Yangshuo, China

Chinese Society & Politics

Engaging China’s New Society

U
.S.-China relations under Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao have settled into a pragmatic period of cooperation, tacitly acknowledging the mutual need to avoid bilateral crises and focus on common interests. American domestic and congressional concern about Chinese human rights abuses has been less politicized with the establishment of new monitoring and dialogue mechanisms.

However, the United States may be missing a strategic opportunity to expand bilateral programming to help develop a healthy Chinese third sector. The complex changes under way at the grassroots level in China, especially in the roles of indigenous and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), merit closer attention in Washington as China enters a period of authoritarian populist politics and “money politics.” It is in our interest to see a healthy society in China. The alternative is growing bilateral friction over religious and other human rights abuses, or worse, social and economic instability in China affecting the whole region and beyond.

The Dynamics of Third Sector Growth

Since 2000, China’s intensified market reform program has brought about a new level of transnational integration that reshapes its society. Between now and 2020, China will become a more pluralistic and open urban society, with more than 50 percent of the population living in cities and with a middle class numbering more than 500 million.

The proliferation of new types of nonprofit and nongovernmental third sector organizations (TSOs), a broad definition now favored by Chinese researchers, is forcing constant redefinition, reclassification and re-thinking. TSOs total at least three million, according to Tsinghua University’s Center for the Study of NGOs. The estimate goes up to 8 million if those exempt from registration are included, such as special associations that are directly managed by the government or the Party. The growing demand for services from this wide variety of TSOs has reshaped the third sector, which now welcomes not only foreign funding, but also foreign participation and training.

Still, TSOs struggle under the onerous management mechanism of registration hurdles, fundraising restrictions, and close state supervision. As a result, only about 300,000 TSOs are registered with the civil affairs authorities. Thousands more, especially at the grassroots level, are either registered in other categories, such as business enterprises or research institutes, or not registered at all, a status that is technically “illegal” but practically tolerated.

New Focus on Governance and Development of the Third Sector

During the 1990s, government’s interest in TSOs was primarily to ensure that they were neither political nor adversarial. By the end of the decade, as policy-makers began to seek solutions to growing socioeconomic problems, some saw TSOs as part of the answer. Others, who remained skeptical due to financial scandals among sectoral leaders and the rise of spiritual sects, called for “regularization” of the third sector.

Since 2003, the Chinese leadership has gradually adopted a “sustainable development strategy” that promotes social development and environmental protection. This launched a wave of research, opinion surveys and public discussion of ways to address social problems with a goal of creating a “harmonious socialist society” by 2020, based on a mature market economy and prosperous civil society. China’s first international conference on philanthropy in Beijing in November 2005 demonstrated the progress in the third sector. In short, the social contract appears to be a matter of growing contention in China. How the political elite manages its complex and fluid relations with social groups, as they seek to address rapidly growing social tensions, is probably the most important challenge facing China’s leadership.

The U.S. Connection

The emerging Chinese civic sector, like the economic sector, responds increasingly to market and international forces, as opposed to just state policy. Over 300 international NGOs, including many U.S.-based ones, are key players in China’s third sector. These organizations have contributed to China’s economic and social development with funding of about USD 200 million per year, modeling, training and practical experience for their Chinese staff.

Many international humanitarian NGOs, including faith-based organizations, provide disaster relief and support micro-loan projects and holistic community development. The Salvation Army, World Vision International, and the U.K.-based Oxfam, are among the largest. The Asia Foundation and the Ford Foundation support projects in law and governance, third sector networking, migrant and worker rights awareness, and capacity building for grassroots TSOs in the poor interior. Their Beijing offices had operated annual budgets of over USD 4 million and 9 million respectively by 2004.

Policy Conundrums

The Chinese government without a doubt will continue to need outside ideas and assistance. Yet, in response to the “color revolutions” of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Beijing decided in late 2005 to reduce rather than expand the sector, especially concerning foreign involvement. Trends in Russia and other former Soviet countries are reinforcing this mindset.

U.S. policy needs to seriously consider the downside of promoting democracy based on a Western adversarial model that responds to the mentality and work style of Western advocacy NGOs. It does not always suit the general preference in China for a collaborative “win-win-win” relationship involving the state, business and NGOs.

Rather than a limited focus on short-term efforts to promote democracy, human rights and rule-of-law in China, the U.S. government should expand its work to proactively support long-term social progress through bilateral agreements on programming to strengthen the role of China’s TSOs. U.S.-China environmental cooperation has helped encourage a more favorable attitude toward environmental NGOs in China. Logical counterparts to discuss charitable and public benefit NGOs should be the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could also address issues such as disaster preparation and the potential positive contribution of NGOs to domestic security together with the Ministry. The bilateral rule-of-law initiative could encompass laws affecting the third sector, including religious organizations.

Chinese government’s current efforts to “rein in” social organizations are likely to be ameliorated by programs which share the unique U.S. experience with voluntary associations. Bilateral relations have already moved into such sensitive arenas as police training for Olympics security. Washington should pursue additional ways to support and engage the thickening web of private social and cultural ties that will introduce new ideas and values, as well as institutional experience and techniques, to promote sociopolitical progress in China.