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.