Is Civic Space in China Shrinking – and What Might it Mean for Transparency Groups?
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Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The conventional wisdom when it comes to China is the appearance of an authoritarian regime with no oxygen for democracy – a heavily state-regulated media environment, society and economy where civil society is highly restricted to begin with. To many, the rise of Xi Jinping and a return to strongman and personalistic rule inevitably spells the intensification of crackdown on NGOs, who do not comply with the whims and wishes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The concerns of activists and various NGO actors are not unfounded – President Xi’s official rhetoric has taken a turn to increased hostility towards forces of foreign intervention and actors who jeopardize national security and the integrity of social fabrics. Yet these characterizations are so vaguely and poorly defined that almost anything can be categorized as such, if the CCP wishes. Arrests of activists and actors within the civic space have been on the rise – or at least covered more prominently by the media.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One particular piece of this trendline is the Foreign NGO Management Law. Implemented in January 2017, it seeks to create a more rigorous and comprehensive regulatory framework, instituting  for the first time, the compulsory registration with the Ministry of Public Security, and restricting sources of funding. This signals a significant shift in legislative environment in China towards foreign NGOs – previously, the government adopts a “graduated control” approach, where foreign NGOs, depending on their level of threat to the government and their abilities to deliver key social services, are treated according to different tiers. The government also adopts a generally soft approach to foreign NGOs, built around three core principles of “no recognition, no banning, no intervention”. Clearly, there is a shift from informal regulation and legislative purgatory to concrete, definitive parameters, registration, and restrictions set on foreign NGOs operating within China, and the issue of foreign NGOs being clearly defined as one of national security.

How much impact has the Foreign NGO Management Law had? Data analysis done by the China NGO Project at Asia Society’s ChinaFile program offers no conclusive or convincing trendlines supporting a shrinking of civic space, but historical data is hard to find. 

A focus solely on regulation risks missing the bigger picture regarding the role of civil society in China, particularly foreign-based NGOS. Chinese authoritarianism is not typical of most non-democratic regimes. There is a large pool of literature in political science that describes China’s authoritarianism as “consultative”, “deliberative” and “fragmented”. The overwhelming consensus is that the CCP is unable to provide all key social services demanded by a rapidly growing, diversifying and pluralization of the Chinese society. The government thus needs NGOs (and potentially foreign NGOs) with new skills, knowledge and technologies, to fill the gap – a fact affirmed by experts on Chinese civil society. The state-civil society relationship is sometimes described as a “contingent symbiosis” – one needs the other to survive. Experts point to an attempt to move the focus of civic space away from advocacy towards provision of key social services. Hence, the Chinese government tolerates and even appears to encourage the flourishing of civil society that benefits national interests, particularly those operating in noncontroversial sectors, such as environmental protection, public health, education, poverty alleviation and economic development.

The other side of the story is that NGOs, including foreign NGOs in China, often toe the line, align themselves with Chinese state interests to gain access to the top political echelons, preserve their own longevity and long-term strategic interests and, ultimately, their survival in China. Not that self-censorship is confined to the Chinese context – TAI’s recent survey of member grantees (results soon forthcoming) confirms this is happening in many jurisdictions.

Can government tolerance extend to those working on transparency, accountability, governance issues? There may be some cause for optimism in that there have been moves towards greater transparency domestically in recent years in specific sectors ranging from extractives industries to the legal sector (for example, establishment of an open-access database archiving the decisions of every court in the country). However, enabling a combination of transparency and participation may be trickier – as Molly Roberts recently outlined in her webinar for TAI members, the Chinese government tolerates certain online dissent, but actively monitors, and will not hesitate to intervene when commentary translates to calls for action. Watch this space.