provide independent reports on the state of the environment (Lehrack 2004: 17). Other NGOs, however, are primarily providers of social services, particularly in areas which are still poverty-stricken. The Asian Development Bank is transferring funds to local NGOs through provincial governments. In 2006, Chinese NGOs, for the first time, won grants for innovative projects in a competition organised by the World Bank.
Closer partnerships are being forged between NGOs and local decision-makers, which, in some places today, include elected leaders unattached to the Party. In many fields, it is difficult to distinguish social-service provision from advocacy activities. For instance, when an NGO operates successfully in microfinance, generating demand for credit and savings accounts, it implicitly raises the question of whether existing restrictive regulation of such activities should stay in force. The situation is similar in other areas, too.
NGOs dealing with HIV/AIDS are considered particularly active in political terms. Some activists have even displayed their disapproval of the government by going on hunger strikes or starting other high-profile initiatives. Only rarely did authorities react repressively, for instance by arresting activists. Normally, the government remains calm, or only resorts to covert reprisals. Foreign nationals who participate in agitation, for instance, may encounter difficulties when applying for visa extensions.
China is currently experimenting in many ways by holding local elections, forging new partnerships between the government and registered non-state actors, and tolerating non-registered NGOs. It is almost impossible to predict whether and if so, how and in which areas such experiments will ultimately lead to officially acknowledged rights and more popular participation in politics. At any rate, international cooperation with Chinese NGOs can certainly contribute to making positive outcomes more likely.
Professor Dr. Berthold Kuhn
is currently working at the NGO Research Institute of Tsinghua University in Beijing. His post is subsidised by the Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM) in Frankfurt.
Dorit Lehrack, 2004: NGO im heutigen China Aufgaben, Rolle und Selbstverständnis [NGOs in China today tasks, role and self-image], Duisburger Arbeitspapiere Ostasienwissenschaften, No. 57/2004.