Wednesday, September 26, 2018

How Xi Jinping is remaking China's civil society

This was the original title of my recent article in ChinaFile. I had asked the editor to change it to "Remaking China's Civil Society in the Xi Jinping Era" because I thought it was more accurate. After all, Xi Jinping is not remaking China's civil society single-handedly. There were many others who could take credit. And one could argue, as Renmin University professor Kang Xiaoguang did in his recent article, that the remaking of civil society began under Hu Jintao who was the first General Secretary to recognize social organizations for the first time in his speeches on "social management" around 2010.  At the time, social organizations felt that this was a recognition of their contributions to society, and a sign that the Communist Party was further opening up to them. But Kang implies that the party leadership was instead setting civil society a trap; in recognizing the contributions of social organizations, they were actually saying that they had come up with a blueprint for controlling them.  That blueprint was for them to operate under the leadership of the party and supervision of the government. Social organizations were to get more support from the government in terms of registration and funding. But in return they would have to give up their autonomy and independence. Social organizations could only provide services, they could not engage in advocacy and claim to represent their constituents. Only the Communist Party and its subordinate government agencies could do that.

Following this logic, Hu Jintao set out the blueprint and Xi Jinping then made that blueprint a reality by cracking down on rights activism and advocacy NGOs, pushing through a series of laws and regulations, such as the Charity Law and Overseas NGO Law, calling for social organizations to set up party groups and providing more funding and support for social organizations that engaged in service provision.

So while it is true that Xi Jinping was not single-handedly responsible for remaking China's civil society, he was the one that made the reconstruction of civil society a reality. He did not do it alone and had plenty of help from the millions of civil servants who worked under him. But he was the one to take the blueprint and make it come alive.

Now after traveling around China and surveying the damage, seeing the social organizations engaging in advocacy and rights protection that are no longer active, and the many social organizations that now get government funding to provide community services, I see that I may have gotten my title wrong after all. Maybe it should be "How Xi Jinping is Remaking China's Civil Society." 

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Draft Regulation for Registration and Management of Social Organizations

On the first week of this month, the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) issued an important draft regulation governing the registration and management of social organizations (the official Chinese term for nonprofits) for public comment. The draft Regulation for Registration and Management of Social Organizations, and instructions for sending in comments, can be accessed using the links below. The deadline for sending in comments in September 1.

ChinaLawTranslate has an English-language translation of the regulation here.

At this writing, the word is that the MCA has received only around 100 comments, so if you know any Chinese NGOs, encourage them to submit their comments in the next few days.

Some Background

This draft regulation will replace the three previous regulations that formed the core of the regulatory system for social organizations: the "Regulations for the Registration and Management of Social Groups" issued on October 25, 1998; the "Provisional Regulations on the Registration and Management of Civil Non-enterprise Units" issued on October 25, 1998; and the "Foundation Management Regulations" issued on March 8, 2004. Note: The draft regulation has replaced the term "civil, non-enterprise units" with the much improved "social service organizations".

Given the rapid changes in the NGO sector in China, including the passage of the Charity Law in 2016, these regulations were seen by many observers as outdated and in serious need of revision. In the last half of 2016, we finally saw drafts of revisions to all three regulations issued for public comment, but then silence for two years before this draft regulation appeared this month.

Given the very short time frame allowed for public comments, the draft regulation has already stimulated quite a bit of discussion in the sector, including calls to slow down the drafting process to ensure that different views are heard.

For those interested, NGOCN has two posts here with feedback on the draft regulation:

CDB has also collated a number of posts about the draft regulation here in Chinese,

There have also been some forums organized about the draft regulation. Here's a Weixin post that has been getting quite a bit of attention citing the views of Yang Tuan, a long-time and respected observer of the sector, and other analysts and observers of the sector.

Some Impressions and Comments

I've only had the chance to skim through the regulation, and the various discussions, but here are some quick impressions and comments based on what I've been reading.

First of all, I'm surprised they came out so quickly. I was on record that I didn't think we'd see a draft this year, so now I'm going to eat my words. I’m also surprised that MCA is only allowing about four weeks for public comment given the importance of the draft regulation.

Second, the draft regulation is going in the right direction in terms of creating a more enabling environment for NGOs, but the details of the regulation are fraught with a number of problems, including inconsistencies with the Charity Law. Below are some problems that have been raised:

The draft allows direct registration (e.g. registering with Civil Affairs without needing a PSU) for four categories of social organizations: 1) chambers of commerce and trade associations; 2) science and technology groups; 3) charitable, public welfare organizations; and 4) rural and urban community organizations. One complaint is that the definition of the third category- charitable, public welfare organizations – is overly narrow, even more so than the definition of charity and public welfare spelled out in the Charity Law, and that the definition should be broadened.

Another problem is Article 4 which prohibits social organizations from engaging in “for-profit business activities. This seems to be overly restrictive and not in line with the Charity Law which has a more expansive view of the activities social organizations can engage in. Article 9 of the Charity Law states that charitable organizations may not have a “profit-making purpose,” which implies that profit-making activities would be acceptable as long as they support a charitable purpose.

In another improvement, the draft regulation allows social organizations to set up branches, but not “regional branches” so apparently branches can only be set up in the administrative area in which that social organization is registered, but this is not clearly stated.

The draft regulation makes it more difficult for smaller foundations to register. The minimum registered capital for foundations of 8 million RMB was raised above the 2 million RMB amount required in the previous regulations, and the 2016 draft regulations. Also the 2016 draft regulations allowed foundations to register below the provincial level, a move that would have helped smaller, community foundations. This draft regulation now states that foundations can only register at or above the provincial level.

There is quite a bit of language in the draft regulation about the need for social organizations to establish Communist Party organizations, and carry out Party activities. Social organizations are required to prepare the conditions, and provide a workplan, for setting up party organizations. None of this language requiring Party organizations was in the Charity Law or in the previous regulations.

The draft regulation also spells out very specific, and onerous, penalties for social organizations that violate their legal responsibilities, and allows law enforcement wide discretion in investigating violations. Language clarifying limits on law enforcement investigative powers should be included to protect the legal rights of social organizations and their staff.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Free Special Issue on NGOs in China in the Xi Jinping Era

 The Nonprofit Policy Forum just issued a very nice special issue on recent developments in the NGO space in the Xi Jinping era (disclaimer: I contributed). The articles published in this issue are meant to be accessible and topical, and are relatively short for academic pieces. Below is a list of the articles with authors and abstracts. They can be downloaded free of charge on Nonprofit Policy Forum’s website.

Nonprofit Policy Forum, Volume 9, Issue 1 (May 2018)
Special Issue on Nonprofit Policymaking in China, Guest Editors: Xiaoguang Kang and Qun Wang

1) Introductory Essay: China’s Nonprofit Policymaking in the New Millennium

Qun Wang, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Bloomington, USA, E-mail:

Xiaoguang Kang, China Institute for Philanthropy and Social Innovation, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China, E-mail:

2) Social Autonomy and Political Integration: Two Policy Approaches to the Government-Nonprofit Relationship since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

Jinjun Wang, Party School of Zhejiang Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China, E-mail:

Qun Wang, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA, E-mail:

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the party-state has established a number of policies on social organizations. Some policies are complementary, whereas some seem to be contradictory. These policies are associated with two policy approaches. The first is socially oriented, allowing social organizations the opportunity for autonomy and encouraging capacity-building. The second is political integration mainly through party-building in social organizations. The two approaches do not exist alone or in isolation. Intertwined they indicate that the Chinese party-state has begun to institutionalize an integrative control mechanism to maximize the utility of social organizations in prioritized fields of work.

3) Government Service Purchasing from Social Organizations in China: An Overview of the Development of a Powerful Trend

Weinan Wang, The School of Social Development and Public Policy, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China, E-mail:

Holly Snape, Peking University, School of Government, Research Center for Chinese Politics, Beijing, China, E-mail:

In this work, we draw on available data to develop a comprehensive picture of the process through which “government service purchasing” has developed in China thus far. We argue that to understand the challenges that have begun to emerge in practice, it is important to look back and understand how government service purchasing has developed to date. Our hope is that by providing an overview of this development process, we can facilitate further research on what we believe is a phenomenon that will have deep implications for the relationships between Party, state, society, and market over the next decades in China.

4) The Chinese State and Overseas NGOs: From Regulatory Ambiguity to the Overseas NGO Law

Shawn Shieh, Chinese University of Hong Kong, University Services Centre for China Studies, Hong Kong, China, E-mail:

This article discusses the significance of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (hereafter the ONGO Law) for the Chinese state’s regulation of overseas NGOs in the reform period. We show how the ONGO Law represents a dramatic shift in the regulation of ONGOs from a situation of regulatory ambiguity to one where ONGOs now come under a comprehensive law that seeks to regulate all their activities in mainland China. In doing so, the Law has created a dramatic shift in the legitimacy of ONGOs in China. Before the Law was enacted, ONGOs operated in a legal grey area where their work was opaque, received little recognition, and enjoyed limited legitimacy in the eyes of the government and public. The Law will change all of that, making the work of ONGOs more visible and transparent, and providing a formal channel for dealing with the government. At the same time, in putting the implementation and enforcement of the Law in the hands of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), and creating a legal framework that is restrictive rather than enabling, the Chinese state has sent a very different and contradictory message to ONGOs who see themselves being viewed more as objects of suspicion than as legitimate stakeholders in China’s development.

5) Advocacy under Xi: NPO Strategies to Influence Policy Change

Jessica Teets, Department of Political Science, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753-6203, USA, E-mail:

Oscar Almen, Department of Government, Uppsala University, Uppsala 75120, Sweden, E-mail:

Under the Hu-Wen administration, scholars analyzed how political opportunity structures (POS) affect the policy influence of NPOs in China, and found that the opportunity structure was relatively more open, especially for NPOs using personal connections. In this article, we focus on changes in the opportunity structure since Xi Jinping came to power after 2012, and find that the more closed political climate has had important consequences for NPO policy advocacy. We identify three strategies that NPOs have used to advocate, such as using the law, media framing, and establishing expert status. While these strategies are not novel, we argue that the weighting has shifted in terms of what leads to success.

6) Chinese NGOs are “Going Out”: History, Scale,Characteristics, Outcomes, And Barriers

Xiaoyun Li and Qiang Dong, College of Humanities and Development Studies, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China, E-mail:

From a historical perspective, China has become a focus of attention in contemporary globalization, and the expansion of Chinese NGOs’ participation overseas has been an important part of its globalization process. On the one hand, this “going out” phenomenon implies a spontaneous, internal cultural power within the Chinese society driven by a strong economy, which is a modern form of ideological promotion caused by capital expansion. On the other hand, this process has also been propelled by utilitarian factors. Nevertheless, despite a decade of development, the “going out” of Chinese NGOs is still in its infancy. Moreover, Chinese NGOs that are going global face various challenges in terms of laws and policies, public awareness and fundraising, transnational operations, and professional talent. To propose new concepts of global development, Chinese NGOs will have to strengthen themselves.

7) Moving Toward Neo-Totalitarianism: A Political-Sociological Analysis of the Evolution of Administrative Absorption of Society in China

Xiaoguang Kang, China Institute for Philanthropy and Social Innovation, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China, E-mail:

China recently promulgated and revised a number of laws, regulations and measures to regulate the nonprofit sector. All these administrative efforts increase support for Chinese nonprofit organizations (NPOs) on the one hand and put unprecedented pressure on them on the other. The seemingly contradictory effects are actually based on the same logic of Administrative Absorption of Society (AAS). This article proposes three phases in the development of AAS: an subconscious phase, a theory-modeling phase, and an institutionalization phase. The institutionalization of AAS has led to the rise of neo-totalitarianism, which is featured by state capitalism, unlimited government, and a mixed ideology of Marxism and Confucianism. Neo-totalitarianism further
strengthens AAS and has begun to reshape the relationship between the state and the nonprofit sector. This article analyzes China’s nonprofit policymaking from a sociopolitical perspective, and clarifies the context, the characteristics, and the evolution of laws and policies in the nonprofit sector in macrocosm.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

In Remembrance of Memory

 On the 29th anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, I thought I would post some of my favorite excerpts from the essays of Liu Xiaobo[i], a participant in the 1989 movement and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in a Chinese prison on July 13, 2017. Written more than 10 years ago, these excerpts continue to resonate for me in this age of Xi Jinping.

“The Communist Party of China’s Dictatorial Patriotism” (2005)

In this age of strongman politics, in which Xi Jinping has demanded absolute loyalty to the party, Liu reminds us that we should have no illusion about the nature of one-party rule.

In short, a government can only be qualified to represent the interests of the people, which, when combined, constitute national interests, if it respects and loves the people, and, in particular, if it respects and protects the rights of the people to question, criticize, and even oppose government policies by peaceful means. Only then can it be called a patriotic government and only then is it qualified to promote patriotism.

 However, the patriotism of a dictatorial regime is exactly the opposite: it promotes patriotism with high-flying talk but never respects or cares for the mainstay of the nation—the people. 

First, its power is not conferred by the people but comes from and is sustained by violence. It transforms public power, which is supposed to serve the public good of society, into private power of the regime and the powerful, into a tool for implementing the will of the regime and obtaining profits for the powerful.

The current CPC may be the world’s largest political party, but compared to the 1.3 billion people in China, its 60 some million members are no more than a small minority, so how can it so shamelessly boast that it “represents the people and the nation”? The reason the CPC regards itself to be the natural representative of “the country, the nation, and the people” is not at all because it truly has “the mandate of Heaven to carry out justice,” but because it wants to maintain its dictatorial power and protect its vested interests.

“Changing the Regime by Changing Society” (2006)

This is my favorite essay of Liu Xiaobo’s, full of optimism and faith in the power and agency of society, and with wise words about how change will come to China.

In an un-free society ruled by a dictatorship, under the premise of the temporary absence of power that can change the dictatorial nature of the regime, the civic ways that promote the transformation of Chinese society from the bottom up that I know of are as follows:

3. Regardless of how great the freedom-denying power of a regime and its institutions is, every individual should still fight to the best of his/her ability to live as a free person, that is, make every effort to live an honest life with dignity. In any society ruled by dictatorship, when those who pursue freedom publicly disclose their views and practice what they preach, as long as they manage to be fearless in the small details of everyday life, what they say and do in everyday life will become the fundamental force that will topple the system of enslavement.

5. Whether an insider or an outsider of the system, whether working from the top down or the bottom up, each should respect the other’s right to speak. Even the statements and actions of people attached to the government, as long as they do not force constraints on the independent discourse among the people and the rights defense movement, should be regarded as a useful exploration of transformational strategies and their right of speech should be fully respected. Those who advocate transformation from the top down should maintain adequate respect for the explorations of those working from the bottom-up among the people.

6. Institutional common sense on how to confront rather than evade an ever-present dictatorial power: place into one’s own hands the initiative for improving the status of the population without rights, rather than pinning hope on the arrival of some enlightened master or benevolent ruler. In the strategic maneuvering between civil society and the government, regardless of how official policies may change, the most important thing is to encourage and assist the civil rights defense movement and hold fast the independent position of civil society.

In sum, China’s course toward a free society will mainly rely on bottom-up gradual improvement and not the top-down “Chiang Ching-kuo style” revolution. Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent, and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people. In other words, pursue the free and democratic forces among the people; do not pursue the rebuilding of society through radical regime change, but instead use gradual social change to compel regime change. That is, rely on the continuously growing civil society to reform a regime that lacks legitimacy.

“The Many Aspects of Chinese Communist Party Dictatorship” (2006)

Here Liu delves further into the nature of a one-party regime, which is increasingly propped up by coercion and economic enticements than through any ideological belief in communism, and questions its lasting power.

The CCP regime suppresses dissident political forces in a variety of ways: shadowing, wiretapping and imprisonment, as well as bribery and coercion; evil laws and low schemes, as well as gray space; regime dictatorship, as well as thug violence; open criticism and, secret purges; ironfisted methods, as well as appeals to human emotion (the police officers in charge of keeping watch on dissidents invariably start up their conversations in a “getting-acquainted” tone), to the extent that even when reining in those intractable rebels, the police leave themselves some leeway in that they no longer claim to be motivated by high-sounding ideological reasons, but rather deploy the “rice-bowl theory” that they are simply trying to keep their jobs.

However, the very use of such pragmatic, flexible control methods, because of their thoroughly opportunistic nature, paints the doomsday picture of dictatorial politics—countless flaws in the system itself, questions of the regime’s legitimacy, and rapid erosion of its effectiveness—where the ruler and the ruled engage in expedient cooperation based on the principle of profit-before-everything.

“The Negative Effects of the Rise of Dictatorship on Democratization in the World” (2006)

In this essay, Liu foreshadows the growing concern about the effect that China’s rise has had in shaping global norms and standards concerning development, governance, democracy and human rights.

The CPC regime has replaced the former Soviet Union to become a blood transfusion machine for other dictatorships. It provides large quantities of economic assistance to dictatorships such as North Korea, Cuba, and Myanmar, offsetting to some degree the impact of Western economic sanctions and enabling these remaining despotic regimes on their last legs to linger on.

The CPC regime uses China’s huge market to lure and coerce big capital from the West, and the very nature of capital is to chase profit with no regard for universal values or fair trade. So the big capital from various Western nations inevitably tries to exert influence on its home country’s China policy…..To make a profit, these companies have gone as far as to recklessly betray universal values and the American government’s human rights foreign policy. Without exception, they have all bowed to political pressure and coercion from the CPC regime and have become its accomplices in restricting the freedom of expression and in its literary inquisition.

[i] English-language translations of these essays are available on Human Rights in China (HRIC)’s website.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

CDB and CLB: Claiming the Space for An Independent, Progressive Civil Society in China

Sometimes you need to leave home to appreciate the family you left behind. I had that epiphany recently. Having worked for China Development Brief and China Labour Bulletin, two civil society organizations that developed a reputation for independent and authoritative monitoring and analysis about civil society and labor in China, I confess to taking their importance for granted. Then, when I was invited recently on a fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine to meet with NGOs working on human rights and humanitarian issues, it suddenly became clear to me.

The purpose of our mission was to investigate restrictions on NGOs’ access to funding, a critical component of their freedom of association rights. These NGOs play an important role in monitoring, documenting and seeking to ameliorate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Israel and Palestine. Over the last few years, like their counterparts in many other countries, they began encountering greater pushback by the Israeli government, including on issues such as funding. In 2016, an NGO Transparency Law was passed in the Knesset requiring Israeli NGOs that received more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments, to declare their foreign government funding sources on their publications and websites, and in meetings with government officials. This law had the clever but sinister effect of singling out Israeli human rights NGOs that rely heavily on foreign government funding, while leaving untouched nationalist, right-wing NGOs that also rely on foreign funding but from private donors.

In our meetings with these NGOs about the pushback against their funding sources, one name came up again and again: an Israeli civil society organization called NGO Monitor.  On the surface, NGO Monitor comes across as the kind of organization that China Development Brief was meant to be, an authoritative one-stop shop for foreigners interested in NGOs in that country. Its objective, as stated on its website, is “producing and distributing critical analysis and reports on the activities of the international and local NGO networks, for the benefit of government policy makers, journalists, philanthropic organizations and the general public.”

On closer inspection, though, much of its content takes a very critical and even hostile view of more progressive, left-wing NGOs that monitor and call attention to human rights violations against Palestinians. One common line of attack is to point out the reliance of these NGOs on foreign government funding, particularly funding from European governments. Labeling these NGOs as “foreign agents,” NGO Monitor along with other nationalist, right-wing NGOs, with support from powerful politicians and officials, have over the last decade launched media and lobbying campaigns to delegitimize the work of human rights NGOs in Israel and Palestine. Their campaigns have worked. They led Israeli legislators to draft the 2016 NGO Transparency Law, and pressured European governments to review their funding commitments to human rights NGOs in Israel and Palestine.

The case of NGO Monitor shows how important it is for independent, credible, progressive NGOs to claim and defend the epistemological space and language for talking about NGOs in any country. It is clear that NGO Monitor now occupies a vital space for civil society in Israel. It has become an almost indispensable resource for those who want to better understand the NGO space in Israel. Like CDB’s NGO database, it has a large database of local and international NGOs working in Israel and Palestine. In fact, it seems to have the only such database in the English language. When you type in an Israeli NGO’s name, the first search result to come up is from NGO Monitor’s database which presents profiles of that NGO’s funding sources and activities written from the perspective of NGO Monitor.

The problem of course is that NGO Monitor has a highly partisan agenda, one that is intent on dividing civil society, and aligned with nationalist, right-wing NGOs and the current Netanyahu government.  What it and other right-wing groups in Israel are doing is eerily familiar to the ideological warfare taking place in President Trump’s America, and raises deeper concerns about their role in undermining Israeli democracy. As Professor Amal Jamal notes in his report, The Rise of Bad Civil Society in Israel, “bad civil society” organizations like NGO Monitor, make “use of democratic procedures to silence and delegitimize any critiques of government policies, especially those voiced by [human rights organizations]…. “The cooperation of ‘bad civil society’ with…government ministries and central political parties feeds the public sphere with anti-democratic values and norms, which undermines civil and democratic ideals and liberal freedoms and brings the entire democratic system into question.”

At CDB and CLB, we spent hours discussing and debating our positioning in Chinese civil society, knowing we were one of the few go-to sources on civil society and labor for the international community. We emphasized our independence from the government, and our support for grassroots NGOs, workers and the progressive values they stood for. But in the process of defending them, we ensured that our reporting and analysis remained credible and impartial, and tried our best to use accurate information, adopt a neutral tone, and avoid attacking other civil society organizations.

Of course, any reporting in China has to tread carefully in a restricted and censored space where there is less room for different ideological positions. In a democratic and open society like Israel’s, the space is more wide open for organizations to voice more critical and extreme views. That makes NGO Monitor’s occupation of the English-language space there that much more astonishing. Now, recognizing that they waited too long to respond, human rights organizations in Israel and Palestine are considering ways to fight back and reclaim some of that space by setting up a more independent, impartial alternative to NGO Monitor.

Here’s where I had my epiphany. After seeing what happened in Israel, the significance of CDB and CLB became clear to me. These two NGOs occupied the civil society space in the early days back in the mid-1990s, when there wasn’t much of a civil society in China, and they spent the last 20 years or so defending that space with integrity on behalf of an independent, progressive civil society. In doing so, they helped to build the linguistic and epistemological infrastructure for understanding and talking about civil society in China.

The Chinese government is now seeking to reclaim some of that space with more assertive legislation and initiatives and, at some point in the future, as China’s society opens up and discussion and debate become more ideological and contentious, other groups on both the right and left will enter the fray. But I’m confident that Chinese civil society is in a good position to deal with these challenges, in part because of the contributions made by CDB and CLB.


Friday, May 4, 2018

Dr. Timothy Hildebrandt's Summer Course in Beijing on NGOs, August 6-17

Dr Timothy Hildebrandt (associate professor of social policy at the LSE) is again offering his course on Chinese social organisations this coming August 6-17 at the LSE-PKU Summer School. In the course—which is consistently ranked highest in student satisfaction at the Summer School—students will gain a theoretical grounding in the development of NGOs generally, as well as a deep empirical understanding of how these organisations have developed in China.

The course is dynamic by design, responsive to the fast changing environment for NGOs in China; it is cutting edge in its discussion of new issues and exploration into concepts and theories to understand them. Particular attention is paid to emerging issues, such as changes in laws on registration, the precarious future of international NGOs, and the growth of government-organised NGOs (GONGOs) and social enterprises. Although no single issue area is the central focus, lectures and seminars will draw attention to environmental protection, public health, HIV/AIDS, elder care, labour, and LGBT rights, among others.

The intensive 2-week course is designed for a wide variety of students. In the past, the class has included advanced undergraduates, those just having completed their bachelors, masters students, PhD students, and career professionals in government, law, and business.

To learn more about the course and apply for the summer school, please visit The deadline for applying is June 15. Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact Dr Hildebrandt at

Please feel free to disseminate this widely to any individuals or institutions where you think there might be interest! 

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Humanity of the Z35 Hard Sleeper

I decided the other day to ride hard sleeper on the Z35 express train from Beijing to Guangzhou. Taking the train is a great way to see the country. China has one of the most extensive and best railways in the world. For long-distance travel, there are several classes of train. One is conventional, locomotive-pulled trains which have various levels of express and local service. The other is the high-speed or bullet trains which have made China the envy of other countries including the U.S. China started building their high-speed railways about 15 years ago and already has the most extensive high-speed system in the world.   

The conventional trains feature different classes of travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. The soft sleeper has four bunks per compartment, two on either side, and the compartments can be closed for privacy. Hard sleeper has six bunks per compartment, three on either side, and the compartments cannot be closed. If riding hard sleeper is like being in the gritty city, soft sleeper has the feel of the quiet suburbs. The bullet trains and soft sleepers are more expensive, so people with less means or who want to save money generally take hard sleeper or even hard seat.

It’s been decades since I took hard sleeper, but I associate it with being with regular people, and wanted to take my time to see China’s countryside. The Z35 route goes through the central provinces of Hubei, Henan, Hebei and Hunan before arriving in Guangdong at China’s southern gateway, traveling a total of 2294 kilometers. 

Riding the Z35, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the same China I knew 30 years ago. Yes some things have changed. The hard sleeper compartments now have nicer linens and air conditioning, there is no smoking allowed in the compartments, and the trip from Beijing to Guangzhou takes only about 22 hours instead of two days.

But the people haven't changed much, and that was refreshing to see in a country where blocks of old buildings and alleyways are razed, and gleaming skyscrapers and efficient subway lines go up in their place, in a blink of an eye.

Passengers still struggled to get up and down the bunks, and rummaged around for places to place their suitcases. They sat in the narrow corridors looking at their phones, or lay on their bunks looking at their phones. They lined up at the hot water area to fill their thermoses. They waited patiently for the one bathroom in each car to disgorge its occupant. A few kids played around the feet of their parents. People’s belongings began to spill into the open on their bunks and in the corridors. The trash bin cover was conveniently stuck so people began piling their instant noodle containers and plastic bottles near the bathroom sink. 

The train attendants walked past sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms which seemed to be constantly occupied, and pushing food carts through the corridor calling out the names of the foods – milk, yogurt, chicken leg and rice. One attendant made several sales pitches in our car for prunes from Xinjiang, and chrysanthemum tea from Anhui. 

One lady who boarded in Henan entered our compartment and looked for a place to put her suitcase. She was pretty and dressed smartly in high heels and a knee-high skirt. I made sure to dress comfortably in shorts, t-shirt and sandals but some preferred the more formal look despite the proletarian furnishings. When she didn’t see a space for her suitcase below the bottom bunks, she put her suitcase on the middle bunk. Then she climbed up, placing her feet on the metal footholds and pulled herself up.  Once on the bunk, she stood up and tried to put her suitcase in an opening above the top bunk. She had to stretch and an elderly gentlemen in a dress shirt and tie came over to help. I was sitting on the bottom bunk and feeling awkward because I could see up her skirt and I felt bad the old man had acted faster than me in lending a hand. The studious looking guy reading across from me was trying hard not to look at the scene, and I tried not to stare.  Then after some effort, she and the elderly guy managed to raise her suitcase into the opening, whereupon she settled back in her bunk, and made a call on her phone. The old guy also went back to his phone, sending encouraging, peppy audio texts to people I imagined were either friends or business partners that went something like “let’s get together sometime and talk” and “let’s help each other out, and improve our situation together!”

Watching these scenes play out, I couldn’t help but feel a common humanity in these moments, witnessing the same inefficiencies, foibles and concerns in Chinese today as I remembered 30 years ago. China may be on the way to becoming a global economic and technological power, but that ambition was not evident in the people in the hard sleeper section who were just trying to figure out how to get by, and pass the hours, in their cramped spaces. In confining us to close quarters over a long period of time, the hard sleeper had a kind of leveling effect, doing away with any pretense of status and privilege. The old guy in the dress shirt and tie, the pretty woman in high heels and skirt, they were all in the same bunk and bathroom as the rest of us. Now if they could just put aside their smart phones and start talking again.