My story on emerging Chinese civil society at Inter Press Service – which describes itself as thus: “communication institution with a global news agency at its core. IPS raises the voices of the South and of civil society.”
Two distinct trends can be seen – new energy among grassroots NGOs in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which saw an unprecedented NGO response and the rapid development of private charitable foundations driven by increasing weatlh and relaxed regulation – according to Shawn Shieh, co-editor of a book on Chinese NGOs entitled ‘State and society responses to social needs in China’, and Xu Yongguang, vice chairman of the Narada Foundation, which aims to foster Chinese civil society. They were speaking at this FCCC press event in Beijing.
BEIJING, Mar 1, 2010 (IPS) – Chinese civil society is coming increasingly to the fore as wealthy tycoons create big charitable foundations and grassroots organisations form networks of their own, observers and activists say.
Their swift reaction to the devastating earthquake that struck south-western Sichuan province in May 2008, killing about 68,000 people, saw grassroots non-government organisations (NGOs) improve their image among Communist Party officials and the wider public, said Shawn Shieh, co-editor of a book on Chinese NGOs entitled ‘State and society responses to social needs in China’.
Meanwhile, new regulations have encouraged charitable foundations as part of China’s drive for a “harmonious society”, according to Xu Yongguang, vice chairman of the Narada Foundation that aims to foster civil society in China.
“Social harmony has emerged as a buzzword in China and the importance of civil society to that has led the government to take a cautiously supportive view of NGOs,” said Xu.
Interesting for me was the sense of the speed with which things are changing here (according to Xu). In just 6 years, the number of private charitable foundations has rocketed to just under 900 nationwide, just below the 900+ government-run charitable foundations that have developed over the past 30 years. Xu was plainly excited by the changes taking place and spoke of Fujianese businessmen such as Chen Fashu – “China’s Bill Gates” – who used billions of yuan woth of stock to set up the Xinhua Du Foundation and his hopes that greater transparency and management professionalism could be ensured in order to increase these foundations’ credibility among ordinary Chinese.
Yet at the same time, the past year has seen a pretty heavy crackdown on freedom of speech, with websites increasingly being closed down and dissident Liu Xia0bo – who wrote Charter Zer0 Eight, which called for democracy and constitutional government as the best way to guarantee human rights – jailed on Christmas Day for 11 years for incitement to subvert state power.
So what’s really going on? Are things going backwards or forwards? It’s difficult to say and everyone has a different view, but my vague sense is of the irresistible force – an educated, smart, wealthier Chinese population – increasingly meeting the immovable object – the Communist Party of China. This tectonic encounter is alluded to by Prof Yu Jianrong in this piece by the Sydney Morning Herald’s excellent John Garnaut:
“When conflict deepens, social pressure builds and everybody feels there is no way out, all social forces start looking for a bottom line,” he says. “Otherwise, there will be greater social turmoil and it will destroy all social order.”
“There are two basic choices. First, the fear of these disastrous consequences will lead the various interest groups toward rational compromise, a reasonable bottom line that is acceptable to all. Second, in the absence of such compromise, fundamental and revolutionary turmoil may take place.”
What does the first, “rational compromise”, choice involve? It is also revolutionary: Subordinate the Communist Party to the nation’s laws.
Photo of a family living in a tent in Dujiangyan in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left around 68,000 dead.