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Social Organizations and Governance in China: Reforming Regulations and Liberating Civil Society?

Sunday, 13 October 2013
by Dr. Konstantinos Tsimonis, Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London, UK
Social Organizations and Governance in China: Reforming Regulations and Liberating Civil Society?
In the last 30 years since the initiation of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, China scholars have been preoccupied with a single question: Is China developing a civil society? Will the emergence of non-Party organizations eventually challenge the authoritarian context and bring about political liberalization and democracy? The fact that this prospect has not yet materialized is often attributed to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strong control of the sphere of social organization and, in particular, to the restrictive regulatory framework that governs the operation of domestic and foreign NGOs.  This system stipulates a wide range of controls such as extensive bureaucratic requirements and documentation, limitations on advocacy, strict monitoring over finances, while it gives extensive discretion to the Ministry of Civil Affairs to reject registration and cease the operation of a social organization (SO) without justification. Additionally, in a corporatist fashion, the regulations do not allow for more than one social organization to operate in a certain area of work within the same administrative area.

Most of the criticism on this system has concentrated on the requirement for social organizations to first obtain the professional sponsorship of a government (or Party) agency in a related policy area before they can apply for registration with the Civil Affairs department. The rationale of this “dual registration” requirement is to create institutional dependency as the sponsoring unit can intefere with the social organization’s internal operation and decision-making. Not surprisingly, many organizations avoid official registration mainly due to the “sensitive” nature of their work. Others simply do not succeed in securing such a sponsorship due to weak social connections of founding members with local authorities. This system has driven many social organizations underground while others use a loophole in the system and register as business units. However, this practice limits their scope of work as it exposes them to taxation and renders easier for the government to freeze their operation on tax evasion grounds. Indeed the CCP has continuously employed this measure against NGOs and individuals in order to censor their advocacy. It comes to no surprise that the dual registration system is often presented as the most clear indication that social organizations in China lack the autonomy necessary to develop their full potential as civil society entities.

Lately there have been plenty of reports regarding an imminent reform of this framework, creating optimism in the community of social organizations. Following a 2009 pilot project in Shenzhen, Chinese media reported in 2012 that the Guangdong provincial government allowed NGOs to apply directly to civil affairs departments for registration without the requirement of first securing sponsorship by a state agency or organization. This year, Shanghai followed with a similar legislative initiative. On a national level, according to People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, there are significant moves towards a countrywide reform of the existing framework to the direction of effectively eliminating the dual registration system. This reform is expected to take place after the Third Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Congress later this year.

Removing the dual registration requirement is an important departure from the status quo.  Therefore, initial reactions to the above announcements have been very positive. Members of social organizations, academics and analysts in the mainland argue that the pending reform will signal a “breakthrough” for the development of civil society in China, as the requirement of securing institutional patronage will be removed from the equation representing the relation between state and social organizations.

For China Scholars the reformed regulations will inform the ongoing discussion on the form and direction of state-society relations in the PRC. So far, the regulatory framework has hindered this discussion as the very visible top-down authoritarian dynamic has distorted actual trends on the ground. If the state’s immediate grip on social organizations in the form of the sponsorship requirement is removed, the actual structural configuration between state and society will be unveiled, allowing researchers to examine how social organizations are utilizing the newly opened social space to advance their aims and influence policy making.

Will social organizations break free and even antagonize state authority or will they remain directed to the state, largely seeking cooperation in exchange of the latter’s assistance and resources? Ultimately, the prospect of removing the dual registration system could permit a more convincing answer to whether a civil society or a corporatist arrangement is actually present in China or not. In fact, this discussion exceeds the confines of academic life. How one perceives the future directions of China’s sphere of social organization has repercussions for: (a) foreign policy making, by fueling or diffusing arguments on China’s “peaceful evolution”; (b) international bodies and NGOs seeking to fund impactful projects and social organizations in China; (c) China itself, as projecting an image of “normality” is essential in the way it is perceived abroad either as a “threat” and the authoritarian “other” or as a “partner”; and (d) the social organizations in China themselves that will operate in a new institutional context. Thus, for academics and policy-makers alike, the removal of restrictions in the operation of social organizations, such as the dual registration system, could signal a “moment of truth”. Are we to expect the slow rise of a civil society in China? The answer given here to this question is a negative one. The reasons for this are twofold, with the first referring to the experience of state and society relations in China, while the second addresses the rationale behind the pending reforms.

The abortive attempt to identify a civil society

First, by applying concepts such as “civil society” and “corporatism” that are so heavily associated with western historical experience we may obscure more than we actually explain as we adopt a certain agenda of what to look for and how to interpret it. RB Wong[1] alerts us to this danger saying that “even as Chinese historical changes are separated from European developments, they are reunited as functional equivalents to European changes”. Consequently, our understanding of social developments in China remains implicitly defined by European experiences. In the Chinese experience of state-society relations we can identify elements of Leninist organization; corporatism in its state or societal forms; and even characteristics associated with civil society. If this coexistence of such a plethora of trends seems “contradictory” to us, this is because we expect to see something else, something more familiar. Wong’s remark that “the modern world is filled with states but the ones we have today still bear the marks of the different paths they have travelled” serves as an important guide in how we approach state-society relations in China and elsewhere.

The discussion on social organizations in China initially developed within a framework constructed around civil society-centred explanations that have exhibited serious empirical limitations. For example, why in the context of marketization, many social organisations in China continue to seek the state’s recognition and patronage rather than pursuing independence? And how can the ambiguously named Government Organized NGOs (GONGOs) be approached by social scientists trained in the works of de Tocqueville or Habermas? In this discussion, the preoccupation with civil society in the 80s and 90s gave its turn to “corporatism”, a concept that captures some of the institutional arrangements at place, yet only partially.

Indeed, what we may identify as “corporatist arrangements” can be approached as state responses in old problems with deep roots in China’s late imperial past. The 1998 regulations on the registration of social organizations are direct ascendants of similar attempts by the Nationalist state in the 1920s and 1930s, which in turn reflect the Chinese experience of state making since the late empire and its central concern with penetrating local society in order to finance modernisation programs and retain social order. The late imperial state had to rely on the local gentry and their associations in order to finance its attempt to meet the challenge of imported “modernity”, with its guns, trains and ideas. The Nationalist government aspired to penetrate local rural and urban society to an unprecedented degree as a means of extraction or resources and for social control. The Chinese state today is trapped between opposing social dynamics of market reform and its continuing attempt to hold a (much more pluralistic) society under control and in line with its developmental and political goals. The enduring feature in all historical phases is that the ability of the state to penetrate society depends on the state’s “capacity to create new organizations in the localities and influence, if not control, those that are non-governmental”[2]. But does this process need to create patterns of state-society relations that are identical with western experiences and the ways they have been codified in concepts like “corporatism” and “civil society”?

Acknowledging variation in historical experiences can explain phenomena such as the Government Organized NGOs, and the shifts and “contradictions” in the orientation of China’s social organizations between greater relevance to the social groups they target, or loyalty to the state, that cannot be captured by “corporatism” and “civil society”, unless we redefine the content of these concepts. Tony Saich[3] examining the development of social organizations argues that both “civil society” and “corporatism” when applied in the Chinese context, have serious explanatory limitations; he describes, instead, a symbiotic relationship, and multiple models of state-society relations that are operating at the same time. The picture that Saich presents is that of a continuous process of negotiation that takes place within the state (as broadly defined to include party organs, state agencies and the mass organizations), and between state and society. Dickson[4] also disagrees with arguments that see corporatism as a process of decay of the Leninist political system either through a transformation from state to societal corporatism[5] or as a tendency of associations evolving to the direction of civil society[6]. According to Dickson, the transformation from state to societal corporatism is the outcome of political reform, not the dynamic behind it, hinting that democratization is a prerequisite to societal corporatism rather than the opposite. Instead, he identifies simultaneously practiced exclusionary and inclusionary policies within state corporatism that may account for trends identified by scholars without “stretching the concept of societal corporatism beyond recognition”.

Yiyi Lu, in her recent book[7] has argued very thoroughly that careful empirical research of the landscape of social organizations in China reveals a social reality that exceeds the analytical capacity of Western-centric concepts. According to her analysis, social organisations in China exhibit more autonomy than imagined under the corporatist prism while simultaneously, they are more directed to the state than civil society organizations in the West. On the one hand the state retains an extensive “bureaucratic control over the allocation of resources and opportunities”, and one the other, the weakening of its social control mechanisms allows many social entrepreneurs and organizations to demarcate an “extraordinary degree of de facto autonomy”.[8] Lu remarks that the diversity of Chinese NGOs renders an all-encompassing classification as civil society or corporatist entities impossible, as it is not difficult to find examples of organizations to support or criticise any argument directed towards identifying either model of state-society relations.

The difficulty of capturing social realities in China by using west-centric models becomes more apparent when attempting to interpret conditions observed on the ground. During fieldwork in north China, I visited an “NGO” that operates in the area of migrant workers’ welfare. The organization is based in Shandong (hereafter coded as Shandong Organization, ShO) and operates in the field of migrant workers’ welfare covering a wide range of issues from labour rights to community building. The organization has been successful so far due to the devotion, skills and passion of its founder, a migrant worker himself, who set up a hotline for legal issues, offering advice to workers on labour rights. After a few years of the hotline’s successful operation, the organisation expanded by opening a community centre offering classes and after-school care for children of migrant workers, followed by the setting-up of an additional recreational and educational centre for young workers within an industrial park. In each step, the founder was very careful to include local state agencies in his initiatives in order to prevent raising suspicion and gain their political and financial support. In addition, he meticulously pursued the patronage of the Communist Youth League, presenting his work as supportive to social stability and avoiding any action that may be considered political activism. Eventually, his non-confrontational approach, devotion and modesty resulted in the strong backing of his endeavour by city and provincial League officials.

The authorities have attempted to co-opt the Shandong Organization in a number of ways that have also been previously identified by scholars in other cases[9]: a) by giving political honours, such as awarding the “model worker” prize to the founder, and the “May 4th” award to the community centre; b) offering official positions, in this case the founder is also vice-president of the city youth federation; c) conducting visits by high ranking officials, with the notable example the Communist Youth League First Secretary; d) carrying out organisational penetration by setting up a Party, Workers Union, Youth League and Women’s Federation branch within the ShO; e) promoting the founder in the national and foreign media and the sanctioned social work community as an example of China’s NGOs, through interviews, participation in conferences and publications, and; f) delegating certain social work projects to the organization and offering material contributions in the form of facilities and equipment. Characteristic of the formal degree of penetration is that the new education centre in the industrial park is registered as a League branch, which allows it to benefit from the volunteer work of League and Party members.

More specialized activities, such as the legal rights lectures and consultations of the Shandong Organization, do not fall within the realm of interaction with the local authorities as the latter have little or nothing to contribute in terms of specialized knowledge. The picture that emerges is one of a distribution of activities: those officially delegated (publicity events and ceremonies, official lectures, mobilization campaigns) and those carried out by the organization itself, which are of a more specialized and impactful nature and are carried out autonomously.

The official backing that this Shandong social organization received from local authorities enabled it to present itself as an advocate of the rule of Chinese labour law, fending away suspicions from private companies that its activities may disrupt the production process. Chinese enterprises request the services of the ShO’s founder to educate workers on their lawful rights in order to prevent them from making demands that transcend the legal obligations of the employer. In addition, foreign enterprises invite him to carry out legal education and awareness study sessions in order to avoid labour law violations by Chinese contractors that could damage the image of the foreign corporation. More importantly, the organization educates Chinese migrant workers on their rights on a daily basis, making a valuable and immediate contribution to raising their level of understanding their rights. Furthermore, it is building a community of migrant workers and promoting their integration into local city life by offering a wide range of welfare and recreational services, circulating a small newspaper, and holding various events. In the words of the organization’s founder, the ShO’s mission is to promote “equality and respect for the new citizens” (i.e. migrant workers). Local authorities also benefit as they have acquired a channel of communication with young migrant workers, a very mobile group that is often outside the local state’s reach.

The personal charisma, leadership and negotiation skills of its founder, has been the cornerstone of the ShO’s success. The local state’s assistance and organizational penetration has legitimized the ShO and has thereby allowed it to maintain a very high degree of autonomy in terms of its operation, internal decision-making and activities.  The organization does not pursue activist strategies or radical political goals and has become a source of good publicity for local officials, who are confident in entrusting the ShO with local government financed projects. According to the founder and social workers this “trust” is practically translated to greater autonomy. The authorities do not interfere in the internal affairs of the organization, allowing it the freedoms of decision making, of managing its own projects, and of handling its finances.

Interestingly, this case is a typical example of how an organisational setting that appears antithetical to a “civil society” entity as defined in the West, maintains a very high degree of autonomy that does not fit a corporatist model either. This is only one of many similar cases recorded by scholars working on state-society relations in China who argue that a close relationship with the state is a strategy often pursued by social organizations that seek access to resources and official sanctioning of their work in order to gain legitimacy, be more effective and autonomous[10]. Conditions on the ground reveal that the official system of patronage can be less restrictive than anticipated and creates some opportunities for social organizations to attract state funding.

In conclusion, the above discussion shows that the working assumption that a civil society is predetermined to emerge at some point in China is highly problematic as it carries a teleological weight based on what has already been observed in the West. Therefore on both theoretical and empirical grounds, it is highly unlikely that the reform of the regulatory framework governing the operation of domestic and foreign NGOs in China will signal the emergence of a state-society configuration that resembles the European and North American experiences.

The rationale behind a reformed regulatory framework

The above argument against interpreting state-society relations under the distortive lenses of western concepts reorients the explanatory framework of the new changes in the dual registration system from the “grand theory” level to more immediate interpretations. The reformed regulation is simultaneously recognition and a very pragmatic answer to the failure of the current registration policy for social organizations.

From the state’s perspective the current framework is counterproductive in two ways. First, the registration regulations drive social organizations underground, to a level that state agencies cannot monitor or control. It is estimated that more that 3 million non-registered NGOs operate in the mainland presently for which the authorities know little or nothing about, approximately 10 times more than the registered ones. My research on the Communist Youth League has revealed that communication with its approximately 3 million branches -a large number of which is only nominally active- is hardly maintained, while CYL Committees throughout the administrative hierarchy of the PRC are in the dark regarding the exact number of youth social organizations operating informally.

Second, in the context of the state’s “declining capacity to implement policy consistently”[11] towards a society that is demanding more state attention in the form of welfare services in order to ameliorate the inequalities created by marketization, the social functions of these social organizations are often welcomed by local authorities. These social services are targeted on groups under heavily moralistic institutionalized prejudice, such as the case of AIDS-related NGOs and those operating in the field of sex workers, or those gaining increasing public and official sympathy such as welfare services for children of migrant workers. Therefore, by removing the “bottleneck” of official sponsorship, state authorities will not only benefit from the social welfare functions of these organizations, but will also get a better access to them, as the latter will seek registration in order to start operating openly, making themselves known.

In addition, the pending nationwide reform should be viewed as the last step of local and national state initiatives in the field of governance of social organizations. In 2009 Shenzhen was the first city in China to abolish the dual registration system for social welfare and charity organizations, which now only have to register with the Civil Affairs departments, a decision that was regarded as experimental and served as a blueprint for future policy changes. Then, in April 2010, the central government, in an attempt to control the inflow of donations from foreign institutions, enforced more restrictive regulations on foreign money transfers to Chinese social organizations. Next, in February of 2011 the Beijing municipal government allowed industry and commerce, charities, welfare and social services’ organizations to register directly with the civil affairs departments without the requirement of dual registration. All the above fall in line with an attempt to streamline the operation of social organizations by making better use of their social work capacities, “luring” them over-ground while devising new ways to influence their activities and growth. The above are indications of the CCP’s careful and pragmatic approach regarding the governance of social organizations, that solves the problems of current regulations and partially adjusts law with social reality.

In conclusion, the new regulations will consist a “breakthrough” only to the degree that they will allow existing underground organizations in the field of social work to come to the surface and new ones to start their operation with less red tape in their registration process. However, the actual impact of these changes is far from certain as the conservative reflexes of bureaucracies tend to dilute institutional reforms, while social organizations remain vigilant and apprehensive of new state regulations.  Ultimately, despite the gradual abolishment of the “dual registration system” there is no indication of a swift in the priorities of the local and central state on the one hand, and social organizations on the other. State and society relations in the PRC will continue to develop in a symbiotic context that is malleable to the center’s political priorities and pressure from the base, yet it is very unlikely that a “civil society” mirroring western historical experience will emerge as a result of this reform.


  1. Wong, Roy Bin, China Transformed: Historical change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997)
  2. Ibid:192
  3. Saich, Tony, ‘Negotiating the State: The development of Social Organizations in China’ The China Quarterly No161 (March 2000)
  4. Dickson, Bruce J., ‘Cooptation and Corporatism in China: The logic of Party Adaptation’ Political Science Quarterly Vol 115, No 4 (winter, 2000-1)
  5. Unger and Chan, op. cit.
  6. White, Gordon; Howell, Jude and Shan Xiaoyuan, In Search for civil society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)
  7. Lu, Yiyi, Non-govermental organisations in China (Routledge: London, 2009)
  8. Ibid: 139-141
  9. Cheng, Joseph Y.S.; Ngok, Kinglun; Zhuang Wenjia, ‘The survival and development space for China’s Labor NGOs: Informal Politics and its Uncertainty’, Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 6, 2010
  10. See characteristically the book of Lu Yiyi in which she analyzes similar centripetal dynamics at play in the case of 55 Chinese “NGOs”, that inform their relation to the party-state.
  11. Saich, op. cit.  p. 133


  • Cheng, Joseph Y.S.; Ngok, Kinglun; Zhuang Wenjia, ‘The survival and development space for China’s Labor NGOs: Informal Politics and its Uncertainty’, Asian Survey, Vol. 50, No. 6, 2010
  • Dickson, Bruce J., ‘Cooptation and Corporatism in China: The logic of Party Adaptation’ Political Science Quarterly Vol 115, No 4 (winter, 2000-1)
  • Lu, Yiyi, Non-govermental organisations in China (Routledge: London, 2009)
  • Saich, Tony, ‘Negotiating the State: The development of Social Organizations in China’ The China Quarterly No 161 (March 2000)
  • Unger, Jonathan and Chan, Anita, ‘China, corporatism, and the East Asian Model’ The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs No 33 (Jan 1995)
  • Unger, Jonathan (ed.), Associations and the Chinese State: Contested Spaces (M.E. Sharpe: New York, 2008)
  • White, Gordon ; Howell, Jude and Shan Xiaoyuan, In Search for civil society (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1996)
  • Wong, Roy Bin, China Transformed: Historical change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997)

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