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.