The question of whether a “civil society” is emerging as a consequence of the rapid changes in China’s society and economy since the late 1970s has been the subject of much scholarly debate inside and outside the country for more than a decade. The fact that there are now close to 200,000 officially registered organizations and an unknown number of unregistered ones in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might indicate an unequivocal affirmative answer.
However, this would be an overly simplistic assessment. Much of China’s associational life remains under controls stricter than those imposed in most other Asian countries, and all the indications are that these controls are set to be further tightened in 1999. In the same month as it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) - October 1998 - the Chinese government passed two new laws governing “registration and management” of all non-profit organizations. These new laws provide for a system of compulsory registration and on-going government supervision of associations and non-governmental social service initiatives which is even more restrictive than the previous regulatory regime, enacted in the wake of the crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement. In the past two years, the Chinese government has frozen registration of all new “social groups”. It classifies policy issues relating to what kind of groups are “illegal” as “state secrets”. Furthermore, despite a relative relaxation of controls on public discussion of some previously-taboo topics since the beginning of 1998, arrest and imprisonment of individuals who have attempted to organize independently, or who take the debate beyond certain limits, have continued.
Scholars who have examined the complex reality of a country which is a study in contrasts are cautious in their appraisal of whether a civil society is being created in the PRC. They conclude variously that the “civil society” model may not be appropriate, that China is evolving a structure of state-society relations which might better be termed “corporatist”, or that what is arising is a “semi-civil society”.
While answering this question is beyond the scope of this chapter, particularly since there is no set definition of the concept of civil society, our research aims to contribute a different perspective to the debate. It shows that while China’s current regulatory structure does not allow for any truly independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - a prohibition which may ultimately be enforced through the use of the state’s coercive powers - certain “social groups” are carving out autonomous space and engaging in some of the types of activities generally associated with this sector, while through their growing interaction with international NGOs the authorities are gaining experience of working with independent organizations. It thus illuminates one aspect of the continuing tension between official impulses towards reform and control.
As with civil society, there is no agreed definition of NGOs. However, like that term, it clearly does not encompass all groups which are not part of the government or participating directly in politics, but incorporates a broad spectrum of organizations which engage in the public sphere, through such activities as advocacy, social service and representation of interests. Certain types of NGO are more likely to be targets of government interference, such as those that are critical of the authorities, express unpopular points of view, engage in public advocacy and human rights monitoring and seek to hold government accountable; those working with or for the disadvantaged, promoting social justice and sustainable development; and those that fight against all forms of discrimination. The treatment of such NGOs delineates the democratic space available to all NGOs and the individuals who seek to form them.
This chapter approaches the issues of regulation, associational autonomy and the scope for the engagement of organizations in a civic “public space” from an activist perspective. Human Rights in China believes that the existence of independent non-profit organizations that can articulate a diverse range of interests and view points is not only crucial to the evolution of democratic structures but is also vital in ensuring that vulnerable groups are not excluded from the benefits of development and that human rights protections are available to all.
We examine both form and substance in our review of the work of what are known in China as “social groups.” The chapter presents a sketch of what types of organizations exist in China and what they do, as well as what they cannot do, referring also to activities which have met with state repression. It then provides an outline of the regulatory structure that applies to them, and looks at how this restricts their scope of activity. It concludes that increasing respect for freedom of association, assembly and expression could help to improve social order by creating better channels for the articulation of grievances and interests, and provides some recommendations for how this could be achieved.
As it covers so much ground, the chapter is of necessity a cursory overview. It does not even attempt to cover the situation in areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, where tension over the rights of indigenous groups alters the political and social landscape. While broad-ranging, its conclusions are preliminary owing to the relative scarcity of information on the role and character of social groups in China. Furthermore, a more complete study would have included information about exile organizations operating outside China, such as Human Rights in China itself, and more on Hong Kong groups that are increasingly engaged in development and aid work on the mainland, since these, too, are part of the overall picture. It would also look more closely at a critical issue: who controls the purse-strings for social groups and other associations, and where does the funding come from?
This points to a crucial problem: the divisions between groups working inside and outside China, and between those cooperating with the government and those cooperating with dissidents - both sets labeled “friendly” and “hostile” respectively by the authorities - mean that the extensive fieldwork and discussion with inside groups that might have been desirable was not possible. Even if they acknowledge that they share the same objectives, insiders generally feel that communication with the “hostile” groups is too risky and is likely to jeopardize their work. For the same reason, the consultation with other NGOs over conclusions and recommendations that participating NGOs carried out for the other studies in the Three Freedoms Project was not feasible in the case of China. However, a variety of individuals who have worked in and with Chinese social organizations provided valuable input and critiques of the report. Any errors, however, are entirely our own.