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Negotiating the State: The Development of Social Organizations in China*

  • Tony Saich
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One notable feature of the reform programme sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been the expansion of social organizations. With greater social space created by the reforms and with the state unable or unwilling to carry the same wide range of services and functions as before, organizations with varying degrees of autonomy from the party-state structures have been set up. They have been allowed or have created an increased organizational sphere and social space in which to operate and to represent social interests, and to convey those interests into the policy-making process. They not only liaise between state and society but also fulfil vital welfare functions that would otherwise go unserved.

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1. A literal translation of the Chinese term shehui tuanti is preferred here to the more usual English usage of non-governmental organization (NGO). This includes both the more autonomous organizations and those set up by state agencies specifically to carry out social welfare functions. While NGO is used by some within the community, it is clear that the restrictions surrounding their autonomy of action mean that in formal terms they are quite distinct from NGOs in the West. China has followed a number of other Asian countries in adopting restrictive legislation to control and shrink the social space available for such organizations. While the phrase NGO was popular around the time of the UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing (1995) and the associated NGO-Forum, activists have been more cautious in using the term since (in Chinese fei zhengfu zuzhi). This caution stems from general ignorance about the sector within China and more broadly about the role NGOs play in development. Some feared that the phrase non-government (fei zhengfu) might be confused with the notion that the government has no role to play (wu zhengfu, implying anarchism) or that such organizations might be anti-government (fan zhengfu). Instead, in addition to the officially sanctioned phrase of shehui tuanti, some have started promoting the use of not-for-profit organization (fei yingli zuzhi). However, the use of NGO has been reviving and the research centre set up in 1998 at Qinghua University, which enjoys close links to the Ministry of Civil Affairs that manages this sector, consciously chose to name itself the NGO Research Centre.

2. See Baum, Richard and Shevchenko, Alexei, “The ‘state of the state’,” in Goldman, Merle and MacFarquhar, Roderick (eds.), The Paradox of Reform of China's Post-Mao Reforms (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 348. For one of the most extensive reviews of the potential for the emergence of civil society that is relevant to this article see White, Gordon, Howell, Jude and Xiaoyuan, Shang, In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). For one of the most enthusiastic Chinese accounts of the emergence of civil society see Zhenglai, Deng and Yuejiang, Ding, “Building civil society in China,” in Zhongguo shelui kexue jikan (Chinese Social Sciences Quarterly), No. 1 (1992). For analyses that make use of corporatism see Chan, Anita, “Revolution of corporatism? Workers and trade unions in post-Mao China,” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29 (01 1993), pp. 3161; Saich, Tony, “The search for civil society and democracy in China,” Current History, 09 1994, pp. 260–64; and Unger, Jonathan and Chan, Anita, “Corporatism in China; a developmental state in an East Asian context,” in McCormick, Barrett and Unger, Jonathan (eds.), China After Socialism. In the Footsteps of Eastern Europe or East Asia? (Armonk, NY: ME. Sharpe, 1996), pp. 95129.

3. The distinction between state and social corporatism is made by Schmitter. See Schmitter, Philippe C., “Still the century of Corporatism?” in Pike, Frederick B. and Stritch, Thomas (eds.), The New Corporatism (London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974). For an initial review of its application to China see Ding, Yijiang, “Corporatism and civil society in China: an overview of the debate in recent years,” China Information, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Spring 1998), pp. 4467. For the seeming contradiction in terms of a state-led civil society see Frolic, B. Michael, “State-led civil society,” in Brook, Timothy and Frolic, B. Michael (eds.), Civil Society in China (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).

4. This is not to suggest that the state is impotent to effect its will. Clearly it retains considerable power to isolate and crush opponents that publicly challenge it and to retain pressure on specific targets for limited periods of time.

5. The role of the CCP in analysing state-society relations provides a complicating factor. Many writers choose the appellation the party-state to circumvent this problem of analysis. While at the centre, Party and state may be more synonymous; the reforms have led to a more complex relationship, especially at the local level. This issue is returned to in the concluding section.

6. China Daily, 7 05 1993, p. 3.

7. Zhongguo falü nianjian 1997 (Law Yearbook of China 1997) (Beijing: Zhongguo falü nianjianshe chuban, 1997), p. 1077. In addition there are approximately 1,000 foundations registered with the People's Bank of China of which some 70 are national in scope. For details of foundations in China see Social Organization Department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Research Association on Chinese Social Organizations (ed.), Zhongguo jijinhui gailan (A Broad Outline of Chinese Foundations) (n.p, n.d.). From late 1996 to early 1997, a moratorium was placed on the registration of national-level organizations that was to apply until new regulations for the sector were promulgated. This led to a slight decline to 181,318 in the number of registered social organizations at the end of 1997. Discussions with Ministry of Civil Affairs' officials, May 1998. The State Council adopted new regulations on 25 September 1998. See “Shehui tuanti dengji guanli tiaoli” (“Regulations on the registration and management of social organizations”), in Fazhi ribao (Legal Daily), 4 11 1998.

8. Raab, Michaela, “Non-governmental social development groups in China,” Ford Foundation Report, 02 1997, p. 18. For the most complete Chinese survey of social organizations, see Ying, Wang et al. , Shehui zhongjian ceng (The Social Intermediary Stratum) (Beijing: Fazhan chubanshe, 1993).

9. This figure was used at a work meeting on strengthening control over social organizations held on 21–22 November 1998. See Xinhua, , Domestic Chinese, 23 11 1998.

10. Zemin, Jiang, “Hold high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory for an all round advancement of the cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics into the 21st century,” Beijing Review, 6–12 10 1997, pp. 1033. It is interesting to note that neither journalistic nor academic reviews of the Congress and Jiang's speech have paid attention to his comments on “social intermediary organizations.”

11. Can, Luo, “Explanations on plan for institutional restructuring of the State Council – delivered at the first session of the Ninth People's Congress on 6 March 1998,” Dagong bao, 7 03 1998, pp. B1–B2, translated in FBlS-China 98–068, 9 03 1998.

12. This forms part of a succession of attempts to reassert Party and state control over business, society and the localities thai began after Jiang Zemin's speech “More talk about politics” in October 1995. These attempts intensified after the late 1996 Sixth Plenum of the 14th CCP Central Committee adopted the resolution on the need to build a “socialist spiritual civilization.”

13. These regulations retain the essential features of the provisional regulations adopted in 1989 after the student-led demonstrations but are more extensive and imply an attempt to control not only activities more closely but also the number of social organizations. The initial response from foreign journalists and human rights organizations was uniformly critical of the controls these regulations place on the sector. See, for example, Becker, Jasper, “Tightening the noose on parties,” South China Morning Post, 5 12 1998; Human Rights in China, “Bound and gagged: freedom of association in China further curtailed under new regulations,” released 13 11 1998, p. 8; and Woodman, Sophia, “Less dressed up as more? Promoting non-profit organizations by regulating away freedom of association,” China Perspectives, No. 22 (1999), pp. 1727. However, while the regulations clearly err on the side of state control, they also mark a significant step forward in terms of official recognition that the sector will play in China's future development. On their indispensability to future development see the comments of Wei Jianxing, member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, to a State Council meeting on the new regulations held in November 1998. “Work Conference on strengthening the management of NGOs and supporting social stability,” Xinhua, , Domestic Chinese Service, 23 11 1998.

14. The length of time before a social organization can actually carry out activities has been increased from 30 to 90 days.

15. Interview in summer 1996 with one of the key figures of the Union who is a retired researcher from the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought within the academy and an active economist.

16. Interview with a senior, now retired, Ministry of Civil Affairs official involved in the drafting process, October 1996.

17. Interview with senior officials from the Ministry of Civil Affairs involved in the legislative drafting process, September 1997.

18. Xinhua, , Domestic Chinese Service, 23 11 1998.

19. This was at a meeting convened at Qinghua University on 14 October 1998 to introduce the Regulations and to mark the opening of the university's new NGO Research Centre. Information from participants. The sensitivity with which the Regulations were viewed before their official publication in November is shown by the fact that initially a number of foreign NGOs working in China were invited. However, at the ministry's request the opening was turned into an “internal meeting” with foreign organizations being informed that the meeting had been postponed. The Bureau created in 1998 is responsible for a broader range of organizations than just social organizations and includes many not-for-profit organizations in the field of education, welfare and research. Staff had argued that the new controlling agency be given the same bureaucratic status as the one that oversees business registration (the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, gongshang guanli ju). The term minjian is difficult to translate precisely and is an acceptable term for the CCP to refer to organizations that are not run directly by the government. Although non-government is frequently used it does not correspond to the term NGO as used in the West or in the Chinese phrase fei zhengfu zuzhi.

20. Interview with Liang Congjie, April 1996.

21. Discussion with Federation leaders, April 1998.

22. It is important to note that the state has decided to rely on administrative regulations issued by the State Council rather than a law passed by the National People's Congress. This gives the authorities greater flexibility in implementation and avoids a more open-ended discussion of the role of this sector. This point is well made by Woodman, , “Less dressed up as more?” p. 18.

23. Interviews with relevant personnel concerned, October 1994.

24. Other reasons given were that there were “financial irregularities” by the businessperson, although these were not specified, and that the shelter had attracted foreign and domestic media attention. Interviews in Shanghai, April 1996, and Human Rights in China, China, p. 19.

25. See also the related regulations “Minban feiqiye danwei dengji guanli zanxing tiaoli” (“Provisional regulations on the registration and management of people-run non-enterprise units”), in Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 9 11 1998.

26. Raab, , “Non-governmental social development groups,” p. 26.

27. The sources for this account are: Xin, Gu, “The structural transformation of the intellectual public sphere in Communist China (1979–1989),” Ph.D. dissertation, Leiden, 1997; Goldman, Merle, Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China: Political Reform in the Deng Xiaoping Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); and the author's own discussions with one of the members, Min Qi, in 1995 and 1996.

28. Goldman, , Sowing the Seeds, pp. 6677.

29. For the details of the take-over see Xin, Gu, The Structural Transformation, pp. 129134.

30. This provides an interesting example as the Falungong was originally registered with the official China Qi Gong Science Research Society. The Society decided that it was a Buddhist sect and as a result de-registered it in February 1997. Thus it now has no linkage to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Its members mobilized when an article critical of the group was published in Tianjin and when the rumour spread that it would be declared illegal. It counts among its members many senior retired cadres, especially from the military, and many women who believe that its exercise regime will enhance their health. South China Morning Post, 2 05 1999, Far Eastern Economic Review, 13 05 1999, p. 40, and author's discussion with followers in Beijing in May 1999.

31. Falungong was banned on 22 July and a major campaign was launched to discredit it and to weed out Party members throughout August and into early September. Thousands of followers were rounded up and Party members who refused to break ties were expelled. Party members were instructed to criticize the movement and denunciation and depiction of the movement's “evil deeds” and “ulterior motives” dominated evening television. In September 1999 many friends in Beijing complained bitterly not about Falungong but about the fact that their favourite television programmes had been taken off the air!

32. Hong, Qi, Zhongguo shehui luanti xianzhuang ji falü tiaozheng kuangjia (The Current Situation and Legal Readjustment and Framework for Chinese Social Organizations) (Beijing: mimeo, 1996).

33. I have come across numerous examples of this in Beijing and Shanghai.

34. In 1997, four urban districts were added and one more rural county. Current estimates suggest that since 1997 over 300 counties and districts have been selected as provincial pilots. “The quality project. Improving quality of care and client orientation in reproductive health family planning services in China” (Beijing: Ford Foundation, 1999), p. 7.

35. Knup, Elizabeth, “Environmental NGOs in China: an overview,” in Woodrow Wilson Center, the Environmental Change and Security Project (eds.), China Environment Series (n.d.), p. 10.

36. Party secretaries at the institutions of higher education were instructed to monitor the situation carefully and to do their best to resolve it swiftly and with the minimum of fuss.

37. See also Knup, , “Environmental NGOs,” p. 12 and Dunn, Seth, “Taking a green leap forward,” The Amicus Journal, Winter 1997, pp. 1214.

38. Baum, and Shevchenko, , “The state of the state,” pp. 333–34.

39. For usage of term “embedded” see Evans, Peter, Embedded Autonomy. States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

40. O'Brien, Kevin J., “Chinese People's Congresses and legislative embeddedness,” Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (04 1994), p. 101.

41. For an analysis of some of the inherent tensions in a Leninist regime see Jowitt, Ken, New World Disorder. The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

42. In this respect, it will be interesting to see the provisions of the new Donations Law that is in drafting.

43. Brook, Timothy, “Auto-organization in Chinese society,” in Brook, and Frolic, , Civil Society in China, p. 23.

44. Biao, Xiang, “How to create a visible ‘non-state space’ through migration and marketized traditional networks: an account of a migrant community in China,” paper delivered to the International Conference on Chinese Rural Labour Force Migration, Beijing, 06 1996.

* I would like to thank Professor Richard Baum and Professor David Apter for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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