Wednesday, September 26, 2018

How Xi Jinping is remaking China's civil society

This was the original title of my recent article in ChinaFile. I had asked the editor to change it to "Remaking China's Civil Society in the Xi Jinping Era" because I thought it was more accurate. After all, Xi Jinping is not remaking China's civil society single-handedly. There were many others who could take credit. And one could argue, as Renmin University professor Kang Xiaoguang did in his recent article, that the remaking of civil society began under Hu Jintao who was the first General Secretary to recognize social organizations for the first time in his speeches on "social management" around 2010.  At the time, social organizations felt that this was a recognition of their contributions to society, and a sign that the Communist Party was further opening up to them. But Kang implies that the party leadership was instead setting civil society a trap; in recognizing the contributions of social organizations, they were actually saying that they had come up with a blueprint for controlling them.  That blueprint was for them to operate under the leadership of the party and supervision of the government. Social organizations were to get more support from the government in terms of registration and funding. But in return they would have to give up their autonomy and independence. Social organizations could only provide services, they could not engage in advocacy and claim to represent their constituents. Only the Communist Party and its subordinate government agencies could do that.

Following this logic, Hu Jintao set out the blueprint and Xi Jinping then made that blueprint a reality by cracking down on rights activism and advocacy NGOs, pushing through a series of laws and regulations, such as the Charity Law and Overseas NGO Law, calling for social organizations to set up party groups and providing more funding and support for social organizations that engaged in service provision.

So while it is true that Xi Jinping was not single-handedly responsible for remaking China's civil society, he was the one that made the reconstruction of civil society a reality. He did not do it alone and had plenty of help from the millions of civil servants who worked under him. But he was the one to take the blueprint and make it come alive.

Now after traveling around China and surveying the damage, seeing the social organizations engaging in advocacy and rights protection that are no longer active, and the many social organizations that now get government funding to provide community services, I see that I may have gotten my title wrong after all. Maybe it should be "How Xi Jinping is Remaking China's Civil Society."