Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Regulating NGOs: Why the schizophrenic year for NGOs in 2010? (Part II)

In my last post, I argued that to understand the schizophrenic year for Chinese NGOs, one has to understand the nature of the system regulating civil society.  I brought up Kang Xiaoguang and Han Heng’s analysis of the system which gave us a sophisticated and nuanced model, but I felt it didn’t provide a satisfactory understanding, at least with respect to Chinese NGOs.  It was too neat and simple.  I think for a more realistic explanation, we need to bring in others who point out that the system is not so neat, or unified, or rational. 

One place to start getting a more accurate picture is Professor Deng Guosheng’s article, “The Hidden Rules Governing China’s Unregistered NGOs” published in the Spring 2010 issue of The China Review.  Professor Deng, of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center, shows that you cannot just look at the official regulations governing NGOs, but also at the “hidden” or “implicit” rules.  He notes that the official regulations for social organizations (NGOs included) only apply to legally registered NGOs.  But many NGOs are not legally registered as NGOs, but as businesses or a “project” under another organization.  How are these NGOs regulated?  Kang and Han argue that they are not.  The government leaves them alone.  But Professor Deng argues that there has been an implicit understanding or ruling made between central and local authorities concerning unregistered NGOs.  He calls this understanding the “Three Nos” policy: “no recognition, no banning, no intervention”.  In other words, while authorities do not recognize these NGOs as legal, they will not take actions to ban them or intervene in their affairs as long as the NGOs do not harm state security or social stability.

What Professor Deng is saying here about the system is that it gives wide latitude to authorities, especially at the local level, to deal with unregistered or unofficial NGOs.  This explanation helps to account for the seemingly schizophrenic gap between policy and implementation/enforcement I mentioned earlier.  The policy towards registered NGOs such as foundations is improving, but the authorities attitudes and actions toward unregistered NGOs varies widely because of the “three Nos” policy which gives them a great deal of discretion in dealing with NGOs.  Some authorities see unregistered NGOs as serving a positive role, helping government fill gaps in social services, but others may see them as a threat especially if they touch on sensitive areas such as organizing migrant workers (e.g. in Shenzhen), farmers displaced by dam-building (e.g. in Yunnan) or AIDS victims of government-sponsored blood banks (e.g. in Henan). 

This view is consistent with a model of the Chinese political system that scholars call “fragmented authoritarianism”.  In this model, the Chinese government is not a unified entity, but instead composed of diverse leaders and agencies, each with their own interests and views.  Armed with the discretionary power given them under the “three Nos” policy, these leaders and agencies take different attitudes and actions toward unregistered NGOs.  In some cases, where NGOs serve their interests, they may carry out experiments to make it easier for these NGOs to register.  In others, where particular NGOs threaten their interests, they harass them and even close them down.

Jessica Teets, a professor at Middlebury College, who has written extensively on Chinese NGOs and interviewed a number of Chinese officials on NGO policy, makes a similar point in a chapter written for China Beyond the Headlines, “Civil Society Development in China.”   She argues that China’s tradition of local experimentation and the cadre evaluation system provide incentives for local officials to partner with NGOs when it leads to improved or innovative ways of providing services.  But because local officials are also evaluated on maintaining social stability, they also have to balance the benefits that NGOs bring with the potential costs.

The fragmented authoritarian system explanation does not just account for the schizophrenic pattern we’ve seen in 2010 but also in the years prior.  You could say this schizophrenia is something that has characterized the Chinese government dealings with civil society organizations for some time now. 
I’ve argued in another post (“Why the chill in the air”) that fragmented authoritarianism also helps to explain the delays in the revised regulations on NGOs and foundations.  While the Ministry of Civil Affairs may support the revisions, they are a relatively weak agency and have to contend with other more influential agencies who have concerns about the potential destabilizing effects of a more liberal NGO policy. 

Finally, if this explanation is right, then it means we’ll continue to see this schizophrenia as long as this fragmented authoritarian system is around.  As one civil society activist said to me, “we’re not going to see any major changes in the government’s regulation of civil society until the system democratizes.” 

Scholars such as Teets and Andrew Mertha (see his chapter “Society in the State” in Chinese Politics) make a similar point.  They believe that fragmented authoritarian system allows a wide range of actors, NGOs among them, to insert themselves in the policy process by cooperating with government officials at different levels of the system.  The result has been greater pluralization of the policy process.  But pluralization, as they remind us, is not the same as democratization.  Until the latter happens, China’s NGOs should look forward to a bumpy ride.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Regulating NGOs: Why the schizophrenic year for NGOs in 2010? (Part I)

In a recent post, I listed the best and worst of 2010 for China’s NGOs.  In truth, this best and worst list pretty accurately captures what happened last year in China’s civil society.  It was a year of highs and lows.  In this post, I try to answer the question: why the schizophrenic year for Chinese NGOs in 2010?   I’m actually breaking this post into two parts because I end up giving a longer explanation than I had expected.  (What more would you expect from a scholar?)

I would argue that the main reason for this schizophrenia has to do with a rapidly developing civil society sector coming head to head with a government that remains ambivalent and conflicted about how to deal with that growth.   The Chinese government wants the resources and services that civil society organizations can provide to addressing China’s many social and environmental ills, but at the same time remains suspicious of those organizations.  In terms of policy, we are seeing the Chinese government taking steps to better regulate the civil society sector, and liberalizing the regulatory environment for foundations and business associations.  Yet in terms of implementation and enforcement on the ground, we are seeing more of a mixed picture.  Some localities are being allowed to experiment with more flexible regulations for registering and managing NGOs, but we also see in other places, heavy-handed measures harassing and even closing down NGOs.
This gap between policy and implementation/enforcement is important because it touches on the nature of the “system” that regulates the civil society sector in China.  Getting the “system” right is important to understanding the schizophrenic pattern we are seeing.  This requires that I get  into some of the academic literature so please bear with me.

One attempt at describing “the system” is made by Kang Xiaoguang and Han Heng in their 2008 article in Modern China, “Graduated Controls: The State-Society Relationship in Contemporary China”.   In this article, the authors argue that over time, the Chinese government has developed a finely-tuned “system” of control for social organizations.  The system is now able to exercise different degrees of control over social organizations depending on (a) their ability to challenge state power; and (b) the nature of the public goods they provide.  The highest level of control is for politically antagonistic organizations such as Falun Gong or Charter 08 which are banned outright because they pose the biggest challenge to the government.  The second highest level of control is for labor unions and community organizations such as residence committees.  The third level is for religious organizations, the fourth is for business associations and GONGOs, and the fifth and lowest level of control is for grassroots NGOs and informal organizations.

Kang and Han’s most interesting observation is the last one for grassroots NGOs.  They say that because grassroots NGOs do not pose a challenge to the government and do not provide essential public goods, the government pretty much leaves them alone.

The director of Renmin University’s NPO Research Center, Professor Kang is a noted scholar and a keen observer of China’s NGO scene, and there is much to be admired about their “graduated controls” framework because it seeks to explain how the system regulates a wide range of social organizations, not just civil society organizations, and it recognizes that the system is nuanced.  But I find their description of the system too neat and simple.  They make the governmental apparatus out to be a finely-tuned machine that has figured out a way to regulate and control many different kinds of social organizations.  But we know from practice that the reality is never this neat, and government is rarely if ever a unified rational actor. 

More to the point, this system of “graduated controls” does not explain the schizophrenic pattern we’ve been observing in the civil society sector.  The government does not leave grassroots NGOs alone, nor does it see NGOs as harmless or the public goods they provide as nonessential.

A more realistic explanation is provided by others who point out that the system is not so neat, or unified, or rational.  More on that in my next posting.