The Evolving Role of NGOs in China

I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Chengdu for a final consultation with an NGO operated by a friend who I first met during my M.Ed research in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Having spent eight years visiting Chengdu roughly every two years, I have quite a few contacts there working in both civil society and academia. I had planned to use my time there to do some preliminary research on crackdowns in civil society and academia. What I discovered was the narrative of rising ‘hard authoritarianism’ is more complex and nuanced than I originally presumed.

For the sake of anonymous clarity, let’s call my friend Huang. Huang is an interesting guy. We met because we were conducting field research at the same time in the same place (the Sichuan disaster zone [zaiqu]). I was working with a French NGO; he was working with a local government-linked think tank. He still works for that think tank. He’s gone on to finish a Ph.D. in political science at a prominent Beijing university. What makes Huang most interesting to me is that he has an unusual habit of having excellent relations with local government officials and personally knowing many of China’s most famous dissidents.

During my first Chengdu visit, his claimed acquaintance with some of these dissidents left me with a fear that he was trying to set me up to claim sympathy with them. No one else I knew in China [I was living there at the time] seemed as comfortable talking about these people or their activities. I’ve since come to recognize it as a particular genius of his: more than anyone else I know, Huang knows exactly where ‘the line’ is. He doesn’t ‘push the line’ so much as operate comfortably within its borders. His NGO remains the only one, to my knowledge, that is independent but is given offices inside government buildings.

His organization is expanding where elsewhere we hear about a crackdown on lawyers, civil society, and the media. On my last day of fieldwork, I visited one of their newer offices where they were replacing government workers and services. My questions for him that day focused on what was different with his NGO compared to the five arrested feminists that has drawn so much international media interest.

Huang drew two contrasts: location and tactics. In a famous Chinese dictum, “the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” While Beijing might be souring on NGOs, China’s provincial and city governments in the southwest – particularly Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan – see their need and usefulness. Tactics that bring down the hammer in Beijing are less threatening in this corner of China. I would add a secondary factor that protest is simply more widespread at the periphery than at the core. Chengdu is only a day’s drive from where dozens of Tibetan monks have self-immolated.

More interesting was our discussion of tactics and nomenclature. Huang repeatedly called his organization an ‘advocacy’ group, which contrasts with an activist group. Huang’s organization was designed around the principal of reducing ‘social stratification’ (e.g. inequality) amongst Chengdu’s migrant workers and their children. In practice, this meant his group focuses heavily on policy reform and less on garnering public attention to either his group and their cause. They have refined administrative techniques like participatory budgeting.

This is also evidenced by nomenclature. Huang’s group is a ‘social organization’ (社会组织), not [officially] an NGO. In Western discourse, NGOs arise from ‘civil society.’ In official Chinese ideology, civil society is a ‘malicious ideology.’ Civil society and NGOs, in this view, are responsible for regime-changing ‘color revolutions.’ Social organizations, on the other hand, are something of a tamed variant of NGO whose primary function is to do things: raise funds, implement programs, work on issues the Party has already identified as sources of either bureaucratic malaise or social unease.

As an example, their new office was an outfit replacing a government office that worked with the elderly and handicapped. The problem was bureaucratic – there were too many redundant forms for claimants to sign and too many civil servants working in the office. Six workers replaced seven civil servants whose work was criticized by the local community and who were demanding more staff (and hence a larger budget). Huang’s social organization was trying to streamline the process, partly through using internet platforms like WeChat/Weixin.

To have any input on policy means being on good terms with relevant levels of government and their leaders. In my conversations with him (and my observations), one of the quickest ways to get on bad terms with the government would be to ‘make noise’, draw critical media attention, and with it public concern towards an issue. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter what the issue is: food safety, pollution, corruption, or sexual harassment and discrimination.

I think any China watcher would recognize this pattern: the Party is hyper-allergic to public criticism (see: ‘hurts the feelings’). Where Huang differentiates himself from myself and others is that he finds that the government is open to criticism – and, in fact, are deeply critical of themselves. Huang’s modus operandi was to operate on the government’s ‘wavelength’ and try to bring about reform and change on the government’s terms – quietly, behind closed doors, and presented as merely one of several options.

Huang had met two of the five arrested feminists. He had warned them about their approach. He thought they were drawing too much from Western models of activism that would backfire badly in China. Specifically, they were planning to organize highly visible, media-friendly, publicity-generating spectacles to draw attention to their cause (feminist issues). From Huang’s point-of-view, their arrests had nothing to do with the issues and everything to do with the tactics.

I countered: didn’t it work? They drew considerable international attention to their issue. I would leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions for a problem facing social justice advocates everywhere: whether to work from within an unjust system or to pressure it from the outside. The argument for Huang’s approach is that he has been able to facilitate the work of international donors, bringing funding to sensitive issues (even village elections, at one time). He acts as a middleman between international donors the government is suspicious of, hyper-sensitive cadres, and social groups that could use all the help they can get.

A final variable I would add is that NGOs have been heavily (and effectively) regulated in China from 2008 onwards (most recently through the Charity Law [itself aimed at very public abuses]). There have been a series of laws introduced that have opened some spaces and closed others. In my 2008 research, it seemed every NGO was breaking some law or another – and that this was an intentional strategy to discipline them (or, rather, ensure self-discipline). In issues like fundraising and registration, the rules are now clearer and enforced. Auditing has been normalized, where in 2008 or 2009 it would have been a clear sign of impending arrests. To put it another way, NGOs in China have been socially ‘flattened’ to non-profit social service providers.

This can be contrasted with China’s legal system, where lawyers ‘doing their job’ and following the rules can find themselves abducted and/or forced into a televised confession. The Party hasn’t found the same political and regulatory space for lawyers as they have with NGOs. The Party acknowledges it needs both in society, but perhaps the contradictions of one party rule and ‘rule-of-law’ are simply more severe than the contradictions between authoritarianism and civil society. By training and temperament, perhaps lawyers are simply inclined to fight and push boundaries. NGOs and their leaders, by contrast, are by their nature dependent on the largesse of others.

Huang and I share a common interest in the work of Charles Tilly. Theoretically, he framed his work as democratization – as Tilly saw a widening social safety net as one aspect of democratization. It’s worth noting Tilly rejected binary distinctions between democracy and autocracy, preferring instead to see it all on a scale. Huang’s work, I think, makes the scale three-dimensional and a lot more interesting. Could it be that we’re witnessing the simultaneous de-democratization at the upper echelons of the Chinese polity with a snail-paced democratization at the lowest levels? How else do we explain the centralization happening at the macro-level with the radical decentralization of government work at the sub-district level I saw in Chengdu?

We ended our last meal with me commenting on the fact that most people in Hong Kong have lost faith in working with or within the system. Our government shows little desire to listen to society and dives head-first into hugely contentious issues. Over the past few years, they’ve displayed a growing tendency to not back down. In an interesting parallel with contemporary China, this contrasts with how the British ruled Hong Kong in the decades before Handover. Instinctively knowing that their rule was both fragile and illegitimate*, the colonial government focused on good governance and avoiding contentious issues that might cause social unrest.

Perhaps the most salient feature of post-Handover governance is the gap between how the government and society view the legitimacy of rule in the SAR. This causes persistent government overreach. On the other side of the of border, David Shambaugh argues in China’s Future that the Party sees themselves as waiying, neiruan (外硬內柔; outside strong, inside weak). Could it be that the same dynamic is in play – that the Party’s sense of their own vulnerability draws them towards better governance, micro-democratization at the lowest levels of governance, and an attentive ear for the advice of expert ‘advocates’?

* Macau, for instance, had been seized during the same storm that brought the 1967 Riots

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