Can Civil Society Thrive In China?

Here is my translation of the blog post:-

"Recently, internet-related incidents often show effects that counter their purposes. A certain Nanjing housing bureau chief Zhou Jiugeng (周久耕) was exposed by netizens for his corrupt behavior in the case of the ‘luxury brand cigarettes’; Henan citizen Wang Shuai (王帥) and Inner Mongolian citizen Wu Baoquan (吳保全) were arrested by the authorities because of their posting on the internet comments criticizing the local government. The latter are still being incarcerated for libel against the government. As a matter of fact, what this seemingly paradoxical cause-effect phenomenon reflects is a gradually visible contentious relationship between civil society and public power.

Civil society is a relatively new concept which says that society 'stands opposite to the state, and is partially independent of the state. It includes those social life domains that cannot be conflated with the state or that cannot be drowned out by the state' (Charles Taylor). The concept originated from the cognition of the existence of society by Western philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu, and it became popular in recent years during the social transformation process of Eastern European countries. Taiwan scholars interpret it as 'people’s society' (民間社會). Mainland experts generally call it 'citizens’ society' (市民社會); but Cui Weiping (崔衛平)coined it as 'civil society' (公民社會) when he translated a Polish author’s work. I agree with this latter interpretation, because it embodies both the idea of independence from the state as inferred in 'people’s society' and the content of a mercantile economy and individualism as implied by 'citizens’ society'. Moreover, it also emphasizes the protection of citizens’ rights, the importance of social responsibility and the aspiration for a democratic political system.

The concept of civil society in former East European countries was born under a planned economy. But China’s civil society has been growing under a market economy and thus by comparison should be more natural, self-initiating and progressive. With an all-powerful government in the past, the government used to shoulder infinite responsibilities and sought to prohibit any kind of independent or autonomous society. The process of thirty years of reform can be said to be a progressive evolution towards autonomy of a society. The government does not exert control over everything. The space for society has increased. A market economy has laid a solid materialistic foundation for developing a society that is independent of the state. The appearance of various private charity organizations, NGOs, community organizations, women’s organizations, religious groups, environmental organizations and internet discussion forums has underscored the society’s autonomous nature as characterized by a civil society.

Yet, civil society in China is still experiencing a lot of growing pains. Since the occurrence of last year’s snow disaster and Wenchuan earthquake, the actions taken by some volunteer groups were encouraging and made people think that they were witnessing a development of civil society. But almost instantly they became less optimistic. One example is that the congee distribution stall which touched people in Wenzhou has been forced to close up shop as a result of the local government’s orders. The reason given is that 'a social organization must be sponsored by a business management unit before it can get registered at the civic administration department'. As a matter of fact, such kind of charitable activities were commonly seen in society in the old days, and we are supposed to have a modern age civil society now. This only says that some local governments are still mired in the old concept that 'governments are all-powerful' – they refuse to let society take up certain responsibilities and insist on controlling everything.

In a market-economy-based society, the government is simply incapable of doing everything by itself. In my view, the appearance of the congee distributing stall is not a reflection of government’s inadequacy in disaster relief work; rather, it shows that some government officials, despite knowing very well that government is not almighty, do not wish to see the self-initiating charity work of an individual or group and use all means to prevent any civic groups from forming. To a certain extent, this is a case of being reluctant to let go of power while being incapable of fulfilling duties. This is the cause of what people commonly see as a mismatch of power and duties. It is also the cause of governments’ impotence. At the same time, this also tells us that in the relationship between society and state, power is still the driving force – civil society is still far from achieving more space for development.

According to 19th century French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, another important objective of civil society is to let a diversified society made up of all kinds of autonomous community groups to act as society’s 'balancing force' versus government’s power. Since civil society is independent of government and is not in a pursuit for power, it follows that its monitoring can be done in a fair manner. The never-ending occurrence of corruption cases proves that the top-down hierarchical administrative system has not served the check-and-balance purpose. So, in the present circumstances where it is futile to use power to check power, using bottom-up social pressure emanating from the society to check and monitor government’s power, thereby influencing public policies, may well be a desirable path. In recent years, netizens’ exercising their civic duty to monitor the public authority has earned applause from citizens and some government officials alike. It proves that there can be a positive interactive relationship between the state and civil society.

For the sake of everyone’s well-being, let’s step towards a civil society."