September 14, 2008


China’s Repression of Civil Society Will Haunt It (Minxin Pei, 8/04/08, Financial Times)

[F]or those who have been hoping that China’s rapid economic modernisation will foster a vibrant civil society which will push for future democratisation, the weakness of Chinese NGOs must be a rude reminder that the political evolution historically associated with economic development is not taking place in China – or at least not as quickly as one might have hoped.

Of course, China’s economic development and opening to the outside world have given its people unprecedented personal freedom. In the 1980s, Beijing’s policy on civil society was also relatively liberal. NGOs faced fewer restrictions and flourished. However, following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the Chinese government imposed registration requirements that made it very difficult for genuine NGOs to register and operate legally. The party feared that independent civic organisations would have the potential to challenge its authority.

Consequently, the growth of Chinese civil society, as measured by the number or quality of its NGOs, has woefully lagged behind China’s economic growth. China has more than 350,000 legally registered NGOs, but perhaps only about 10 per cent of them can be considered genuine NGOs in the western sense. Most of the rest are so-called “government-organised non-governmental organisations”, or Gongos, an appellation that would make George Orwell proud. As a rule, Gongos are affiliated with a government bureaucracy, headed by retired officials and funded by the state. They have no genuine autonomy.

Even among genuine NGOs, one cannot find civic groups, such as independent labour unions, student unions and religious groups, which are capable of large-scale collective action. Most Chinese NGOs are small groups engaged in leisure activities, environmental protection and local charity work like health and education. A promising development may be the formation of local chambers of commerce in Zhejiang province, where the private sector accounts for more than 90 per cent of the economic output. But this is the exception that proves the rule.

The hardline policy toward civil society was vindicated several years ago when the so-called “colour revolutions” swept through the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. In China, as well as Russia, western-supported NGOs were seen as having played an outsized role in the ousting of unpopular regimes. Restrictions on Chinese NGOs were subsequently further tightened.

The Communist party perhaps knows better than anybody else the potential of even the most innocuous civic groups.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2008 10:59 AM
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