#27 event report: The Civil Factor: NGOs in China

The Civil Factor: NGOs in China

June 6, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. Dr. ZHANG Changdong 张长东, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, Peking University


Prof. Zhang opened the session by defining civil society as a precondition for effective democracy. The Chinese civil society encompasses a broad range of social organizations (shehui tuanti, 社会团体) which include non/enterprise units, foundations, village and residents- committees and international NGOs. According to Prof. Zhang, all these organizations, along with the so-called social movements (shehui yundong, 社会运动) and the old and new media, constitute a prerequisite for democracy. They operate on both the attitudinal level by creating a civil culture of trust, and on the behavioural level by producing civil engagement, constraining the power of the state, by representing the interests of their members and also by increasing the infrastructural power of the state through a mechanism of “mutual empowerment”.
According to Zhang, in China there is an undergoing “social organization revolution”, fuelled by a rapid increase of social organizations. Yet, the numbers are still significantly lower than in the rest of the world: if China counts 2,5 social organizations for every 10.000 people, Argentina reaches 25, the United States 52 and France 110.
Moving forward, Prof. Zhang presented the regulatory framework in which the Chinese civil society is developing arguing that, according to the Regulation on Registration and Administration of Social Organization (1989), it works on the basis of a dual management system. Under the current legal framework, the this system requires that most non-profit/social  organizations not only register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA), but also have to be affiliated with and supervised by a government agency in its functional area. In addition, MOCA allows these organizations to operate only in the local jurisdiction where it is registered and prohibits the establishment of other branches in different areas. Therefore, even when circumstances call for broader operations, it becomes impossible to extend the action of the organization beyond the narrow local jurisdiction. It is therefore clear why only a small minority of all social organizations seek formal registration with MOCA, with most founders not wishing, or simply not able, to get involved in protracted bureaucratic procedures with no guarantees of success. Recent estimates of the numbers of the unregistered social organizations range from 8 to 10 million, meaning that the roughly 460,000 registered social organizations represent only a small minority (less than 4-5%) of the non-profit sector.
During the 18th National Congress the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approved the so-called “de-regulation of social organizations”, meaning social organizations can directly apply for official registration with MOCA without mandatorily seeking the prior approval or affiliation to a government or party body as the supervisory unit. The municipality of Shenzhen, the “city of philanthropy”, implemented this de-regulation already in July 1, 2012, and its non-profit organizations’ growth rate last year reached 15%, compared to the 4% average nation wide.
According to Prof. Zhang, this “social revolution” is the outcome of a dual dynamic of development: on one side the economic development and the marketization of the economy, while on the other the administrative reforms, especially the downsizing of government and the de-concentration of government power. Within this context the government has an “enabling role”, a “regulatory role” and at the same time a “predatory role”, which is hard to define through a single theoretical paradigm.
The current debate on the relationship between the social organizations and the government, and on the effectiveness of their policy advocacy activities revolves around the two theories of pluralism/civil society and corporatism. The western pluralist model relies on the assumption that the mission of the civil society organizations is to confront the government and protect society from the state’s intrusion and control so that the more resources a social organization has, the more influential it is in terms of policy advocacy. Prof. Zhang sees this approach as fundamentally inadequate to define the Chinese reality since it erroneously assumes a significant degree of openness of the policy making process and the identification of resources with effective power (the Chinese political system does not follow market rules). For these reasons he argues that the situation in China is best described by the state corporatist approach, in which the state chooses, recognizes and protects the authority of licensed associations representing sectorial interests and in return the associations become the mediator between the state and its constituents.



During the Q&A session the public has asked Prof. Zhang to go a bit further in the explanation of the relationship between the government and the no-profit organizations, especially in terms of the government’s receptiveness of ideas of policy change. In this sense he has argued that most NGOs are far away from having policy intentions since they tend to focus on the purpose of a public service. In addition, their main counterparts are the local authorities, which not only have limited resources, but also are the least receptive to ideas of policy change. Of course the corruption of local government officials often plays a decisive role in the life of a local NGO but it is nonetheless very unlikely that it will lead to significant impact on the government policies.

From the audience some doubts have been raised about the concept itself of NGO, literally intended as “NON-governmental”  and its use in the chinese context, where, with probably the only exception of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we can only find government-led or government-controlled no-profit organisations. In this respect Prof. Zhang has underlined the fact that in the Chinese one-party system the Western-born term of NGO finds limited applicability and for this reason one should make the intellectual effort to contextualize it and understand the peculiar relationship that ties the Chinese civil society with the government (and therefor the Party).

(report by Chiara Radini)