Friday, October 23, 2009

Yu Keping on China's "government-led civil society"

October 24, 2009

In yesterday’s China Daily, there is an article in the Opinion page about Yu Keping’s views on political reform in China. Yu is well known for his book, Democracy is a Good Thing, where he argues that democracy is the best system available, but that democracy in China will come about differently than in the West. The article spends most of its time though on Yu’s views on civil society and NGOs in particular.

Yu is bullish on China’s civil society and sees NGOs playing an important role in helping the government to maintain social stability by cooperating with the government in addressing social problems. In this regard, he sees NGOs playing a different role in China than they do in the West because they are being guided by parameters set by the government. He calls China’s civil society an example of government-led civil society.

Yu’s views are similar to those voiced by some NGOs I have interviewed. These NGOs stress the importance of working together with the government. They see cooperation with the government, in particular basic-level governments at the district, street-committee and township levels, as the best way to expand their service provision, and thus their influence. Yet this view also raises the question of how to treat NGOs who do not want to cooperate with the government, who want to work on behalf of their own members rather than on behalf of the public interest? Some NGOs tend to look down on such “selfish” NGOs, but as Robert Putnam argues nonpolitical associations such as sports clubs can play an important role in promoting civic engagement and social trust, which Putnam sees as important preconditions for democratic consolidation. In stating that most Chinese NGOs are willing to cooperate with the government for the public interest, while “some act in self-interest or even harbor hidden agenda”, Yu seems to be implying that “selfish” NGOs do not have a place in China’s civil society.

Yu’s notion of “government-led civil society” also caught my eye because it sounds similar to Michael Frolic’s concept of “state-led civil society” which he advanced in his 1997 book, Civil Society in China. Yu here seems to mean something different that Frolic who was talking about “social organizations and quasi-administrative units created by the state”. In other words, what we sometimes call government-organized NGOs (GONGOs). Yu, on the other hand, is referring to NGOs that aren’t necessarily created by the state, but cooperating with it. A civil society whose goals are one with the state.

I have some problems with both these terms. First of all, Frolic’s notion of a state-led civil society is outdated. While there are many so-called NGOs that have been created by the state, what Wang Ming of Tsinghua University calls “top-down” NGOs, there are also a rapidly growing number of “bottom-up” NGOs that are created independent of the state. Second, Yu’s “government-led” is a misnomer and denies agency to the NGOs that want to cooperate with the government. More and more, NGO cooperation with the state is taking place not because the government is telling NGOs to do so. It is doing so because of strategic planning by NGOs, many of them of the “bottom-up” variety, who see cooperation as beneficial for their own long-term interests.

I prefer the term “negotiated civil society” to “government-led civil society” because it views government-NGO cooperation as a two-way street, and acknowledges agency on both sides. Of course, the government is the more powerful player here, but it does not “lead” the NGO. Rather cooperation is the result of negotiations between the two sides.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Inaugural post

October 1, 2009

This is the first posting on my new blog, NGOs in China. I chose to post it on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC for reasons that I think will become clear as the blog evolves. I hope you find the blog useful. If not, let me know why.

I’ve been thinking about starting this blog since last year when I was editing a book on Chinese NGOs with Jonathan Schwartz, a colleague of mine who teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Editing that book with Jonathan opened my eyes to the richness and diversity of grassroots NGOs in China. I have to confess that I came to the NGO scene only recently, after forays into local governance, and corruption in China. But I thought I understood China’s political landscape pretty well, until I started editing this book, and then it became apparent how little I did know about the NGO scene and how quickly it’s developed over the last few years. My thanks to the other contributors to that volume who helped me better understand the Chinese NGO sector: Tim Hildebrandt, Catherine Keyser, Joan Kaufman, Andre Laliberte, Marsha Smith, Jennifer Turner, and Hong Zhang.

In editing the book, I found that grassroots NGOs have been sprouting up all around the country, despite the authoritarian political system, an unclear and unwelcoming regulatory environment, and a state-dominated, profit-obsessed society that is only beginning to understand what NGOs, nonprofits and philanthropic foundations are. These NGOs or proto-NGOs take all sorts of forms that often bear little resemblance to NGOs and nonprofits in industrial democracies. But they are engaged in addressing a wide range of social problems, using visions, ideas and approaches that are refreshingly different from the government’s to carry out social, legal, political and ideological change from the bottom up.

I became so fascinated by NGOs that I decided to start another book project, this time one focused on the NGO activists themselves, their background, what influenced them to go into NGO work, and their strategies and ideas for expanding their influence, and carrying out social and political change in an authoritarian system.

In January of 2009, I took a trip to Yunnan and Sichuan to interview NGOs there, including NGOs that had responded to the earthquake that hit western Sichuan in May of 2008. My interviews with NGO leaders there, hearing about their projects, their ideas, their ambitions and their failures, convinced me that I needed to do more to tell the story of grassroots NGOs to an English-speaking audience. Since then, I have been back to Sichuan in June of 2009 to follow up on what NGOs were doing in the earthquake reconstruction, and interviewing NGO founders here in Beijing.

So the main reason for starting this blog is to record and thereby recognize some of the diversity and scope of the NGO community here, and communicate it to an English-speaking audience. I realize that is a tall order, and can’t promise much. The NGO community in China is too large for one person to do justice to in a blog. It will be a record of my own discussions with, and readings of, NGO activists, academics, and others who inhabit and contribute to the development of the nonprofit, nongovernmental, charitable sector here in China. Whenever possible, I will be asking people to write a guest column for this blog.

I have no ambitions of filling the large void left by China Development Brief (CDB), an NGO started by Nick Young. CDB did a great job of informing both Chinese and English speakers about Chinese NGOs and civil society, as well as many other aspects of social development. Unfortunately, it was closed down (although the Chinese counterpart still works out of the same office space) and Nick was ordered to leave the country in August of that year. The closing down of CDB meant the loss of an important source of English-language information about the China NGO scene, and got me thinking of ways to revive CDB in another form, or failing that, starting a blog that would keep English-language readers informed about NGO developments in China. As I found out, trying to revive CDB proved too sensitive, and so a blog became the next best option.