The Rebirth of Civil Society in China? Lessons from the 'Golden Age' of Chinese Protestantism

The important role of religion in civil society is often overlooked by both Westerners and Chinese. And yet religious organizations, including the church, seminaries, “para-church” organizations, faith-based schools, and charities form a huge and even predominant part of American civil society, and they definitely are part of China’s remerging civil society today.

What is “Civil Society”?

The English term has been translated into Chinese with three different terms with different meanings:

  1. Shimin shehui is the standard translation stemming from earlier Marxist concepts, thus with the negative connotation of “bourgeois society;” it can be narrowly interpreted as “urban residents.” This term is falling out of favor.
  2. Gongmin shehui literally means “citizen society,” and is a political science term implying citizen participation in public affairs and citizen constraints on state power. This correlates with the Western focus on advocacy NGOs or “citizen associations.” Younger Chinese scholars are beginning to use this term.
  3. Minjian shehui is a sociological term that first was picked up by scholars in Taiwan; its use has spread to mainland historians and researchers. Here, “civic associations” are seen as intermediary institutions between the family and the state. Because the largest of these are affiliates of state agencies in China, Chinese stress the “nonprofit” rather than the “nongovernment” aspect of this “third sector.” Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) occupy a realm distinct from government or business.

Of the three terms, the third has the most neutral connotation, stressing cooperation rather than confrontation between sectors, and is the one used by mainstream charitable and environmental NPOs in China.

Trends in the Rebirth of Civil Society in China

In the Mao era, no autonomous social organizations were allowed and the state controlled society as well as the economy. Since 1980, there has been an overall trend line of increasing numbers and increasing autonomy for social organizations. This has occurred in cycles, with bursts of rapid development followed by freezes or even cutbacks reflecting a more general political loosening or tightening of controls on freedom of thought, belief, and association.From 2000–2004, there was a boom in nonprofit organizations, as part of a more general opening of the economy and society after China joined the World Trade Organization. By 2004 there were approximately 300,000 NPOs or foundations registered with Civil Affairs agencies, with counterparts registered in other sectors. Perhaps 8 million total operated at provincial levels or below, affiliated in a myriad of ways with many different government agencies or not registered at all. These nonprofit voluntary associations focus on everything from culture and recreation, health, education and research, community social services, business and professional activities, and environmental or anti-poverty work.But the structure of the political system discriminates by function. Those NPOs providing elder care or anti-poverty work or environmental protection have the most freedom of action and ease of registration. The most strictly controlled are religious and political organizations, and those for youth, labor, and women. These so-called “mass organizations” are still under more direct and strict control by the Chinese Communist Party through the United Front Department and its subsidiaries at lower levels.In November 2004, there were plans to convene the first national conference on philanthropy, to be addressed by a top leader, showcasing new regulations aimed at boosting growth and standardization of the sector. People talked of creating China’s own “Ford Foundation,” allowing international NGOs to set up China branches, and achieving “world-class” standards for accountability, corporate social responsibility etc. Faith-based NPOs, including internationals like World Vision, large nationals like the Amity Foundation and its Catholic and Buddhist counterparts, and many small “mom and pop” religious charities, were becoming an accepted part of China’s NPO community.But then a dash of cold water slowed the momentum as the senior leadership became concerned about the role of political advocacy NGOs (allegedly backed by the U.S. government) in supporting regime change through various “color revolutions” (such as rose and orange) in the former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine and Kryrgyzstan. In recent years, there was slow development of local NPOs and uncertainty and continued dependence on foreign resources for national and international NPOs.Donations to philanthropy within China remain low, less than l/2 of one percent of GDP (compared with over 2% of GDP in the U.S.), so there is much room for growth.The May 2008 earthquake may have provided a positive breakthrough, however. The need was of such a magnitude and urgency that the government opened up to foreign assistance and welcomed all domestic aid, which in turn was unprecedented in scope and spontaneity. Many Chinese, including many Christians, donated money or goods and volunteered their time, something most had never done before. There was still great reluctance by national officials to accept or acknowledge faith-based efforts, however, though these often were among first and most effective responders. Some house churches were told not to get involved; the media were instructed not to report on their contributions. But the warm welcome by locals, both populace and officials, apparently continues today. Many Christian organizations from Beijing and Shanghai who were under pressure before May 2008, as part of the pre-Olympics “cleanup” effort, have begun creative rebuilding projects in Sichuan.

China’s Earlier Experience with Civil Society

Research on what has been called the “Golden Age of Chinese Protestantism,” in the late Qing–early Republican periods, 1900–1937, can shed some light on prospects for a Christian contribution to today’s civil society. A series of books titled Salt and Light tell the lost stories of Chinese Christians who were leaders in society, working as urban professionals and heads of civic organizations in the Third Sector.One such person was Tang Guo’an, one of the first Chinese students to study in the U.S., who worked in business in Shanghai while advocating for moral and social reforms through teaching and writing for the YMCA. He also joined societies against foot binding and opium use. After 1908, he worked for the foreign ministry to coordinate with the U.S. in hosting the first international anti-opium conference, and starting up a new U.S.-China educational exchange program. He became the first president of Tsinghua University, one of the best in China today.Another was Shi Meiyu, one of the first Chinese women to graduate from an American medical school. She launched the nursing profession in China and then founded the Bethel Mission in Shanghai—with a Christian nursing school, hospital, relief aid to the poor, and preaching bands that launched the careers of some of the leading Chinese evangelists of the time.A third was journalist Fan Zimei who, as editor-in-chief for influential national Christian journals, shaped the thinking of several generations of educated Chinese.Learning about these people reveals the valuable contributions made to Chinese and international civil society by Chinese Christians and their institutions, far out of proportion to their numbers.

Five Lessons for Today’s Church-Society Relations

1. The external environment has a great impact.

One hundred years ago, like now, a wave of economic globalization provided the context for rapid positive change in China, including a middle class and civil society. New technologies opened up new social options, and Western-educated professionals built cooperation between Chinese and foreigners in all domains of life. They introduced practical social reforms and supported new civic associations. Then, economic retraction slowed this momentum, as it likely will today.Religious ties formed an important part of the social and cultural relations between China and America, a fact often neglected by the media and scholars. Most of these earlier reformers studied in the United States and lived and worked with American colleagues in China’s coastal cities. The thick fabric of personal and professional ties brought valuable resources for China’s development and created a buffer that helped preserve the bilateral relationship despite periodic political and military crises. Religious ties have also been an important, though invisible, part of China’s recent progress due to good U.S.-China relations.Both then and now, rampant corruption, immorality, and huge inequities of wealth caused some Chinese to see Christianity as a means to renew public morality and build a new and equitable social order. Students who attended mission schools in China and leading liberal arts colleges in America prompted a new model for Christian moral education and social life. Chinese Protestant converts played a major role in reforming modern urban China despite their small percentage of the populace. This may also be the case today.In the earlier period, cosmopolitan experiences helped Chinese Christians avoid a narrow nationalism that blamed foreigners for all of China’s troubles. Their friends, partners, and institutions were two-way conduits of mutual exchange. Leaders of Christian NPOs sought to maintain autonomy from foreign religious institutions and the Chinese government alike. This search for autonomy is important today.

2. Rapid industrialization and moral and social reform are linked.

In the early stages of industrialization worldwide, workers migrating from the country to the new industrial centers have suffered from poverty and culture shock. In the U.K., the U.S., and 19th century China, religious revivals sparked reform to promote the abolition of slavery, temperance, Sunday Schools to fight illiteracy, and the YMCA and YWCA to help young men and women become disciplined workers and responsible citizens.Later in the Progressive era of the early 1900s, urban missions like Shi Meiyu’s Bethel Mission began to provide services to migrants and immigrants in the big cities. Yale graduate Yan Yangchu developed a holistic model for combining literacy training, public hygiene education, and rural development, which was widely copied by other private and government agencies. Today, too, the emerging Chinese church is moving into charitable work and social service.Civil society becomes especially important in times of crisis such as economic depression, war, and revolution. Periodic floods and droughts devastated areas of the Chinese countryside, and civil military conflict and the Japanese invasion created millions of refugees. Christian organizations often led the response. In today’s slowing economy, local governments will need help to provide social services. But whether NGOs will have the domestic and foreign resources they need to play a role is a big question.

3. The public media is of central importance to reach the elite.

YMCA editor Fan Zimei sought to change Chinese social relationships through popular education in morality and science. He and Ding Shujing at the YWCA focused on character building and education for citizenship. Today, there are important breakthroughs in the mass media, bringing moral education and Christian content to television and the Internet.

4. Youth, women, and the family are the key to cultural change.

Chinese women who were among the first to gain a modern education benefited from the impact of Christian values on the patriarchal family and society. Shi Meiyu and Lin Qiaozhi became pioneers of medicine in China because they had enlightened Christian fathers who were inspired by the examples of women missionaries to prohibit foot binding for their daughters and to support them through years of education. Today, Chinese citizens have a great need for counsel and training in marriage and family relationships.

5. Finally, socioeconomic crises may contribute to church independence.

Earlier support for a liberal democratic path for China collapsed in the 1930s with civil conflict between Nationalists and Communists and Japanese encroachment after 1931, followed by invasion in 1937 as part of a new world war. The moderate long-term reform agenda of “national renewal” of the early 1900s gave way to the urgent, immediate need for political and military mobilization for the sake of “national salvation.”With Japanese occupation of the coast and Chinese evacuation to the interior, Protestant organizations were absorbed in sustaining their staff as refugees and organizing relief efforts for the dispossessed. After 1941, through the civil war of 1945–49, and on into the 1950s, Chinese Christians were on their own more and more, as missions were closed and transfers of funds ceased. There is real danger today that economic recession will weaken civil society. This is the challenge that faces all civic organizations, including the church.Yet as China continues to work through the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial economy and complex society, there is a greater need for moral virtues and social habits that build and sustain economic assets and renew the social order. These can be produced by a number of public and private actors working together: public civic education, professional education and managerial training, development of nonprofit associations, and religious activities of all kinds. All are needed for China to sustain the gains of recent decades.

ArticlesJason Truell