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The Advance of the Party: Transformation or Takeover of Urban Grassroots Society?*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2013

Patricia M. Thornton*
University of Oxford. Email:


While existing scholarship focuses attention on the impact of state control and repression on Chinese civil society, the increasingly independent role of the Communist Party has been largely overlooked. This article reviews the Party's drive to “comprehensively cover” grassroots society over the previous decade against the theoretical debate unfolding among Chinese scholars and Party theoreticians regarding the Party's role with respect to civil society. Focusing on greater Shanghai, frequently cited as a national model of Party-building, I describe the Party's advance and the emergence of Party-organized non-governmental organizations (PONGOs), a new hybrid form of social organization sponsored and supported by local Party committees. I argue that these developments invite a reconsideration of our understandings of the ongoing “associational revolution” and of the Party's relationship to China's flourishing “third realm.”

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2013

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An earlier version of this paper was delivered at a University of Oxford Contemporary China Studies Programme conference entitled “Civic Culture, Harmonious Society: Rethinking Civil Society in Greater China Today,” held on 27–28 August 2010 at Jesus College. The author gratefully acknowledges the comments and suggestions offered by conference participants Diana Fu, Karl Gerth, Walter Hatch, Jianyu He, Ming-sho Ho, Michael Hsiao, Winnie King, Qiushi Ma, Vivienne Shue, Sun Tao, Jessica Teets, Xibai Xu and Hong Zhang; and two anonymous reviewers.


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