In this article, I analyse civil society development in China using examples from Beijing to demonstrate the causal role of local officials' ideas about these groups during the last 20 years. I argue that the decentralization of public welfare and the linkage of promotion to the delivery of these goods supported the idea of local government–civil society collaboration. This idea was undermined by international examples of civil society opposing authoritarianism and the strength of the state-led development model after the 2008 economic crisis. I find growing convergence on a new model of state–society relationship that I call “consultative authoritarianism,” which encourages the simultaneous expansion of a fairly autonomous civil society and the development of more indirect tools of state control. This model challenges the conventional wisdom that an operationally autonomous civil society cannot exist inside authoritarian regimes and that the presence of civil society is an indicator of democratization.
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