Civil Society

Civil Society

| Katja Drinhausen

An event on civil society and public engagement held at the University of Hong Kong. Image from RTHK.

Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution grants Chinese citizens the right to freedom of assembly and association. The language is strikingly similar to Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which sets the precondition for the development of a civil society comprised of non-governmental organizations. The EU defines as civil society “all forms of social action carried out by individuals or groups who are neither connected to, nor managed by, the state”. This independence is not to be found in China, as it would contravene the overarching political maxim that the CCP has absolute leadership over all political and societal affairs, as codified in Article 1 of the Chinese Constitution.

This principle is reflected in both vocabulary and types of actors. The Chinese leadership has never embraced the term “civil society” in domestic political communication. Despite the proliferation of private-run NGOs and foundations since the 1980s, party- and government-organized organizations (GONGO) still play a major role. The policy focus has been on regulating this growing sector and making sure all social organizations (社会组织) are supervised and tied to party and state organs. They are meant to form a cooperative relationship with the government and serve the state’s policy agenda, rather than being independent actors.  

Xi Jinping has stressed that social organizations should participate in all aspects of social affairs as part of a new innovative approach to governing society. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find Xi or any other high-ranking official talking about “civil society” (公民社会 / 民间社会), as the concept has never gained a hold in official discourse. Although official organizations may use the term “civil society” in international communications, the Party-State’s view on this is clear: its vision is for a state-guided civil society.

Before the policy of reform and China’s opening kicked off in the 1980s, the major party-led people’s organizations such as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and party-led grassroots organizations, dominated the field. These still play a prominent role today, essentially having a monopoly on a range of issues and nationwide coordination. The establishment of independent labour unions or religious organizations is still off limits. However, the rise of modernization of the early 1990s led to a host of social issues and a rising demand for services and self-organization where the state had retreated. Civil society has been growing in China, though the composition of its actors has shifted. NGOs and private foundations now play an increasingly important role within the country and abroad.

The late 2000s and early 2010s saw the rapid professionalization of advocacy work, a proliferation of human rights lawyers, and cooperation with international actors. Internet and social media provided a platform for cross-regional and thematic networking. This triggered concerns that civil society might emerge as a threat to regime stability. As Document No. 9 stated: “For the past few years, the idea of civil society has been adopted by Western anti-China forces […].”

The mid- to late 2010s were then marked by a retreat of the concept from public debates and repeated crackdowns, especially on rights-advocacy organizations. Legal and institutional reforms focused on reining in self-organization and bringing a sector that had largely developed outside the CPP’s control back under its guidance. The primary goal today is to mobilize and guide social resources and actors to achieve the CCP’s agenda, with the government procuring services from societal actors (政府购买社会服务).

It is a tight embrace: non-state-affiliated NGOs require supervision by a state organization. Compliance is monitored through rating systems. Since 2015, there has been an ongoing campaign to establish party cells in and ensure party members are recruited to social organizations to tie them to the Party-State and communicate its expectations to them.

This has been accompanied by strict regulation of international actors. The Foreign NGO Law, in effect since January 2017, placed foreign NGOs under a dual-supervision system by a state supervisory unit and the public security administration. The National Security Law for Hong Kong has further dampened international exchanges and cooperation since coming into effect on July 1, 2020 by introducing the highly ambiguous offense of “collusion” with foreign actors. At the UN, China is working to limit the role of NGOs in line with its view of the state as the sole representative of social interests.

This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.

Katja Drinhausen

Decoding China Partner

The CMP Dictionary