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Post-Earthquake Relief and Reconstruction Efforts: The Emergence of Civil Society in China?*

  • Jessica C. Teets


Many analysts contend that participation in the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts strengthened Chinese civil society. I examine these claims based on interviews with civil society organizations, academics and local officials in Sichuan, and argue that participation in relief efforts has strengthened civil society through increased capacity, publicity and interaction with local government. Conversely, relief efforts also reveal weaknesses in civil society and their governing institutions which inhibit further development, such as the trust and capacity deficit of these organizations. Participation in relief efforts served as a learning process whereby government, society and civil society groups learned how to work together effectively. However, in order to consolidate these gains and further strengthen civil society, there must be greater institutionalization of these groups' roles, increased capacity building, and greater trust between society, groups and the local state.



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1 Edward Wong, “Grieving Chinese parents protest school collapse, New York Times, 17 July 2008.

2 I use the common sociological definition of civil society in this report, whereby civil society is an aggregation of many different types of social organizations, all of whom have voluntary memberships.

3 Gordon White, “Prospects for civil society in China: a case study of Xiaoshan city,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, 1993.

4 According to interviews BR3 and BR4, this debate is already occurring in MOCA although the outcome is unclear; many in MOCA worry about giving too much power to social groups too quickly.

5 Yong, Li, “Chinese NGOs struggle for survival,” Caijing (Finance and Economics Magazine), 5 July 2002, p. 24.

6 Tismaneanu, Vladimir, Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel (New York: Free Press, 1992); Tismaneanu, Vladimir (ed.), Revolutions of 1989 (New York: Routledge, 1999).

7 Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).

8 Brook, Timothy and Frolic, B. Michael, “The ambiguous challenge of civil society,” in Brook, Timothy and Frolic, B. Michael (eds.), Civil Society in China (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Heath Chamberlain, “On the search for civil society in China,” Modern China, No. 19 (1993), pp. 199215.

9 Ma, Qiusha, “The governance of NGOs in China since 1978: how much autonomy?Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, No. 31 (2002), pp. 305–30.

10 Li, F., Jinqiaoqiao de geming, Zhongguo dangdai shimin shehui (A Silent Revolution: China's Contemporary Civil Society) (Hong Kong: Mirror Publishing House, 1998), and Fisher, J., Nongovernment: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1998), both use autonomy as a key feature of the non-governmental sector and believe China has only a handful of true NGOs.

11 Huang, Philip, “‘Public sphere’/‘civil society’ in China? The third realm between state and society,” Modern China, No. 19 (1993), pp. 216–40; Francis Fukuyama, “Social capital and the global economy: a redrawn map of the world,” Foreign Affairs, 1995.

12 Yang, Mayfair, “Between state and society: the construction of corporateness in a Chinese socialist factory,” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 22 (1989), pp. 3160; Perry, Elizabeth, “Labor's battle for political space: the role of worker associations in contemporary China,” in Davis, Deborah, Kraus, Richard, Naughton, Barry and Perry, Elizabeth (eds.), Urban Spaces in Contemporary China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 302–25; and Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Liu Xinyong, “Student associations and mass movements,” in ibid. pp. 362–93.

13 Yunqiu Zhang, “From state corporatism to social representation: local trade unions in the reform years,” in Brook and Frolic, Civil Society in China.

14 Howell, Jude, “New directions in civil society: organizing around marginalized interests,” in Howell, Jude (ed.), Governance in China (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), p. 151.

15 Kennedy, Scott, The Business of Lobbying in China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Pearson, Margaret, China's New Business Elite: The Political Consequences of Economic Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Wank, David, “Civil society in communist China?” in Hall, John (ed.), Civil Society: Theory, History, and Comparison (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 74.

16 Kennedy, The Business of Lobbying, p. 44.

17 Tsai, Lily, Accountability without Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

18 Gold, Thomas, “Bases for civil society in reform China,” in Brødsgaard, Kjeld Erik and Strand, David (eds.), Reconstructing Twentieth-Century China: State Control, Civil Society, and National Identity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 164.

19 Howell, “New directions in civil society,” p. 156; see also Kennedy, The Business of Lobbying; for analysis stating that “civil society” does not exist, see Francis Fukuyama, “Social capital and the global economy: a redrawn map of the world,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 1995; and Ho, Peter, “Greening without conflict? Environmentalism, NGOs and civil society in China,” Development and Change, No. 32 (2001), pp. 893921.

20 Lester Salamon, The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project; Wang, Shaoguang, “Money and autonomy: patterns of civil society finance and their implications,” Studies in Comparative International Development, No. 40 (2006), pp. 329.

21 Chandhoke, Neera, “A critique of the notion of civil society as the ‘third sphere’,” in Tandon, Rajesh and Mohanty, Ranjita (eds.), Does Civil Society Matter? Governance in Contemporary India (New Dehli: Sage Publications India Ltd, 2003), pp. 2758.

22 Brook and Frolic, “The ambiguous challenge of civil society.”

23 Alison Jaggar, “Arenas of citizenship: civil society and the terrain of politics,” unpublished.

24 Roden, Garry, “Theorizing the political opposition in East and Southeast Asia,” in Rodan, Garry (ed.), Political Opposition in Industrializing Asia (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 132.

25 White, Gordon, Howell, Jude A. and Xiaoyuan, Shang, In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

26 Huang, “‘Public sphere’/‘civil society’.”

27 Rodan, “Theorizing the political opposition in East and Southeast Asia”; Jorgensen, Lars, “What are NGOs doing in civil society?” in Clayton, Andrew (ed.), NGOs, Civil Society and the State: Building Democracy in Transitional Societies (Oxford: The International Non-Governmental Organisation Training and Research Centre, 1996), p. 38.

28 See the following for a critique of using this model in China: White, Howell and Shang, In Search of Civil Society; Huang, “‘Public sphere’/‘civil society’”; Wakeman, Frederic, “The civil society,” in Wakeman, Frederic and Xi, Wang (eds.), China's Quest for Modernization: A Historical Approach (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1993).

29 Interview SN1.

30 Interview SN1.

31 Jim Yardley and David Barboza, “Many hands, not held by China, aid in quake,” The New York Times, 20 May 2008.

32 Interview SR4.

33 “China's netizens ignite a new controversy: insufficient earthquake donations,”, 2 June 2008.

34 Tim Johnson, “After quake, Chinese open wallets, a few of them under pressure,” McClatchy Newspapers, 6 June 2008.

35 Interview BR2.

36 Interviews SG2 and BG5.

37 Interview SN1.

38 Interview BG5.

39 Interview SI3.

40 Emma Graham-Harrison and Lindsay Beck, “China quake could speed growth of ad-hoc activism,” Reuters, 7 Jun 2008.

41 See 4-Wave World Values Survey available at

42 Interview SR4.

43 Interview SG2.

44 Interview SI3.

45 Johnson, “After quake.”

46 “Quake relief helps civil society grow in China,” Xinhua News Agency, 15 June 2008.

47 Interview SG2; also mentioned by SN1.

48 Interview NN1.

49 Interview BI1.

50 Interview SN5.

51 Yang, Guobin, “The internet and civil society in China: a preliminary assessment,” Journal of Contemporary China, No. 12 (2003), pp. 453–75.

52 Interview SG2.

53 Interview SR4.

54 Interview SI3.

55 Interview SN1.

56 Interview SR8.

57 Interview SN6.

58 Interview SI3.

59 Interview SG2.

60 Interviews SI3 and SG7.

61 Interview SG7. These auditing teams have found few problems; in one the vice-mayor of one of the “sister cities” for reconstruction, Anyang, Henan, was found guilty of mismanaging the purchase and distribution of tents and was fired.

62 Jill Drew, “Tangled blame in quake deaths Chinese parents facing uphill battle for redress over collapsed schools,” Washington Post, 2 June 2008.

63 Interviews BG5 and BG6.

64 Interview NN1.

65 For example, see

66 Zhang Qi, “Will the earthquake transform China?” China Elections and Governance,, accessed on 20 July 2008.

67 Interview BI1.

68 Interview BR2.

69 Interview BR4.

70 Interview BR4.

71 Jessica C. Teets, “Governance in non-democracies: the role of civil society in increasing pluralism and accountability in local public policy,” unpublished dissertation, 3 December 2008.

* This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0720405.

Post-Earthquake Relief and Reconstruction Efforts: The Emergence of Civil Society in China?*

  • Jessica C. Teets


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