The Pacific, and Challenges Facing American Nonprofits

Survival Strategies for Civil Society Organizations in China


The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 2, February 2004

By Julia Greenwood Bentley*

The development of non-government organizations or civil society organizations in China is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is a great deal of diversity in terms of both the forms of organizations springing up and the causes to which they are dedicated. This article assesses how Chinese civil society organizations define their role in relation to government and to society, and the extent to which they perceive their role as linking government and society through, for example, public awareness and advocacy. Despite a political and regulatory environment that in many respects is not supportive of a vibrant civil society, many of these organizations have shown considerable ingenuity in devising strategies to interact effectively with government and with society as well as to influence policy and public opinion.
I. What Is Civil Society in China and Why Does It Matter? 

There has been growing global interest in civil society over the past decade or more, matched by a growing number of definitions of civil society. The definition of the United Nations Development Program will suffice here: civil society is the space between family, the market, and the state; it consists of non-profit organizations and special interest groups, either formal or informal, working to improve the lives of their constituents. Similarly, the term civil society organization (CSO) can cover a wide range of organizations, from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations (NPOs) to loose associations of people with a common cause in the public interest. For purposes of this discussion, civil society organizations involve voluntary participation in public causes or community affairs with some degree of independence from the state–though, as will be seen later, the degree and perception of autonomy vary widely.[1]

Civil society matters because it can help balance the role of the state and the rights of citizens. The development of civil society in China is particularly important given the shift of the authoritarian regime of the Communist Party over the past 20 years. Once, it governed every aspect of life; now, unprecedented opportunities exist for citizens to associate and play an active role in community and public affairs outside government and the party. The development of civil society in China today is also important to protect citizens and especially vulnerable groups from the ravages of the market. In the headlong rush to economic prosperity, those at the losing end often find that neither the state nor business has sympathy for their plight. Without an active civil society, their voices are likely to go unheard. Chinese analysts are becoming increasingly concerned about social instability as a threat to economic prosperity,[2] and they recognize the role that civil society can play in mitigating the threat.

II. Evolution of Chinese Civil Society: Political and Regulatory Context

Civil society attracts considerable interest globally, particularly with respect to societies making the transition from a centralized authoritarian state to democracy. The emergence of civil society organizations in China over the past two decades demonstrates their ingenuity in overcoming significant systemic barriers to groups of people forming autonomous associations in pursuit of common interests. These organizations stake their ground between the party/state on the one hand and society at large or “the people” on the other.

There is much debate about the extent to which the public sphere exists in China today and existed in the past–the space beyond that occupied by government, the market, and family.[3] This study was undertaken partly to find out what Chinese civil society organizations consider to be the boundaries of the public sphere, and whether the political implications of civil society development seem relevant to them. The political and regulatory context governing Chinese CSOs has been described elsewhere[4] ; the purpose of this article is to assess how Chinese CSOs define their role in relation to government and to society, and the extent to which they perceive their role as linking government and society through, for example, public awareness and advocacy.[5]

There is considerable debate about how many CSOs exist in China, partly because many are not registered as such. An estimate published in 2002 of the number of civil society organizations in China was 870,000,[6] so the handful of CSOs cited here represent only a tiny sample and may not reflect civil society more broadly. However, many of the conclusions expressed by the CSOs interviewed are echoed by a variety of sources in the Chinese media and international publications.[7]

The existence of civil society organizations in China is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one significantly constrained by the political and regulatory context. For historical reasons related to Marxist state control, the Chinese government and Communist Party often regard civil society organizations with suspicion. This results in part from decades of assuming that there was no need for or value in intermediate organizations between the party/state and “the masses,” apart from a handful of “mass organizations” run by the party/state, such as the All-China Women’s Federation and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

The development of civil society is a sensitive political issue in China precisely because of the government’s concern that civil society organizations may have political motives adverse to the existing system. The controversy over the Falungong movement since 1999 is a case in point. However, Chinese civil society actors have shown considerable ingenuity in circumventing restrictions and in gradually increasing their room to maneuver.

A growing number of grassroots organizations are finding creative ways to tackle Chinese problems… Simply by existing, these groups have changed the dynamic of Chinese society, and the relationship between government and business. As they mature, [CSOs] will add new pressures that could fundamentally alter how the official and private sectors relate to each other and to individual citizens in China.[8]

Shift in Civil Society Discourse

Both Chinese citizens and government officials increasingly recognize the value of CSOs in providing services, reducing socioeconomic disparities and conflict, and monitoring the government.[9] As the Chinese media recognized, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the spring of 2003 allowed a significant breakthrough for CSOs: many seized the opportunity to demonstrate their value to society by responding to the crisis more swiftly and effectively than government–for example, by establishing counseling hotlines for the public and for front-line medical workers and by disseminating SARS prevention information, disinfectant, and masks among migrant workers and their families.[10] However, government officials still lack awareness of the role and importance of civil society and of the fact that, though it should reside between the government and the people, it need not cause friction between them or threaten social stability.[11]

Even Chinese terminology describing civil society and the state in relation to the public is evolving. In public discourse, the term gongmin (“citizen”) is now replacing the word laobaixing (“old hundred surnames”–vernacular used to refer to ordinary people, the governed) as well as the outmoded qunzhong (“the masses”). This has implications for rights and obligations related to work, health, leisure, and many other issues. Yet despite the evolution of perception of civil society among both the public and government officials, many policies still restrict the development of citizen groups or civil society organizations in terms of registration, capital, and expenditures.[12]

Who’s Who Among Civil Society Organizations Cited Here

Amity Foundation: a Christian group based in Nanjing, founded in 1985, with excellent international connections; one of China’s largest and most independent NGOs, focusing on education, health, rural development, and poverty-alleviation

Changde Diabetic Association: a hospital-based support group for diabetics, established in 2000 in Changde, Hunan

Chongqing Green Volunteers (CGV): a grassroots environmental group founded in 1995 in Chongqing

Global Village of Beijing (GVB): a Beijing-based environmental group with good international connections and excellent media reach that promotes environmental education; established in 1996

Jiangsu Marriage and Family Counseling Center (JMFCC): a Nanjing group providing psychological counseling on marriage, family, and sexuality issues as well as a 24-hour suicide hotline

Legal Services Center for Workers (LSCW): legal aid center targeting labor rights, based at East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai

New Citizen Education and Research Center or NCERC: a Beijing-based group previously affiliated with a private think tank, the Unirule Institute of Economics; it promotes village democracy and autonomy, including election training and voter education

Phelex Foundation: an organization which creates income-generation projects for poor rural Chinese schools through rural community councils, through its Beijing office and US-based charitable foundation

Rural Women Knowing All (RWKA): originally a Beijing-based magazine for rural women originally affiliated with the Women’s Federation, it now runs a cluster of activities for rural and migrant women, such as a migrant women’s club and its own training center

Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family (SRAWF): originally an offshoot of the Shaanxi Women’s Federation, it now runs its own hotline, rural development projects, legal aid program, and training programs, e.g., on domestic violence; based in Xi’an

III. Perceptions of Chinese Civil Society Organizations 

Room to Grow?

Some Chinese advocates of civil society believe their best approach is to encourage government to allow room for CSOs to develop while at the same time preserving social control. They are relatively optimistic about persuading government–indirectly–to permit greater autonomy for CSOs so that they can contribute to social development.[13] Most CSOs interviewed here seemed confident that they had enough room to grow, despite political and regulatory constraints and the uncertainty regarding the extent of government tolerance for CSO activities. According to Wu Dengming, founder of Chongqing Green Volunteers (CGV), although regulations on such matters as CSO registration and taxation are very restrictive, government implementation of policy is fairly relaxed, so CSOs can still grow.

Many observers of civil society in China believe there is insufficient government support for CSOs in terms of regulations, funding, and policy. While civil society actors and researchers have helped improve the environment in which they operate in China, many government officials only give lip service to CSOs and still believe that government should monopolize many fields. The Amity Foundation, established in 1985 by the Jiangsu Christian Council, is one of China’s largest and most autonomous social service organizations. Based on its experience and the considerable loosening of restrictions on CSOs over the past ten years, Amity is optimistic that there will be a change in thinking by both government and the public at large as the effectiveness of CSOs becomes increasingly evident through, for instance, community participation. However, although government is comfortable with economic reform, it is still reluctant to liberalize the social and political systems. Bridging the gap between economic and political reform is crucial to China’s development, and CSOs can contribute to this, although the process will be slow

Squatters’ Rights

The political environment in China today is clearly not conducive to allowing civil society activities to flourish. Nevertheless, civil society is occupying more space and extending the boundaries of what is permissible–for example, the emphasis of Professor Dong Baohua, founder of the Legal Services Center for Workers at the East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, on urging government, unions, and the public to take labor rights more seriously. There is also considerable government tolerance of officially restricted activities such as networking–for example, websites for gay and lesbian rights related to AIDS.

The approach of many civil society organizations is to take initiatives first, seek endorsement from local authorities later, and then develop public interest leading to a policy impact. In the words of Xie Lihua, founder of Rural Women Knowing All:

In China you do things not because there is a legal channel to do them: you occupy the space before the government claims it, and the legal mechanisms all happen after the fact …. Use the space you have–don’t wait for policies and laws, because you have to create new ways of doing things. Working for a CSO in China is much more difficult than overseas, because it requires greater effort to overcome administrative hurdles and social criticism, and to attract new members.[14]

IV. Relations Between Government and Civil Society Organizations

Many civil society actors and observers agree that extensive cooperation between civil society organizations and local authorities is critical for grassroots impact and policy influence.[15] For example, much of the work of the Shaanxi Research Association on Women and Family (SRAWF), a provincial organization promoting gender equity, involves extensive cooperation with different government organizations at the grassroots level. This might involve city and county public security organs in dealing with domestic violence issues, the Women’s Federation in identifying trainees and implementing training, or relevant county and village authorities in dealing with rural development, irrigation, health, and education projects. There appears to be little concern that such cooperation with government might compromise an organization’s integrity, in part because grassroots CSOs generally receive so little funding from government.

Different Hats Can Be Useful

Some organizations find that emphasizing their affiliation with government or academic institutions is vital to advancing their interests. In the case of the Jiangsu Marriage and Family Counseling Center, the director’s status at the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences has enabled the Center to use space at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine for fortnightly counseling clinics on relationships, marriage, and sexuality. In his words, “In order to accomplish anything in China, one needs a plaque to provide official status.”[16] In contrast, other organizations use their CSO role to encourage new approaches by government to public policy or other issues. For example, Professor Rong Weiyi of the Public Security University in Beijing commented on the value of using her CSO title (related to a network that combats domestic violence) to pressure the university and police forces to incorporate a gender perspective in their daily work.[17]

As a Christian-based organization, Amity provides an interesting perspective on relations between CSOs and government. Generally, there is good cooperation between Amity and government, since each Amity project requires contributions (in terms of funding, participants, or both) from three sources: Amity, local government, and beneficiaries. This requires the acquiescence of local government if not its active participation. Most of Amity’s work complements government policy, although some occurs in areas previously neglected by government, such as early work with urban poor and pioneering grassroots work with AIDS prevention. Amity struggled for two or three years to launch its AIDS prevention project but received no government support or printed material for dissemination, presumably due to government reluctance to admit the extent of the AIDS crisis. Since then, the government has moved into this sphere of AIDS work. Indeed, there may be some competition between Amity and local government, though their work styles differ: Amity mobilizes people at the grassroots level, such as through church congregations, while the government tends to rely on its own agencies and departments from the top downward.[18]

Where a CSO has worked for some time, typically, there is no friction with government because the organization’s effectiveness is recognized. However, in new areas, there may be government resistance or friction. Some CSOs deal with this by emphasizing their own capacity, local grassroots support, and appeals to higher levels or authority, if needed. When Amity requires approval outside its home province of Jiangsu, it requests provincial coordination of the relevant departments (for example, when several counties are competing for a project). In the case of the New Citizen Education and Research Center, an organization promoting voter education, each project in a new location is likely to encounter suspicion (for example, fear of an anti-government bias) or concern about political risk, given that elections are still closely controlled in China.

The Legal Services Center for Workers follows the strategy of dealing with its own issues as a non-governmental legal aid center without attracting the attention of local government. It relies on the university with which it is affiliated and the prestige of its founder whenever it encounters administrative hurdles (for example, in getting permission to use public venues such as the railway station or plazas for public awareness activities and counseling fairs). The municipal labor department is aware of and theoretically supports the work of the center, but it provides no practical support. The labor union is an official partner in the center’s major project, but getting things done depends on personal connections or guanxi: the union does not want to emphasize the role of the center as a CSO.[19]

The complexity of CSO relations with government is reflected in the mandate of those CSOs that see themselves as mobilizing the public in monitoring government activity. The Chongqing Green Volunteers League is an environmental group that runs a hotline for environmental concerns. According to founder Wu Dengming, it is perceived by the public as more responsive than a similar government hotline, and he has such credibility with both government and plaintiffs that he is regularly called upon to mediate conflicts. The municipal government provides the organization with no direct funding but does provide moral support, rent-free use of training facilities, rent-free access to public venues to conduct environmental activities, and some indirect funding through subsidies for school teachers to participate. On occasion it also invites the organization to attend relevant government meetings.[20]

V. Autonomy

There is a spectrum of views on the autonomy of Chinese civil society organizations, both as perceived by the CSOs themselves and as perceived by researchers and others. Professor Yu Hai offers this perspective: “If NGOs are unregistered, their status is precarious, they lack legitimacy and face resource challenges. However, if they are registered, then their activities are limited by government policy–unlike their Western counterparts, they cannot [freely] advocate policy recommendations and organize their own activities.”[21]

In contrast to that viewpoint, virtually all the organizations interviewed perceive their autonomy as adequate, indicating that they make their own decisions without outside influence based on what is feasible and on the capacity of staff and volunteers. The Changde Diabetic Association in Hunan–which is legally registered as a social organization–indicated that it had complete autonomy in its decisions relating to staffing, program activities, administration, and governance. Despite the fact that three-quarters of its staff and board members are employees of the hospital with which it is affiliated, it is not merely a façade created to foster the illusion of popular participation: diabetics are hardly a priority clientele for either health authorities or civil affairs officials; and as a support group for diabetics, the organization would not exist without the initiative of volunteers.[22]

The Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family considers its independence from government quite adequate to maneuver comfortably. Although it is registered under the auspices of the Women’s Federation, the latter does not interfere with SRAWF’s operations. Organizations such as SRAWF spoke of developing their five-year plans and activities independently, without government influence, and of ensuring their integrity through policy development and organizational activities.[23]

Amity feels it has ample autonomy, as it receives no operational funding from government. For example, it has complete autonomy in deciding how many and what staff to hire. Of the twenty-one members of Amity’s board of directors, two-thirds are there for religious reasons, and one-third are either serving or retired government officials. Amity is occasionally subjected to pressure from local governments–for example, to undertake projects in particular locations. Amity’s project selection process is transparent, and it can therefore refuse such proposals on the same basis as projects from other applicants. Some government officials are not accustomed to this and object to being turned down.[24]

NCERC, working in the sensitive arena of village democracy and voter education, considers itself entirely autonomous, because it has no government funding and no direct government affiliation. This means officials have less influence over the organization and find it harder to object to its activities. However, NCERC is sensitive to government concerns in deciding how to address issues.

A more sobering reflection of actual limitations on autonomy was provided by a prospective funding agency, which had planned to support an organization to undertake a survey of the rights of the mentally ill in relation to government subsidies that cover certain medical costs. The grant had to be suspended, however, when the municipal authorities declined to authorize the CSO’s sponsoring institution, the Disabled Federation, to undertake the survey, citing sensitivity regarding Falungong, foreign media, and China’s hosting of the Olympics in 2008.[25]

VI. Strategies for Public Participation and Public Awareness  

Strategies for Public Participation

One of the standards for evaluating the maturity of civil society is to assess whether CSOs can influence the development of society.[26] The experience of the organizations interviewed suggests that they believe they have had some success in this realm.

Chinese environmental organizations are especially adept at mobilizing public participation. Those involved in community development, particularly related to conservation, depend on public participation and public awareness to achieve their goals. The efforts of Chongqing Green Volunteers to enlist public participation in conservation efforts are combined with addressing poverty alleviation, because “nobody will protect the environment if s/he is hungry.”[27] CGV has focused on public awareness, through targeting children, women, and officials, as well as the general public. It has also focused on implementing practical projects that are sustainable in terms of social, ecological, and consumption patterns. In the Three Gorges area, CGV’s mobilization of public participation to protect wildlife and reduce clear-cutting has contributed to eco-tourism, thanks to media coverage and “green camps” for university students, thereby bringing outside funds into the locality.

Several organizations emphasized that in a developing country like China, public participation often needs to be linked to economic incentives, especially in rural or impoverished areas. The Guizhou Participatory Rural Appraisal Network is an example of a CSO that combines participatory conservation with poverty alleviation. “If you want community participation in resource management, then you have to motivate people by making community participation directly relevant to their economic interests.”[28]

Amity considers public participation the key to sustainability, so it is a required component of all of the organization’s projects–and thus one of Amity’s defining features among Chinese CSOs. Training in participatory approaches is compulsory for both government partners and beneficiaries. Global Village Beijing also considers public participation its ultimate aim, which it pursues by establishing “green communities” to encourage ecologically sound lifestyles and by using its training center to train activists to mobilize the public.[29]

Strategies for Public Awareness and Using the Media

Some CSOs use the media as an essential component of their strategies to raise public awareness, including Global Village Beijing, New Citizens Education and Research Center, and the Legal Services Center for Workers. Many promote their views through the media, and several have periodic media exposure (such as a regular radio broadcast on sex counseling or a weekly page on civil society in Workers’ Daily). Some produce a steady stream of articles and interviews that appear in the popular media as well as in specialized journals–the JMFCC produces an astonishing 300 to 400 articles per year on such issues as the need to increase leisure time by limiting the work day to eight hours and the impact of rural migration policies on migrant families.

GVB has made the media the cornerstone of its strategy to influence the public to switch to an environmentally sound lifestyle and to exert policy influence. It produces a regular television program on environmental protection. The LSCW noted that the utility of the media depends on the target group. Migrant workers, for example, are less exposed to the media. Consequently, this CSO devised creative ways to reach migrant workers, such as via parent-teacher meetings at schools for migrant workers.

CSOs use different media strategies. Some high-profile CSO founders make a point of using their CSO title rather than a professional affiliation or academic title in articles and media interviews. Others use their professional affiliation or academic title to gain broader exposure and exert greater influence, even when their views reflect primarily the CSO’s core interests rather than those of the formal institution or employer.[30]

Chu Zhaorui of the JMFCC explained his approach this way: “Since the voice of CSOs is weak, it is more useful when making policy recommendations to use an academic title and to generate public opinion as persuasion. Case studies derived from counseling are persuasive in making policy recommendations and using the media to influence public opinion.”

Websites are increasingly useful as tools for enhancing public awareness. One source noted that it intended to publish information on their website that the news media was restricted from publishing. The cost of publications on civil society or CSO issues is a concern, but it is not entirely dependent on philanthropy: Zhou Hongling of the NCERC wrote a book on civil society whose publication was financed by an entrepreneur as a profit-making venture.

Freedom of the press is an important determinant of the extent to which civil society can flourish. Whereas freedom of association is more extensive in China today than it used to be, there are still considerable obstacles to freedom of the press. This must change if genuine civil society is to flourish. However, only one CSO specifically cited an example of restriction on freedom of the press as an obstacle to its work. Although it is often successful in publishing articles on labor rights related to overtime work, it found the media unwilling to publish articles addressing cases of death through overwork.

VII. Strategies for Advocacy 

Some CSOs consider advocacy a primary component of their mandates, while others do not find it effective in advancing their goals. Amity concentrates its advocacy on areas of need, which have in some cases subsequently become government priorities, such as urban poverty and migrant workers. It has also advanced policy recommendations through the head of Amity in his capacity as a member of the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). For example, an Amity recommendation on how CSOs can participate in social development was well received by the CPPCC, and subsequently the Ministry of Civil Affairs dispatched officials to discuss it with Amity. The Legal Services Center for Workers does considerable advocacy work, aiming to achieve consensus between the public and legislators. To this end, it uses the media, professional and academic conferences, and the founder’s influence among legislators (both municipal and national), the labor department, and the municipal supreme court.

Some organizations consider advocacy a minor part of their work. The Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family prefers not to spend much effort on policy advocacy because there is so little control over the outcome. For example, it felt its participation in a policy process was devalued when it submitted a specific legislative clause on domestic violence via the Women’s Federation to the provincial people’s congress, but the people’s congress stalled and would not accept the recommendation. Yet this organization still recognizes the importance of examining the conflict between existing laws and policies on women: the law on safeguarding the rights of women, for example, fails to tackle discrimination built into the labor law, which directs women to retire at 55 and men at 60. It also believes that there are other ways to influence policy besides direct policy advocacy, such as training, research, and activities that fill the gaps in existing government services.

Other organizations may have a more positive and confident approach to advocacy, recognizing that government and political structures such as local governments, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and the CPPCC are also looking for innovative solutions. Indeed, they may welcome policy recommendations on such issues as rural organization, citizen education, and criticism of specific cases.[31] Chongqing Green Volunteers cited examples of successful advocacy in urging the government to consider alternatives to burning coal for energy; once Chongqing University switched at CGV’s urging, other institutions followed suit. Another example of CGV’s advocacy success concerns a conservation area near Chongqing. Although officially under national protection, natural resources at Jinfushan conservation area were being exploited with the acquiescence of local authorities. CGV lobbied the Chongqing government, but it was reluctant to intervene, so CGV objected to the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Ministry of Forestry, the Ministry of Tourism, and party authorities. Finally, the Chongqing government withdrew its tacit permission to local authorities to exploit resources at Jinfushan conservation area.

VIII. Challenges in Influencing Policy

The principal challenges encountered by Chinese CSOs in influencing policy relate to the precarious status and fledgling nature of CSOs, the Chinese government’s variable willingness to consider the views of those outside government in policy matters, and the relative novelty of government and civil society actors assuming roles in genuinely representing constituencies.

Even a media-savvy advocacy group such as Global Village Beijing believes that the current social context makes it difficult for CSOs to influence public opinion effectively. The fledgling Changde Diabetic Association in Hunan has undertaken advocacy work through the media, and it has distributed flyers and organized street fairs to publicize the organization. However, it indicated it had not attempted to influence public policy, and it did not see a growing role for similar organizations to do so, given the existing “barriers of the country’s political system, which can hardly be influenced by the limited [number and impact of] NGOs.”[32] Although this organization’s mandate covers raising public awareness and reaching out to its constituency, it evidently does not perceive a role for itself in linking the public to government policy by advocating on behalf of its constituency.

CSOs are aware that in promoting dialogue on good governance, they can serve as a bridge or forum at the grassroots level, so that the voices of ordinary citizens can be heard. However, they are also concerned about the tendency of officials, when holding policy consultations, to involve the same civil society representatives each time.[33]

The New Citizens Education and Research Center is actively engaged in promoting public participation through training and encouraging people to establish autonomous organizations, such as associations for the elderly or for vegetable growers. It also promotes channels for dialogue with government officials, such as through monthly meetings, and it has offered training to delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC) on responding to their constituents rather than considering their role as purely honorific. Some NPC delegates have welcomed such offers; others have not.

The Chinese government’s willingness to seek public opinion on certain subjects provides an opening for CSOs to channel voices of their constituents, as well as for advocates of causes such as consumers’ rights or those living with AIDS. These advocates may or may not be affiliated with organizations. For example, the Chinese government’s acknowledgment of its AIDS problem arises from pressure from Chinese activists (as distinct from CSOs) and international civil society demanding rights for Chinese people living with AIDS. This is a promising institutional opening for civil society–that is, people creating space for much more than was possible just a few years ago. However, government concern over Falungong still acts as a significant brake on this development.

IX. Political Implications of Civil Society Development

While many CSOs may contribute indirectly to political reform, relatively few define their objectives in political terms. Those that do include organizations that take an interest in civil society yet approach political questions softly. For instance, Rural Women Knowing All has an explicit interest in the role of NGOs, because it identifies its objective as promoting a development model for rural women and their nongovernmental organizations. Noting the contrast with many CSOs that focus primarily on their own projects, the Shaanxi Research Institute for Women and Family also has an interest in the role of CSOs and how they can contribute to democratic development. In the blunt words of activist Meng Weina, founder of Huiling Community Service for the Disabled, NGOs need to be critical of government policies without being perceived as enemies of the state.[34]

A number of civil society actors see themselves as contributing to political reform through promoting the reform of party and government institutions. The Legal Services Center for Workers seeks to promote the reform of unions, which at present are very close to government and thus unable to represent workers’ interests independently. In their view, unions want to change and take on a more representative role but are limited by party and government policies. While this group generally describes its relation with unions as cooperative, it also perceives friction with the union and the municipal justice department, both of which feel threatened by the CSO yet need it to move forward. The LSCW sees its role as promoting change in a theoretical way but believes that the practical realities of the political situation are up to the party and government to address and that this will take a long time.

The strategy of some CSOs is to harness financial incentive as a powerful motive for applying accountability and transparency and to experiment with new decision-making processes. Once community members see the advantages of these concepts in managing the CSO’s projects, they may apply them to other community affairs. As an example, the Phelex Foundation is experimenting with democratically elected rural community councils to manage community-based income-generating projects for village schools. This helps cultivate the concept that resources belong to community members, and not to party or government officials as traditional decision-makers.

Phelex recognizes that its projects cannot succeed without support from local party and government officials. The village heads are, with few exceptions, enthusiastic supporters of Phelex’s Sustainable Tuition Aid Program. This is in fact a precondition for Phelex’s selection of schools to support. The transparency in financial management and grassroots democratic decision-making process encouraged by Phelex are consistent with the policy of the local government. Although local officials are usually honored to participate and play a useful role calling meetings and drawing up agendas, Phelex hopes they will eventually phase themselves out of project management. It anticipates some difficulty in persuading them to do so, yet recognizes that it will detract from the integrity of the projects if village heads are seen to dominate.[35]

A rare strategy for CSOs is to confront political questions head on: Zhou Hongling, founder of the New Citizen Education and Research Center, considers that it is “the only NGO directly promoting democracy.” Through research and organizing activities, it aims to encourage community participation, autonomy, and improved civic consciousness regarding elections and other topics. It has targeted its new model of citizenship at rural and urban communities, including laid-off workers and migrant workers. It recognizes the importance of training officials too in order to disseminate a new understanding of democracy and civil society.

NCERC believes that social pressure is needed to reform government thinking, and it wants to organize people interested in increasing pressure on government. The plight of China’s more than a hundred million rural migrants is a source of anxiety to many concerned with stability. Civil society can play a role in channeling the voices of this dispossessed group by advancing protection of their economic and civil rights alongside practical measures to reduce friction between migrant workers and others. If this problem is not addressed adequately, it is likely to explode, according to one organization working with migrants. “Migrant workers and other vulnerable groups need a means of representation, and NGOs can play this role since they have no other means of representation.”[36]

X. Conclusion 

The evidence provided by the Chinese civil society organizations and observers consulted here suggests that non-government actors can carve a significant niche for themselves even in this authoritarian state. Although few of these organizations consider themselves engaged in political activity per se, the nature of their work in addressing social problems holds political implications, for if the state fails to heed their voices, it risks social and political instability. Often, organizations have not consciously decided to play a political role; rather, the boundaries of forbidden political activity have shifted. Though the boundaries of legitimate social activity remain blurred, there is considerable room for civil society organizations to operate relatively independently in identifying public concerns that require action; bringing them to the attention of the public, the media, and the government; lobbying for change; and taking initiative to bring about change.

The Chinese regulatory environment has been designed to prevent groups or coalitions from developing the sort of nationwide support that could challenge state authority. However, provided that civil society organizations steer clear of action and rhetoric that suggest such a challenge, they have considerable room to maneuver. The evidence presented here suggests that most CSOs consider their relations with relevant government authorities relatively positive, characterized by cooperation rather than friction. In some cases government and party authorities are starting to recognize the value of CSOs in delivering services, serving as mediators between aggrieved parties, and representing the interests of their constituents through policy consultations and other means.

A fairly extensive range of political activities by CSOs is tolerated at the local level, such as actively lobbying local levels of government, participating in policy consultations with government, and representing citizens’ interests that have been jeopardized by the state. What is new here is not that Chinese citizens are criticizing state policy, demanding change, or suing the government, but that citizens are being allowed to associate with greater autonomy than during the previous half century to advance their causes–whether protesting toxic practices by state-owned enterprises, promoting gay and lesbian rights, or helping those living with AIDS. For a party whose founding doctrine assumed it had the sole right to represent all the people, it constitutes a significant concession to allow some citizen-led groups to represent the interests of those who have suffered injustice at the hands of the state and party.

This is not to say that freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are thriving in the People’s Republic of China today. There are extensive rules and conventions, written and unwritten, about the purposes for which citizens may associate, the subjects on which they may freely make public announcements, and the subjects on which the media can freely air a range of views. However, the limits of these restrictions are constantly being tested–consciously or not–by civil society organizations, and these restrictions have considerable elasticity in implementation, though the increments may be minute and inconsistent. Still, those interviewed were acutely aware of the sensitivity of the role of non-government actors and of the possibility of a crackdown that would result in a stricter enforcement of the regulations, in some cases silencing or shutting down the organizations as they exist today.

Overall, there are encouraging signs that Chinese government and party authorities are less likely than in the past to consider civil society a threat and more likely to see it as a useful partner for the sociopolitical transition that seems inevitable. As noted by Chinese sociologist Yu Hai, the challenge of the 21st century for the Chinese Communist Party is how to consolidate its authority and legitimacy in the face of a changing society and economy.[37] The party has recognized that under a market economy, society is changing. It needs to learn new styles of leadership and social management, given the disintegration of the danwei system and the emergence of civil society. This includes changing the legal framework to reduce the uncertain status of CSOs and facilitating government support of CSO capacity to deliver public services, which could serve as a mechanism to bring the party closer to CSOs. In Yu Hai’s view, the party and government might not feel so threatened by civil society if they actually encouraged its capacity to provide public services.[38]

Li Fan, a Chinese political commentator who has set up a private think tank, noted the importance of the government’s having a long-term plan for the development of civil society in the interest of stability. In his view, a market economy needs balanced development of state and society; otherwise, when civil society is weak, dissatisfaction with government can lead to instability. Vulnerable populations need CSOs to deal with government on their behalf; failing this, protest is likely. Li believes government should treat NGOs as friends rather than as dissidents and legalize their activities. He recommends a loosening of government restrictions on registration of CSOs at the local level. “NGOs are surviving in a narrow space. It could be considered a kind of liberation if the current registration system were to be dismantled.” [39]

By and large, those involved in the development of civil society in China are optimistic about the future. As more citizens’ groups become active in areas of legitimate public interest, government will have to accord greater space to civil society in order to preserve sociopolitical stability. “The development of civil society is like a rolling stone: if you nudge it forward, it will be unstoppable,” says Zhou Hongling of NCERC.[40] The consensus appears to be that the real constraints on civil society organizations are time and money rather than politics. With the right encouragement from the Chinese government–or rather, in the absence of specific regulatory or political discouragement–these organizations, already ingenious at meeting current challenges, face promising prospects.


* Julia Greenwood Bentley currently manages an NGO capacity-building program in China, funded by the Ford Foundation. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a teacher, diplomat, and development consultant in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Canada. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of her employers, past or present. She can be reached at Copyright 2004 by Julia Greenwood Bentley.

Author’s acknowledgment: I am grateful to all those in China who generously contributed time and information to this research, both in person and by correspondence. This research was conducted primarily in 2002 while on leave from the Canadian foreign service. Part of the research on which this article is based appeared in “Civil Society Organizations in China: The Role of International Support,” Harvard Asia Quarterly, volume VII #1 (Winter 2003).

[1] For the purposes of this article, all the following are translated as CSO: fei zhengfu zuzhi (non-government organization), fei yingli zuzhi (non-profit organization), shehui tuanti (social grouping), shehui zuzhi (social organization), minjian zuzhi (popular organization, run by neither the state nor the party), minban feiqiye danwei (popular non-commercial entity, run by neither the state nor the party) and shiye danwei (non-commercial corporate entity).

[2] Josephine Ma, “Inequality Threatens ‘Social Explosion,'” South China Morning Post, 8 Aug. 2002, citing a report recently published (summer 2002) in the Chinese journal Strategy and Management by Ding Yuanzhu, Hu An’gang, and Wang Shaoguang, “The Most Severe Warning: Social Instability Behind the Economic Prosperity”: “China has entered a new phase of social instability as strong social discontent and grievances simmer among the rising number of low-income groups that have been marginalized as the economy develops.”

[3] See, for example, the extensive debate in Modern China, volume 19, #2 (April 1993).

[4] See, for example, the introduction by Nick Young, editor, to 250 NGOs–Civil Society in the Making: A Special Report from China Development Brief (Beijing: China Development Brief, August 2001); Julia Greenwood Bentley, “Civil Society Organizations in China: The Role of International Support,” Harvard Asia Quarterly , volume VII #1 (Winter 2003); Ma Li, “NGO, Di San Bumen yu Xiandai Shehui” [NGOs, the Third Sector and Contemporary Society], 21 Shiji Jingji Baodao [21st Century Economic Report], supplement on NGOs (22 May 2003), pp. 5-6; Yu Hai, “Cultivating Social Organizations and Building Community Spirit,” in the Shanghai Municipal Communist Party Information Department’s “Shequ Jingshen Wenming Jianshe” [Community Spirit and Civic Development] (Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 1998), pp. 320-321.

[5] There are two significant limitations on the extent to which the evidence presented here, based on a very small sample of CSOs, may apply to civil society organizations in China in general. The first relates to the fact that the organizations consulted, by definition, have a degree of international contact. Of the hundreds of thousands of CSOs in China, the vast majority presumably have no contact with the international community. A study of their perceptions and strategies might reveal different trends. The second limitation relates to the fact that it is based on self-evaluation by the organizations consulted. Their statements are presented as reported, without independent assessment of their validity. A more rigorous external evaluation would be required to verify the accuracy of the perceptions here, such as the extent to which the organizations might realistically be considered independent in decision-making, financial management, and credibility. The organizations consulted, which naturally believe their work is important, may tend to overstate their role and their relationships with and influence on government.

[6] Li Yong,”Chinese NGOs Struggle for Survival,” Caijing [Finance and Economics Magazine] (5 July 2002), p. 24. This figure includes a range of different types of organizations; the Ministry of Civil Affairs estimate of officially registered organizations is much lower: 244,000, of which the number of officially registered social groups (shehui tuanti) constitutes 133,000, according to “2003 Zhongguo Gongyi Yuan Nian” [2003: The Year of Philanthropy in China”] in Gongyi Shibao [China Philanthropy Times], 13 November 2003, p.A1.

[7] See, for example, the 5 July 2002 special issue of Caijing on NGOs, quoting a variety of sources in Chinese think tanks, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and NGOs; the Economist Intelligence Unit’s special issue on civil society in Business China, vol. XXIX, no. 19 (15 September 2003). For an excellent comprehensive study, including the historical and theoretical underpinnings of civil society and the taxonomy of NGOs in China, see Caroline Cooper, “This is Our Way In: The Environmental NGO in Southwestern China: Prospects and Limitations Affecting Policy Change and Contributing to Chinese Civil Society,” report completed as part of her master’s degree at Harvard’s Foreign Language Areas Studies Program, 2003.

[8] “They’re Organising,” in the special issue on civil society in Business China, The Economist Intelligence Unit, vol. XXIX, no.19 (15 September 2003), p. 2.

[9] Professor Fan Lizhu, Social Development Research Center, Fudan University, interview in Shanghai, 29 May 2002.

[10] Duan Wen, “Maturing Chinese NGOs Face Challenges and Opportunities in Combating SARS,” 21 Shiji Jingji Baodao [21st Century Economic Report], supplement on NGOs (22 May 2003), p.5

[11] Huang Haoming, China Association for NGO Cooperation, participant at panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[12] Zhang Ye, Asia Foundation, participant at panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[13] Professor Fan Lizhu, interview in Shanghai, 29 May 2002.

[14] Xie Lihua, Rural Women Knowing All, interview in Beijing, 21 May 2002.

[15] Prof. Li Huiying, Research Institute on Women’s Studies, Central Party Institute, Beijing, participant in panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[16] Chu Zhaorui, Jiangsu Marriage and Family Counseling Center, interview, Nanjing, 31 May 2002.

[17] Professor Rong Weiyi, Public Security University, participant at panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[18] Gu Renfa, Amity Foundation, interview in Nanjing, 31 May 2002.

[19] Xu Beining et al, Legal Services Center for Workers, East China University of Law and Politics, interview in Shanghai, 28 May 2002.

[20] Wu Dengming, Chongqing Green Volunteers League (CGV), interview in Beijing, 21 May 2002.

[21] Professor Yu Hai, Social Development Research Center, Fudan University, interview in Shanghai, 29 May 2002.

[22] Correspondence with Shen Xuping, Changde Diabetic Association, 16 and 24 July 2002. I am grateful to Zhu Dongping for pointing out to me that this group has benefited during its short history from support from the large number of senior officials in all walks of government who suffer from diabetes, suggesting a new avenue for civil society to gain popularity among officials who otherwise might have no interest in it in the abstract.

[23] Gao Xiaoxian, Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family, interview in Beijing, 16 May 2002.

[24] Gu Renfa, interview in Nanjing, 31 May 2002.

[25] Shannon Ellis, Coordinator, Civil Society Program, interviews in Beijing, 21 and 22 May 2002.

[26] “The Situation of NGOs in China,” Caijing (the Chinese magazine Finance and Economics) (5 July 2002).

[27] Wu Dengming, interview in Beijing, 21 May 2002.

[28] Zhang, Xiaohong, Wetlands International – China Program, Beijing, participant at roundtable discussion in Beijing on 23 May 2002 by civil society representatives on a policy document setting out the framework for bilateral development assistance between Canada and China.

[29] Global Village of Beijing, response to questionnaire, 3 July 2003.

[30] LSCW, GVB, and JMFCC.

[31] Zhou Hongling, then director of the New Citizen Education and Research Center, currently president of Beijing Xinshidai Zhigong Jiaoyu Yanjiu Yuan [New Era Zhigong Education and Research Institute], interview in Beijing, 22 May 2002.

[32] Correspondence with Shen Xuping, Changde Diabetic Association, 16 and 24 July 2002.

[33] Song Qinghua, then vice-president of Global Village of Beijing, currently co-founder of Community Action, participant at roundtable discussion in Beijing (23 May 2002) by civil society representatives of a policy document setting out the framework for bilateral development assistance between Canada and China; and Wang Yongchen, Green Family Volunteers, participant at panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[34] Meng Weina, founder of Huiling Community Services for the Disabled, commenting to panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[35] Zhou Yuan, Phelex Foundation, interview in Beijing, 14 May 2002, and correspondence, 28 November 2003. It should be noted that the Phelex Foundation is far from a typical Chinese civil society organization, given that it is registered in the U.S. as a charity. Nevertheless, the objectives of Phelex are closely associated with the development of civil society in China, and the innovative nature of Phelex project management, community involvement, and decision-making may well produce interesting results in terms of expectations of transparency and accountability.

[36] Li Tao, then vice secretary-general of Rural Women Knowing All, currently director of the Cultural Communication Centre for Facilitators, participant at round-table discussion in Beijing (23 May 2002) by civil society representatives on a policy document setting out the framework for bilateral development assistance between Canada and China.

[37] Professor Yu Hai, interview in Shanghai, 29 May 2002.

[38] Ibid. For instance, the Shanghai committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) has commissioned academic research on civil society and how CSOs can contribute to social development, including these two issues.

[39] Li Fan, Director, the World and China Institute, cited in “The Situation of NGOs in China,” Caijing (5 July 2002), as well as comments as a participant in panel on NGOs and Civil Society at Qinghua University’s second international seminar on Public Policy and Management (14-16 May 2002).

[40] Zhou Hongling, interview in Beijing, 22 May 2002.