Civil society: A sort of growth in China

Civil society is growing rapidly in China — where the government will let it, according to a new civil society index report by the group Civicus.

The civil society index (CSI) project in China was implemented by the NGO, the Research Centre of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing. It was the 25th country report in a set of 50 being produced by the Johannesburg-based Civicus. Civicus is an international alliance established in 1993 to nurture the foundation, growth and protection of citizen action throughout the world, especially in areas where participatory democracy and freedom of association are threatened.

The number and variety of civil society organisations has “significantly increased” since the 1990s, the Civicus report on China says. The report says Chinese civil society groups are “particularly well represented in the fields of environmental protection, poverty alleviation, trade promotion and community development.”

But the project also identified weaknesses in Chinese civil society “such as limited citizen participation in civil society activities, a number of legal constraints in the establishment of grassroots NGOs and umbrella bodies, and the limited prominence CSOs (civil society organisations) give to sensitive issues such as democracy and government transparency.” The last of these may not be the least of the problems with Chinese civil society.

“You can’t really find ‘human rights groups’ in China,” coordinator of the CSI in China Jia Xijin told IPS. Jia works in Tsinghua University in Beijing. “There are CSOs that work on rights protection for the floating population, women, and other disadvantaged people. They don’t work directly on ‘human rights’.

There is a human rights group established by the government that mainly works on the white paper of human rights or other general issues.”

Much of civil society in China still has close links with the Chinese Communist Party, Jia said. “Most of the large civil organisations have a close relationship with the CCP, for instance, the Women’s Federation and the Federation of Disabilities.”

Many in China are still unfamiliar with the concept of civil society, Jia said. “The meaning of the concept of civil society varies from one person to another. The common people don’t know the word well, or use it in unclear ways.”

Authorisation for civil organisations launched by the party are easier, Jia said. “The most broad concept of civil society in China includes civil organisations which are registered at the Bureau of Civil Affairs as a social group or civilian non-enterprise units or foundations,” Jia said.

The values dimension suggests that many Chinese CSOs are driven by positive values, such as organisational membership and gender equitable practices. “CSOs play a strong role in promoting commitments to poverty eradication and environmental causes; however, they are much less prominent when it comes to sensitive areas, such as democracy and government transparency.”

The CSI report recommends improvement in structure and the over-regulated environment within which Chinese civil society organisations work. It also calls for an extension of civil society role beyond well-educated urban residents. — IPS