Contingent Symbiosis and Civil Society in an Authoritarian State: Understanding the Survival of China's Grassroots NGOs1

American Journal of Sociology (Impact Factor: 3.17). 07/2011; 117. DOI: 10.1086/660741

ABSTRACT While Tocqueville-inspired research has shed light on the connection between associations and democracy, we should not assume that democracy is the inevitable offspring of civil society development. In (partial) recognition of this, corporatism has to date served as the main theoretical rubric for making sense of officially approved civil society organizations in authoritarian regimes. Yet neither a Tocqueville-inspired 'civil society as democracy' model nor a corporatist analytical framework can account for the experiences of bottom-up, ostensibly illegal grassroots NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in an authoritarian state. This article uses such a case to argue that grassroots NGOs can survive in an authoritarian regime when the state needs some of the welfare services supplied by the NGO, when the state is fragmented, and when censorship of media keeps information local. Moreover, based on extensive fieldwork in China, I argue that grassroots NGOs survive in authoritarian regimes insofar as they refrain from broad democratic claims-making and insofar as they address social problems that might otherwise fuel grievances against the state. For its part, the state tolerates such groups as long as particular state agents can claim credit for good works while maintaining plausible deniability in the face of any problems, all the while reserving the right to suppress any group that begins to pose a threat. Grassroots NGOs and authoritarian states can thus co-exist in a 'contingent symbiosis' – a fragile relationship that – far from pointing to any sort of inevitable democratization – allows ostensibly illegal groups to operate openly while relieving the state of some of its social welfare obligations. 1 I would like to thank Deborah Davis for her patient guidance and detailed comments on earlier drafts of this article, and for her encouragement throughout the research process. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Kai Erikson, Ron Eyerman, John Nguyet Erni, Ling-Yun Tang, Kin-man Chan, Rachel Stern, Eli Friedman, my colleagues at The CUHK Centre for Civil Society Studies, and the anonymous AJS reviewers for their excellent suggestions for revision. I regret I cannot thank by name the numerous people in China who shared their time and perspectives with me. Any inaccuracies or omissions are entirely my own.

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