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.