Contingent Symbiosis and Civil Society in an Authoritarian State:
Understanding the Survival of China’s Grassroots NGOs1
Anthony J. Spires
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Forthcoming, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 117, no. 1 (2011)
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. The research was supported in part by the Yale
Council on East Asian Studies Dissertation Fellowship. Direct correspondence to
Anthony J. Spires, Department of Sociology, 4th Floor, Sino Building, The Chinese
University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong (email@example.com).
INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
In a one-party authoritarian state that maintains a strong public security apparatus and
bans all associations operating without official supervision, how do some ostensibly
illegal organizations survive?
This article addresses this question and aims to explain how unauthorized grassroots
NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) maintain their existence in what most
observers consider a politically hostile environment. I begin by considering two
related literatures. First, I discuss neo-Tocquevillean theories of the relationship
between associations and democracy, particularly regarding the ways the state can
become vulnerable to citizen control through civil society organizations. I then
consider theories of state corporatism that emphasize how authoritarian states attempt
to fend off political challenges and control society through restrictions on and
oversight of citizens’ associations. While these two literatures offer insight into
democratic societies and government-approved associations in authoritarian regimes,
they are both inadequate for understanding the existence and experiences of
grassroots civil society organizations that are neither pressing for radical democratic
transformation nor serving as approved arms of an authoritarian state. Instead, I
argue, ground-level observations reveal a situation best characterized as ‘contingent
symbiosis’, a concept that captures the fragility and mutual benefits that characterize
the NGO-government relationship.
I begin by considering the contributions of Tocquevillean and corporatist perspectives
on civil society in authoritarian regimes. I then introduce the specific case of China,
discussing the definition of ‘grassroots groups’ as used here and giving a fuller
introduction to the phenomenon of contingent symbiosis.2 From there I turn to the
empirical data, focusing on the implications of fragmented governance, information
restrictions, and the practice of giving ‘political face’ to government officials. Next I
discuss the mutual suspicion and mutual need that permeates the NGO-government
relationship. By way of conclusion, I re-visit the literatures on civil society,
democracy, and corporatism and consider the implications of this study for future
research on NGOs in China and in other authoritarian states.
INTERROGATING THE DEMOCRACY-CIVIL SOCIETY CONNECTION
Since the publication of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the connections
between civic associations and democratic political life have commanded the
attention of several generations of social scientists.3 As an early scholar of the
2 Appendix 1 describes the methodology and data used in this study. In order to
protect the identities of the government officials and the grassroots NGO participants
who shared their experiences with me, in this article I do not use any identifiers,
including dates. However, a descriptive overview of these groups and individuals is
provided in Appendix 2.
3 Berman (1997), for example, distinguishes two influential ‘waves’ of interest in
Tocqueville during the twentieth century, from the mass society theorists of the 1950s
and 60s (including Kornhauser (1959) and Arendt (1973)) to the more recent revival
by Putnam (1996), Fukuyama (1995), and others concerned about issues such as
social trust and social capital.
American experiment in democracy, Tocqueville was particularly impressed by what
he saw as the self-governing character of American society. “Americans combine,”
he wrote, “to give fetes, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the
antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way… In every case, at
the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or
in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an
association” (Tocqueville 1988, p. 513). When confronted with communal problems,
he believed, Americans’ first instinct was to handle them through local collective
action rather than look to government to devise solutions. In the US, he observed, “If
some obstacle blocks the public road halting the circulation of traffic, the neighbors at
once form a deliberative body; this improvised assembly produces an executive
authority which remedies the trouble before anyone has thought of the possibility of
some previously constituted authority beyond that of those concerned” (Tocqueville
1988, p. 189).
Free and voluntary association, Tocqueville ultimately concluded, was the bedrock
upon which American democracy was built.4 But what are the implications of
associational life in authoritarian regimes? As Archon Fung notes in a sweeping
review essay of recent literature, there is a commonly held view that “especially in
political contexts of tyranny or deep injustice, the central contributions of associations
have been to check illegitimate political power, to offer resistance, and to check
official power” (Fung 2003, p. 516).5 Similarly, Foley and Edwards, in their critical
review of the broader civil society literature, have identified a version of civil society
theory, developed in studies of Poland of the 1980s and Latin America, that “lays
special emphasis on civil society as a sphere of action that is independent of the state
and that is capable – precisely for this reason – of energizing resistance to a tyrannical
regime” (Foley and Edwards, 1996, p. 39). These studies suggest that in “contexts of
democratic transition… autonomy from traditional politics seems to be a prerequisite
for oppositional advocacy. In such contexts, civil society is treated as an autonomous
sphere of social power within which citizens can pressure authoritarians for change,
protect themselves from tyranny, and democratize from below” (Foley and Edwards
1996, p. 46).
The perspective Foley and Edwards summarize is rooted in Tocqueville’s analysis of
civil society and democracy in the US. Such extensions of Tocqueville’s theses have
led some to posit a ‘natural’ or inevitable connection between civil society and
transitions to democracy. Indeed, Alagappa (2004) points out that in much neo-
Tocquevillean literature, for countries with democratic aspirations the promise of civil
society is almost boundless:
4 This powerful analysis of the dynamics and implications of a self-organized civil
society has in recent years given birth to a voluminous body of research addressing
the contemporary US (Putnam 2000; Verba et al. 1995; Andrews et al. 2009) as well
as other developed democracies (e.g., Putnam et al. 1993). Warren (2001) has crafted
a broad theoretical treatment of the various connections between associations and
5 Gramscian conceptions of hegemony and counter-hegemony abound in this
literature, although sometimes not explicitly acknowledged. To be sure, while I
believe applying a Gramscian analytic to China’s NGO development would prove
revealing, such an undertaking is beyond the scope of this current paper.
Civil society is viewed as a supporting structure to
democratize the state. Associational life is thought to
provide the social infrastructure for liberal democracy,
supply the means to limit, resist, and curb the excesses
of the state and market, present alternatives when they
fail, facilitate service delivery at the local level, assist in
conflict management, deepen democracy (by cultivating
civic virtues, establishing democratic norms, and
spreading democracy to more domains of life), offer a
voice to disadvantaged groups, and promote economic
development. (Alagappa 2004, p. 41)
In recent years, these myriad expectations of civil society and NGOs have motivated
research agendas on popular associations in sharply differing contexts, from Algeria
and Saudi Arabia (Elbayar 2005) to China (Hsu 2008), Iran (Katirai 2005), and Korea
(Kim 2004). To be sure, some scholars have convincingly argued that civil society
organizations have played a key role in the democratic transitions of some
authoritarian states. Yun Fan’s (2004; 2000) observations of Taiwan and Sunkyuk
Kim’s (2004) analysis of political change in South Korea offer compelling cases for
the role of civil society in transitions from authoritarianism in Asia.
Others, however, have argued that despite the power of Tocquevillean insights, civil
society organizations need not necessarily foster democracy and may, under certain
conditions, support the survival of authoritarian regimes. “Civil society,” Alagappa
reminds us, “…is an arena of power, inequality, struggle, conflict, and cooperation
among competing identities and interests. It is populated by diverse formal and
informal organizations with widely varying structures, resources, purposes, and
methods” (Alagappa 2004, p. 46).
Indeed, an active and ‘strong’ civil society does not always lead to a strong
democracy. Groups that are founded upon particularistic identities, for example, can
exacerbate social divisions. In Berman’s (1997) study of Weimar Germany, she
found that “Germany was cleaved increasingly into distinct subcultures or
communities, each of which had its own, separate associational life” (p. 426). Such
cleavages, she argues, undermined the country’s fledgling party system, with dire
consequences for democratic development. Similarly, Aspinall (2004) found that a
fractious Indonesian civil society in the 1950s and 1960s, far from having a
democratizing effect on society, helped usher in the authoritarian regime of Suharto in
1965. “In the 1950s and 1960s,” he explains, “… most large civil society
organizations were affiliated to political parties that aimed to hold or seize political
power. Civil society became a mechanism, not for generating civility and ‘social
capital’, but rather for magnifying sociopolitical conflict and transmitting it to the
very bases of society” (Aspinall, p. 62). In concert with these analyses, Riley’s
(2005) study of the origins of fascism in Italy and Spain shows how dynamic civil
societies, rather than push a society towards democracy, can set the stage for
authoritarianism. Taken as a whole, notes Gallagher (2004, p. 421), studies such as
these suggest that “civil society’s relationship to democratization is highly
In this article I use data from China to ground this notion of contingency in empirical
reality and further challenge the assumed linkages between independent associations
and democracy. In doing so, I contend that, especially for bottom-up grassroots
organizations, a single-minded focus on such groups’ potential ability to promote
democracy obscures the first-order question of their precarious existence. Rather than
look for the immediate democratic implications of associational growth, then, the
central puzzle driving this study is: In a repressive authoritarian political context
where, by very definition, unauthorized organizations are potential threats to the
ruling power, how do such groups survive? Only by first addressing this question and
understanding the context and conditions of their existence can we begin to consider
grassroots groups’ potential to help democratize an unwilling state.
CORPORATIST THEORY AND CIVIL SOCIETY
IN AUTHORITARIAN STATES
Corporatism has been applied to understand variation in associational life in many
different eras, and in the hands of different scholars the analytic lens and causal
arguments have varied. One group of scholars (Lehmbruch 1977; Malloy 1974;
Newton 1974; Wiarda 1974) approached corporatism primarily through the lens of
political economy, trying to understand how capitalism and modern nation-state
consolidation challenged traditionally powerful corporate identities and organizations.
A second group asked under what conditions do powerful states create or incorporate
organizations to direct citizen energies and then use such organizations to solidify
their political power. Schmitter (1974) applied such an understanding to the fascist
governments of Mussolini and Franco, autocrats who saw corporatism as “providing
for superior governability in the national interest” (Streeck and Kenworthy 2005, p.
444). Building on Manoilesco’s (1936) thinking, Schmitter developed the concept of
‘state corporatism’ as a system in which “singular, noncompetitive, hierarchically
ordered representative ‘corporations’… were created by and kept as auxiliary and
dependent organs of the state” (Schmitter 1974, pp. 102-103).6
As Unger and Chan (1995) point out, “corporatist mechanisms… do not define a
political system: a polity can contain corporatist elements and at the same time be a
dictatorial Communist Party regime, or an authoritarian Third World government, or a
liberal parliamentarian state” (p. 31). Western European democracies and Australia
have relied on ‘peak associations’ to allow the government to deal with one
representative voice of particular societal interests (most commonly labor). Whereas
the leadership of associations in democratic countries are seen as first and foremost
accountable to their members, through the late 1980s authoritarian regimes like those
in Taiwan (Tien 1990), Poland (Ost 1989), and Romania (Chirot 1980) preempted the
rise of autonomous organizations by either incorporating pre-existing groups or
establishing new ones under state control and banning all others.
6 Schmitter’s own definition of corporatism describes “a system of interest
representation in which the constituent units are organized into a limited number of
singular, compulsory, noncompetitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally
differentiated categories, recognized or licensed (if not created) by the state and
granted a deliberate representational monopoly within their respective categories in
exchange for observing certain controls on their selection of leaders and articulation
of demands and support,” (Schmitter 1974, pp. 93-94).
In the 1990s, as the Cold War seemed to end with a decisive victory for capitalism in
the economic realm and for democracy in the political, scholars turned to the
corporatist framework again to help make sense of the seemingly tremendous changes
taking place in post-Soviet Eastern Europe (Ost 2000) and – in a very different way –
in China, the world’s largest remaining authoritarian country. The idea of corporatist
organization as an “instrument of state rule” (Streeck and Kenworthy 2005, p. 444)
has since motivated much inquiry into associational life in China, beginning first with
industrial associations organized by the state to ensure communist party control even
under economic decentralization, then turning to the state’s efforts to create and
control charitable organizations, sporting groups, collectors’ associations, and other
groups not directly tied to economic interests. As I shall show below, studies of both
economic and non-economic organizations in China also find inspiration in
Tocquevillean analyses of the democratic potential of civic associations.
Paradoxically, however, this literature’s emphasis on state-created, state-controlled
organizations has obscured from view the existence and political significance of
In the pages that follow, I contend that neither Tocquevillean nor corporatist analyses
can adequately address the situation of ostensibly illegal grassroots organizations in
an authoritarian state. Before focusing my attention on these groups, though, I first
consider the contributions of extant studies of associational life in China.
Corporatist Theory and the Search for an Autonomous Civil Society in China
The scholarly search for civil society in China began in earnest in the immediate
aftermath of the violent suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Motivated by the explosive social unrest made visible by the demonstrations, in 1993
the journal Modern China brought together historians and social scientists to explore
the applicability of the civil society concept and the significance of emergent non-
governmental organizations in China (e.g., Chamberlain 1993; Huang 1993; Madsen
1993; Rankin 1993; Rowe 1993; Wakeman 1993).7 Since then, others have continued
the effort to assess the potential of what appears to be a rapidly growing Chinese civil
society (e.g., Unger and Chan 1995; Unger 1996; Chan 2005; Ma 2006, 2002; Zhang
and Baum 2004; Wu 2002; White, Howell, and Shang 1996; Wang and He 2004;
Zhang 2001; Stalley and Yang 2006; Saich 2000; Economy 2004; Gallagher 2004;
Brook and Frolic 1997).
Given the violent suppression of a (potentially) nascent civil society that initially
created so much interest in the topic, it is somewhat surprising that published studies
7 Craig Calhoun, a witness to the Tiananmen Square events, also wrote in 1993 that
discussions of civil society’s history and potential rise in China “commonly focus on
the mere presence of institutions outside the realm of the state rather than on the
question of how social integration is accomplished and whether those extrastate
institutions have substantial capacity to alter patterns of integration or the overall
exercise of power” (Calhoun 1993, p. 278). Although subsequent studies began to
focus on issues of autonomy and influence, most of these did so within the framework
of corporatism, generally assuming that the authoritarian state was cohesive enough to
effectively eliminate the space for viable autonomous organizations.
of associations in contemporary China have focused predominantly on GONGOs,
those oxymoronic ‘government organized nongovernmental organizations’ the
Chinese government began to create in the late 1980s (see, e.g., Foster 2001, 2002;
Chan and Qiu 1999; Ma 2006; Unger and Chan 1995; Unger 1996; Wu 2002; Saich
2000; Pearson 1994).8
Over the past two decades, China has established a panoply of GONGOs, including
sports associations, business associations, academic associations, and groups
dedicated (at least in name) to other fields of activity.9 According to official statistics,
at the end of 2007 there were a total of 386,916 registered ‘NGOs’ in China (Ministry
of Civil Affairs, 2008) – most of which are widely assumed to be GONGOs.10 The
Chinese government has been quite happy to present these organizations as ‘NGOs’
to foreigners in order to attract foreign funding and boost the legitimacy of its
GONGOs in the eyes of the world (Economy 2004; Zhang 2001; Zhao 2006). But
within China the government has chosen to equate the English term ‘NGO’ with the
Chinese term minjian zuzhi (roughly, ‘people’s sphere organization’), a rendering that
it finds preferable to the literal translation of ‘non-governmental organization’
(feizhengfu zuzhi), as the prefix ‘non’ (fei) can be interpreted in Chinese as ‘anti’
Given the rapid increase in registered NGO numbers over the past two decades, one
might be tempted to conclude that China has experienced an “associational
revolution” akin to that identified by Salamon and Anheier (1997) in other areas of
the world. However, government regulations require that all NGOs, in order to be
registered, must first find a supervisory agency (zhuguan danwei) within the
government – an arrangement designed to allow the government to regulate, organize,
and monitor NGOs better. This requirement is widely seen as the biggest legal
obstacle to grassroots groups that wish to become properly registered NGOs.11
Consistent with the analysis of authoritarianism put forth by Schmitter (1974) and
affirmed by Streeck and Kenworthy (2005), scholars have identified China’s GONGO
8 I note this more as an observation than a criticism. Conducting research in an
authoritarian state on potentially de-stabilizing independent organizations is obviously
no simple matter. However, for one of the few contrarian views against the consensus
depictions of Chinese NGOs as ‘bridges’ to the state (Unger 1996) or of GONGOs
that are embedded within government agencies (Wu 2002), see Zhang and Baum
9 Economy (2004) points to various motives for this phenomenon, including finding
resting spots for retired cadres and redundant staff whose jobs were cut during
government downsizings in 1998 and 2003.
10 The regulations set out by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) establish
three categories of minjian zuzhi: social organizations (shehui tuanti), which are
supposed to be membership-based; private non-commercial enterprises (minban
feiqiye danwei), or simply nonprofit organizations that are allowed to conduct
business; and foundations (jijinhui). Adding some confusion to the terminology, in
late 2007 MOCA’s Bureau of NGO Management began referring to all these
organizations as shehui zuzhi (also rendered in English as ‘social organization’), not
as minjian zuzhi.
11 There are also financial requirements, membership requirements, and a limit on the
geographical area within which the NGO is permitted to operate.
establishments as an example of ‘state-led corporatism’ in which the state recognizes
only one sectoral organization and aims to use that organization to maintain
communication with that sector of society (e.g., Chan 1993; Economy 2004; Pearson
1994; Unger and Chan 1995, 2008; Wu 2002; Yu 2007).12
Although the corporatist nature of official civil society growth in China seems to have
led to a consensus that autonomy is limited, many studies are rooted in a
Tocquevillean tradition that expects associations to have a democratizing effect on the
state (Foster 2001). Such democratic hopes are evident in the growing chorus of
scholars who have suggested that groups closely aligned to the government may also
push forward the development of civil society and open the political system to more
voices (see, e.g., Saich 2000, Wu 2002, and Ma 2002).13 Rather than view the
requirement to have a supervisory agency as an enervating control mechanism, for
example, the former head of the Ford Foundation’s Beijing office (and political
scientist) Tony Saich (2000) suggests that registered NGOs can operate within the
constraints of the regulations in a fairly efficacious, albeit not completely independent
manner. Saich, as others, argues that such organizations benefit from the legitimacy
and protection extended by their sponsoring agency and may also be granted greater
access to decision-makers as new policies relevant to the field of their activities are
Although the autonomy of GONGOs remains a subject of debate, the corporatist
framework clearly works well to describe much of modern China’s experience with
associational life. After the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911, reformers on the left
and right turned to corporatist-style unions, youth groups, and professional
associations as ‘transmission belts’ between national leaders and local bodies. Both
the Nationalists who lost the civil war in 1949 and the Communists who won adopted
a Leninist party structure where mass organizations were central. Years before
China’s economic reforms began taking shape in the early 1980s, the Chinese
government had established several ‘mass organizations’ that it would later claim to
be the equivalent of the civil society associations so socially and politically important
in the United States and other developed democracies. The All-China Federation of
Trade Unions (ACFTU), the All-China Women’s Federation, the Communist Youth
League, and other mass organizations were established under the strict control of the
Maoist party-state. Although in practice these were one-way conduits for instructions
from the top to the bottom, rhetorically such groups were to be the special
representatives of their various constituencies, bringing the needs of society up to the
attention of the leadership while conveying policies and ideology downwards to the
masses. Detailed studies of these organizations and their successors allow Unger
(2008) to conclude “China’s major associations were in fact founded by the state and
12 Kang and Han (2008) have called for a modification of this general understanding,
arguing that the government’s official approach has been one of ‘graduated controls’
in which different types of organizations are subject to varying degrees of
13 Due to the general restrictions on survey research and the political sensitivity of this
particular topic, to date there has been no comprehensive survey of registered
organizations, but it is a common consensus amongst Chinese government officials,
academics, and NGO participants that GONGOs comprise the overwhelming majority
of registered groups.
today remain firmly under the control of a state or Party agency. In short, they are
state corporatist” (p. 9).
Yet over the past decade we can also observe the emergence of real grassroots NGOs
that do not fit within the corporatist framework, groups that have been neither created
by nor officially incorporated into the party-state. In the remainder of this article, I
depart from current practice to focus attention not on corporatist GONGOs but rather
on these un-official, ‘bottom-up’ grassroots NGOs (caogen zuzhi). Located outside
the vertical control mechanisms the party has tried to impose, grassroots groups are
formed by Chinese citizens without the government’s initiative or approval,
congealing in the social spaces where the government is absent, impotent, or
unwilling to act. Of course, despite the opening (and filling) of these spaces, the
extreme political sensitivity of true civil society associations in China and in any
authoritarian state should not be underestimated. Because NGOs potentially provide
alternative spaces for political organizing and mobilization, they are viewed by some
in China’s government as a serious threat.
Identifying Grassroots Groups
One may reasonably ask, what exactly is meant by ‘grassroots’? As one sociologist
writing about the United States noted recently, “few words in the English language
conjure up such dramatic images of populism and authenticity as ‘grassroots’”
(Walker 2009, p. 85). In this study, grassroots organizations are defined by the
characteristics attributed to them by my informants. They are not government
creations, nor spin-offs of some government agency looking to push cadres into early
retirement or to create an NGO ‘hat’ for officials to wear when traveling overseas. By
and large, they receive neither funding nor tangible assets (like free office space) from
government agencies. They are run by local Chinese people and do not answer to
headquarters in some other country. They may receive funding from foreign
governments or foundations, or locally from their founders, volunteers, or members.
They may be organized by social elites or by people without a high-school education.
They may operate under top-down power structures and clear hierarchies, or they may
show a higher degree of internal democracy. They may be comprised of staff, of
volunteers, of members, or of some combination of the three. Lastly, they may be
registered with the government as legal NGOs (minjian zuzhi) or as businesses, or
they may not register with the government at all, in any form.14
In the words of one labor NGO leader, “very grassroots groups are groups of people
without any money trying to help other people without any money!” More commonly,
people in grassroots NGOs characterize themselves and their groups as distinct from
“those government-run groups” (guan ban de neizhong) or groups “with a
government background” (you guanfang beijing de). The English-language term
‘NGO’ holds currency as well for grassroots groups who know it. Until coming into
contact with similar organizations, however, some NGO participants are not sure what
to call themselves. They only know they are providing a much-needed service to
14 Un-registered groups run the political risk of being branded ‘illegal organizations’,
while those registered as businesses risk being shut down for fraudulently presenting
themselves as non-profits to their funders and the public.
people like themselves or to others.15 “Before I met [another NGO leader],” explains
one labor group leader, “I didn’t know what an NGO was. It’s English, so I didn’t
understand what it meant at first.” With time, however, he, like many grassroots NGO
leaders, has come to use the term to identify his work to himself and to others.
In sharp contrast to corporatist analyses, the defining characteristic of China’s
grassroots NGOs, as understood by people who use the term ‘caogen zuzhi’, is that to
be grassroots means to have neither official government ties nor official government
support – to have no choice other than “to live or die on one’s own” (zisheng zimie).
This lack of official sponsorship and approval constitutes the puzzle at the heart of
this article – How do ostensibly illegal grassroots organizations survive in an
CONTINGENT SYMBIOSIS AND THE LOGIC OF SOCIAL LIFE IN AN
To summarize the theoretical discussion with which this paper opens, extensions of
Tocquevillean theory suggest that autonomous NGOs can pressure the state in a way
that enhances democracy and accountability or, in the case of authoritarian regimes,
in a way that pushes the state to democratize. Corporatism, on the other hand, leads
us to expect a strong authoritarian state to restrict freedom of association and channel
citizen energies into officially-approved organizations and towards official goals. Yet
both of these theories fall short in helping us explain the survival of grassroots
organizations in an authoritarian state.
In the following sections, I develop a concept of ‘contingent symbiosis’ to explain the
relationship between ostensibly illegal grassroots NGOs and the government in an
authoritarian state. This concept is constructed around the logic of social life in an
authoritarian regime and emerges from two main sets of observations. The first set
concerns the reality and implications of fragmented governance and policy
enforcement. The second set centers on the mutual suspicion and mutual need that
permeates the NGO-government relationship.
These ground-level realities construct a relationship that is symbiotic in that NGOs
are looking to meet social needs while government officials, especially at the local
level, seek to make sure all ‘problems’ in their jurisdictions are dealt with in ways that
do not attract unfavorable attention from their higher-ups. When cooperation on
mutual goals is achieved, NGOs can continue their work and local government
officials will ignore their illegality. Yet clearly such a relationship is both fragile and
contingent. If NGOs keep their operations small and make no calls for political
representation or democratic reform, officials can turn a blind eye and claim credit for
any good works the NGO does. But if an NGO’s work draws too much attention to
the failings of local officials or if it oversteps a fuzzy and frequently shifting political
line, the organization can be disciplined or even closed down. As the data presented
15 The groups in my study, and indeed the groups that people in China refer to most
commonly as grassroots NGOs, generally provide some sort of social service in fields
including health and disease, labor rights, environment, education, and others. Some
also engage in advocacy, or, more often than not, blur the distinction between
advocacy and social service delivery.
below make clear, although the relationship can be mutually beneficial (and thus
symbiotic), it is also unequal. The government always holds the upper hand because
of its constant threat of repression.
Although the evidence presented here is drawn only from China, other modern
repressive regimes share with China core political features such as official censorship,
criminalization of public protest, and repression of independent civic associations.
These similarities would suggest that when government agents in any such regime are
charged with meeting social welfare needs (whether to maintain social stability or to
shore up the regime’s legitimacy) yet denied sufficient resources, entering into a
relationship of contingent symbiosis with un-official NGOs is a potentially reasonable
course of action. At the same time, for NGOs in any authoritarian regime the line
between addressing social needs unmet by the government and criticizing or
challenging the state is likely to be as blurry – and as dangerous to cross – as it is in
FRAGMENTED GOVERNANCE AND ENFORCEMENT
Corporatist analyses assume that governments in authoritarian states are able to act
uniformly to ensure control over civil society. Yet it is important to recognize that
despite the persistence of single-party rule there is no single government in China
today. Unlike the Maoist years, where national-level politics and party concerns
permeated down into virtually every level of society, in today’s China the central
government in Beijing enjoys much less control over the provinces. Each level of
government – central, provincial, local (and there are various levels within ‘local) –
has its own set of concerns. Sometimes these concerns match those of other levels;
sometimes they are in conflict.16
Differences between higher and lower levels of government exist in terms of both
policy and implementation. When the central government proclaims policies that are
more liberal than local officials are willing to implement, some Chinese NGOs
actively seek to make allies out of enlightened higher-ups. As one NGO activist put it,
in a somewhat public forum, “people need to understand that the government is not
one [single] thing!”17 The leader of one grassroots environmental NGO in southwest
16 The literature on ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ in China (Lieberthal and Oksenberg
1988; Lieberthal and Lampton 1992) is in part the inspiration for this concept of
fragmented governance, although that earlier literature focuses on cleavages in
institutional authority structures and bargaining between different government
agencies as a key feature of policy-making. This fragmentation, however, does not
imply a weakening of the party’s political monopoly. Landry (2008) has shown that
while fiscal decentralization is comparatively high in China, it has not led to political
liberalization because party control over the appointment and promotion of officials
constrains local officials to upholding the broader goals of the central leadership.
17 The speaker was trying to make the point that NGOs should not be afraid of the
government but rather try to identify sympathetic officials who would act as allies in
their efforts to improve society. In Chinese, however, to say a person is “not a thing”
China exploits the power of the central government to his advantage as much as
possible. Having studied the displacement of people caused by one of China’s major
dam-building projects, he explains how “We issued a report and sent it up to the
central government… They were very concerned and got [the] provincial government
to give another [US$9 million] for placement of displaced persons.” The process by
which this is done, however, is not by walking in ‘the front gate’ of central
government offices, but by enlisting the support of well-placed individuals at Beijing-
based NGOs. In his assessment, “environmental NGOs in Beijing can’t do much, but
because of their backgrounds they can talk to their friends and classmates in the
central government.” When he encounters resistance at the provincial government
level, “I contact them and explain the situation, and they help me by telling their
friends in the central government, who in turn put pressure on the provincial
government.” In this way, he explains, “we have a division of labor. NGOs in
Beijing can do the advocacy, and we here in [the province] can do the actual work.
We use each other’s strengths.”
Yet the central government, or indeed any higher level of government, is not always
successful at asserting its authority locally. A labor NGO leader explains that he has
found allies within the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, but that
hierarchical divisions of authority within the administrative structure limit their
Provincial and city-level unions are directly appointed
by the union authorities one level above them. Many
people in these levels want to do good work for
laborers. They often have annual quotas, with a goal of
say establishing 100 new unions in a given year. But
they can’t tell the local-level union chiefs what to do.
While O’Brien (1996), Straughn (2005), and others concerned with contention under
repressive regimes have mostly focused on particular instances or acts by individuals,
one would reasonably expect that more formalized organizations could also use both
legal and moral (legitimacy) arguments to press their case with higher levels of
government when facing opposition at the local level. What these two examples
above show is that this is indeed done, although without a guarantee of efficacy.
These divisions along vertical lines are not unexpected. What Chinese NGO
experiences also point to, however, is that a key survival tactic is to identify and
exploit differences of opinion both between different levels of government and within
any given level.
Successful alliances are possible, but they are also contingent upon each side’s
calculation of need, risk, and benefit. Unlike the environmentalist and labor activists
cited above, one HIV-AIDS group found that village level officials, because of their
close ties to the community, can sometimes be more helpful than county or provincial
level officials who would rather keep news of the problem from spreading to Beijing:
is an insult, so when this speaker said “the government is not a thing!” (zhengfu bu shi
yige dongxi!), the room of mostly NGO activists took it as a double entendre and
erupted in laughter.
What many people don’t realize is that at the lowest
levels of government, where people are actually doing
real work, you can find officials who want to cooperate
[with NGOs]. They welcome us in, because they want
to deal with some of the problems they face, and they
need our help… But at the higher levels they’re more
eager to cover up problems and suppress the news, not
to let outsiders know what’s happening.
At any and all levels, grassroots NGOs, registered or not, may be able to find
individual government officials who support them. Conversely, where others expect
them to find help, some may meet with resistance. What is clear, though, is that
understanding and support come from individuals within the government, not ‘the
government’ more generally. Moreover, within the same level of government, there
can be differences in support, although, again, these are often only single individuals,
not even a particular office within a particular level of government.
One NGO leader from Shanghai posited that the complexity of government-NGO
relations may vary by region while acknowledging that even within the one city, there
I think NGOs in Shanghai are in a better position all-
around than NGOs in other places like Guangdong and
Beijing. Even grassroots NGOs like ours can find both
more money and more government support than in
other places. Many people in the government here are
sympathetic to what we want to do. It’s not ideal,
though. Individuals in the government can be very
supportive, but the government policies themselves
prevent them from taking action to support us
sometimes. The law just doesn’t allow much support
While some NGOs have discovered these distinctions and work them to their
advantage, because of the many other obstacles in NGO-government relations, some
purposely avoid government contact. One sympathetic government official sees
himself playing an educational role for the NGOs he champions:
The one thing most NGOs don’t understand is that ‘the
government’ is not monolithic. There are many
different branches to the government, and people within
government agencies that have different agendas.
NGOs often don’t understand the role of the Party in the
government, either. So I try to help them see the
government more clearly – as a complicated thing, not
as one simple thing.
One activist media organization of elites met with mixed results when it tried to
register as an NGO. When they met with lower-level government officials from the
provincial Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) office, the group’s leader told me, “they
thought it was a good idea and supported it. But when it got to the head of the office,
he stopped it. He said, ‘Oh? What’s this?’ He has to put his seal on it, you know, but
he wasn’t supportive.” It took them two years to find an organization they could
affiliate with, and even then “we only were able to register because we had the
support of a former [high-level MOCA official]. He made a phone call to the current
head, and that was that. In China that’s the only way you can get anything done.”
For grassroots NGOs that are registered as businesses, the tax implications of their
registration status can be particularly worrisome. Since they generally have no
product and no ‘revenue’ per se, they also have no money to pay government
licensing fees or taxes normally levied on businesses. The solution to this problem,
for some such groups, is finding a sympathetic ally in the taxation office:
There aren’t laws and regulations for us to register as a
nonprofit company, so we’re using the traditional
Chinese method of finding a person we know… The tax
rate is 5.3 – 9.1%. Everybody’s trying to find some
way to avoid taxes. The national and local tax offices
are in the same building. Although in name they’re
separate, the people are the same!
By using contacts they have, or sometimes even by describing their work and
pleading their case to a receptive tax officer, some groups are able to have their tax
forms stamped ‘tax-exempt’ even though in reality they are not registered as nonprofit
entities. As one NGO leader explains, whether an organization is properly registered
or not sometimes does not matter. “It’s not about policies, it’s about relationships.”
Many Chinese people and other more casual observers are inclined to attribute such
success stories to China’s rich history of using interpersonal connections (guanxi) for
personal gain, on which there is an extensive literature (e.g., Bian 1994; Gold et al.
2002; Yang 1994, 2002). Yet resorting to guanxi as the explanation for cooperative
outcomes is not sufficient. Indeed, perhaps what is most surprising is that new
relationships are being forged between NGO activists and government officials who
have no prior contact or commitments to one another. This often takes place in the
context of mutual need, a key aspect of contingent symbiosis.
An unregistered tongzhi (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people)
organization in Guangdong, for example, has done some educational work on HIV-
AIDS with two neighboring city governments. In ‘City A’, they were invited by the
city’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) to run a training program for volunteers.
“We also took this as an opportunity to educate the media about tongzhi issues as well
as HIV-AIDS.” I asked how they got that opportunity. “They sought us out. The
government’s CDC in City A is under a lot of pressure to deal with HIV-AIDS issues,
but they need volunteers to help out. Yet they don’t know where to find volunteers.
So they invited us to help bring volunteers and train people.” I asked whether the
government in ‘City B’ was willing to do something similar with his organization:
Well, it really varies according to the individual in
control of the office. Some people are more serious
about their work, some are more open-minded, some
are less afraid to reach out for help from others outside
their office. Actually, the CDC in City B has
approached us about working together on an HIV
testing center for tongzhi. Because some people will
feel more comfortable going to get tested with people
like themselves… So we’re looking into setting that
up… We might do it at the CDC itself, actually. They
have a space there that I think is pretty good.
This organization is not alone in its experience. Another recently-established
organization focusing on sex worker health and welfare has also met with great
success. Despite moving into an area where the group’s leaders and staff had no prior
contacts, in just one year’s time they were able to be up and running in cooperation
with local health authorities. Local doctors and even the main hospital administration
have been receptive to the NGO’s ‘cold call’ method. Once they understood the
group’s goals and its proposed activities, they offered a variety of support to the
Information Restrictions and Risk Assessment
The Chinese government’s restrictions on media also effect contingent symbiosis
between NGOs and the state. At one semi-public salon in 2006, the leader of an
unregistered group was reluctant to give some specific details of his work to the
assembled audience (numbering about 25 people). The exchange below highlights his
concern about exposure as well as the reality of media restrictions. But as I will next
illustrate, the absence of media coverage can also work the advantage of grassroots
NGO Leader: “I don’t want to share that information
with you here. I’m not sure who all is in this audience.
There may be government people here, and I don’t want
to say anything to get anyone in trouble.”
A Local Reporter: “I’m a reporter. I’m not here
representing a government.”
NGO Leader: “I’d just rather not have this reported on.”
NGO Staff Member in the Audience: “Even if she
wanted to report on this, it would never see the light of
day!” (ta zheige yao bao ye bao buliao!).
Audience: (Erupts in laughter)
In the end, what was becoming an uncomfortable exchange played out like an
interactive comedy sketch, with the audience member delivering the punch line. The
laughter was entirely cathartic, but the need for that release of tension made the
problem of media and control seem even more poignant. (After this salon officially
ended, many people stayed around and continued to discuss the problems of media
and government control of NGOs.)
The lack of media freedom in China is well documented, and, as many scholars have
shown (e.g., Lee 2000), entails an evolving set of complex dynamics. My
observations, however, suggest that for a government interested in restricting freedom
of association, the lack of open information channels can be a double-edged sword.18
With a ban on “illegal organizations” issued by the central government’s media
authorities in late 2005, government agencies at all levels were further cut off from
information about grassroots groups. Many media outlets are quite eager to report on
social service activities of grassroots groups, even unregistered ones. In separate,
informal conversations with me, journalists from national, provincial, and local media
outlets expressed a great interest in learning about and reporting on the work of
grassroots groups. But the apparent sensitivity of such activities means that editors
who want to keep their jobs will most frequently ‘kill’ all such stories.
Contrary to many popular understandings, however, I suggest that in China today the
very definition of “sensitive” activity is elusive and frequently locale-specific. In
Guangdong’s NGO community, for example, it is common to hear that labor issues
are the most sensitive area of NGO work. The reasoning is quite simple. There are
tens of millions of migrant workers concentrated in a string of factory areas located
between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, a distance of only about 70 miles (110 km). With
so many people in such densely packed environments, and with labor conditions often
truly intolerable, it is easy to imagine workers banding together to make demands of
the government. Such a force, it is said, could challenge not only the government but
also the Communist Party itself, comprising a “true” labor party. Cast against this
reality, many people say, labor issues are the most “sensitive” (min’gan) of all
possible NGO fields.
However, in other areas of China the “most sensitive” issue for NGOs may be
something else. For example, in the areas surrounding the Three Gorges Dam and in
villages located along many of China’s terribly polluted rivers, activism based on
environmental concerns has led to violent clashes between local residents and
business and government leaders. In still other places, the issue may be something
entirely different, like HIV-AIDS in Henan province’s AIDS villages, which have
also seen government-organized violence against NGOs doing social service delivery
and advocacy work on behalf of orphaned children and dying elderly.
18 In the late 1950s, the CCP and government in Beijing also suffered the negative
effects of its media policy and the tight control over the social system it instituted.
During the Mao-inspired drive to industrialization known as the ‘Great Leap
Forward’, famine began to envelop great swaths of China, yet lower-level officials,
fearful of failure, continued to report bumper harvests to their higher-ups. Had the
reality of the situation been acknowledged sooner, the central government may have
been able to shift its policy focus back to agriculture and prevented the deaths by
starvation of approximately 30 million people.
The absence of free information flows directly impacts people’s perception of what is
considered “risky” and “sensitive” NGO activity. If one does not know that the
authorities or major employers in a neighboring city or town have forcibly suppressed
an organization and imprisoned its leaders, one may not perceive a great risk in
engaging in similar activities in one’s own hometown. The violent suppression of
villager activism in Guangdong’s Taishi Village and Dongzhou Village in the autumn
of 2005 was unknown to many NGO participants in other Guangdong cities when I
returned to continue my fieldwork in early 2006. Although I had seen reports of both
incidents in the US, Hong Kong, and UK press, the news had been suppressed by
Chinese authorities. When a US-based funder learned that many in the NGO
community had not heard of these events until I told them, her reaction was
condescending – “Well, they must not be very hard-working NGOs.” But her
comment more accurately revealed her failure to see the actual context of NGO work
in China. People are not as connected as outsiders might imagine, in part because of
media restrictions, in part because of trust issues, and in part because of financial and
workload considerations that make it difficult for people to travel.
In short, the nature of political sensitivity and risk is not as clearly defined as people
with one geographical or issue-based perspective may imagine. Rather, diversity of
accommodation and conflict in government-NGO relations suggests that the potential
for repression by authorities is set by whether or to what degree local NGO activities
clash with local political and economic interests.
Media controls act as a double-edged sword for authoritarian regimes. While they
help prevent radical forces from ‘linking up’, they also keep segments of the ruling
elite ignorant of ground-level dynamics and realities. Jan Gross’ (1979) study of
Poland under German occupation offers an insight into the predicament of
authoritarian regimes that is well-suited to China:
Authoritarian governments, particularly those that were
introduced by a totalitarian revolution, find themselves
in a serious predicament. For they are, figuratively
speaking, cut off from their own societies. Insulated by
powerful bureaucracies that are interested primarily in
self-perpetuation, they know less and less about the true
nature of the interests, aspirations, fears, and
preferences of the existing and newly forming social
forces in the complex modern societies over which they
rule…Consequently, with the passage of time, the
authorities have a completely distorted representation of
reality, and… they cannot do anything about it because
accurate information regarding important resources in
such a society is simply not available. (Gross 1979, pp.
In China, the lack of a free media means that the higher levels of government must
rely on non-media sources of information about grassroots organizations. That is, they
must rely on reports from local-level officials. However, as was the case with the
HIV-AIDS NGO leader quoted earlier, oftentimes local-level officials are more
concerned with protecting their positions and advancement opportunities than telling
their superiors about problems occurring on their watch.
This feature of authoritarianism creates a peculiar sort of micro-level ‘political
opportunity’ that allows grassroots groups to conduct their work in relative security.
As many NGO activists suggested, in almost identical terms, ‘as long as you don’t get
too big, you can do anything. But once you get big [and attract attention], you’ll run
into trouble.’ In a regime where politics is a process decidedly not open to
newcomers, this conventional wisdom – founded in lived experience, to be sure –
serves as a common constraint on large-scale action. Indeed, as the following section
argues, the state’s tolerance for illegal NGOs is intimately linked to local level
Political Credit (Zhengji) and Giving Face to Government Officials
In the absence of democratic oversight mechanisms like regular elections, government
officials in authoritarian states are accountable only to their superiors. Their personal
and political fortunes are determined by how ‘those above’ judge their
accomplishments and their failures. The dependency of lower officials on their own
superiors also contributes to a symbiotic relationship with local NGOs. In today’s
China, most government officials are charged primarily with meeting economic
growth rate targets and ensuring ‘social stability’. It is here that they find some
NGOs useful to their own survival.
Especially at lower levels, there is a great need for government agencies and
individual officials to earn political credit (zhengji) in order to be judged favorably by
their superiors. For an individual, to work for the public good without thought for
political credit (or recognition) is considered a high virtue. On the face of it, ‘political
credit’ is quite ambiguous in its moral implications, but in common usage it
frequently has negative connotations. For many grassroots NGOs, successful relations
with the government depends on how or whether the particular government officials
or agencies concerned are able to claim political credit for any good works the NGO
performs in their jurisdiction. Conversely, officials are also concerned about any
negative news that NGOs might expose about government performance failures.
One activist working in the HIV-AIDS field explains how political credit functions as
a core dynamic in his rocky relations with the local government:
We have some allies in the government, especially in
Beijing, who support us… But the government at the
local level in [his province], they’re totally different.
Even if you find people there who support you,
everyone has to consider their political credit [zhengji].
And there’s no need to even mention the bad ones.
They’re all concerned about zhengji – they would much
rather suppress any and all news of the problems with
AIDS orphans and education than work with an NGO to
resolve the problem. Because once they admit the
problem, if they handle it badly, they’ll lose political
favor and maybe lose their job. They all want to seek
promotions, to take care of their own self-interests and
As an example of how local officials behave, the activist then explained to a skeptical
(and somewhat naïve) student with whom we were talking:
Like in [a southern Chinese province], the head of the
provincial party committee told hospital administrators
in [a particular] county that if they reported one case of
avian flu they would be fired. What does that mean?
It’s quite clear. If you report any cases – not if you
have any cases, but if you report any cases – you’ll lose
your job. That’s how they try to protect themselves, by
suppressing information. Anything that will reflect
badly on them never gets out.
Political credit can, however, also act as an incentive to governmental cooperation
with NGOs. When another young activist scholar was trying to convince a local
government authority to allow his group to run a program for the children of migrant
workers, he initially met with a great deal of resistance. After much cajoling and
assurances that the program would cost the local officials nothing, “the deal clincher,
the most important thing was that we said our goal was to provide support for 400
people… That gave them something to report that they had accomplished” as a part of
The idea of political credit is closely akin to the idea of ‘face’ (mianzi), which is
perhaps more familiar to many outside China than zhengji. One might understand
zhengji as political face. For example, when one registered NGO attempted to run a
training program, an activity deemed “outside your area of operations” by provincial
Ministry of Civil Affairs officials, the NGO’s head was threatened with sanctions.
However, when the NGO submitted to the government’s demands and cancelled the
training, explained the NGO leader, “they got a lot of face from us and totally
changed their tune. Now it became ‘Oh, the next time you want to do a training like
this, just let us know ahead of time (gen women shuo yisheng). There will be no
problem! This is good work you’re doing, after all!’ They were thrilled.”
The case of one education NGO is also instructive in this regard. This volunteer-based
group organizes trips during university holidays and summer to poor villages in rural
parts of the province. Camping in the village for three or four weeks at a time, among
other activities they offer special education programs for children in art or music, as
well as help rural teachers update their own teaching skills and knowledge. Involving
large numbers of youth, the group has been both welcomed and rejected by local
village officials. Where they are welcomed, one of the leaders explained to me, local
government officials have seen them as useful. On these officials’ annual reports to
their superiors, they can write, ‘I mobilized 30 volunteers from XYZ University to
come to my village and improve the quality of our education’, taking credit for the
good deeds of the NGO. In the villages where they are denied entry, on the other
hand, a local official may be worried that such ‘outsiders’ will only bring attention to
the fact that education in his village is being handled poorly or that portions of his
annual budget seem to have disappeared.
Theoretically, corporatism should institutionalize and routinize the generation of
political face/credit. For grassroots groups, however, political face arrangements are
always tenuous, contingent upon a continuing perception of mutual benefit. In the
example cited just above, for any future training programs, by knowing about them in
advance the MOCA officials could count them in their reports to ‘those above’
(shangmian) as part of ‘their’ effort to nurture local NGOs, thereby bringing more
political credit to themselves.19 In short, to minimize conflict with government
agents, many experienced NGO leaders have learned they must manage the dynamics
of political face. The better they are at giving political face to government officials,
the better their chances for survival.
‘Lawlessness’ Can Mean Opportunity
By law, all NGOs must register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and accept
‘supervision’ by a government agency related to their field of work (e.g., an education
NGO should be supervised by some office of the Ministry of Education). But, as
shown above, the Chinese government has not succeeded in incorporating all
grassroots energies into properly registered NGOs. Some NGOs thrive even though
they are completely unregistered or registered as businesses, all the while presenting
themselves as ‘NGOs’ to the broader community and operating, for all intents and
purposes, as legitimate nonprofit organizations. How do organizations like these and
others operating on the edge of the law manage to survive and even grow in a political
context that, by most outside accounts, would seem to preclude their very existence?
To be sure, government repression of NGOs does occur. In the lead-up to the Beijing
Olympics, organizations of all stripes came under the gun and were either shut down
or warned to cease or curtail their activities. Two publications, the Beijing-based
China Development Brief and the Guangzhou-based Minjian were forced to close in
late summer 2007. Also in 2007, an AIDS group working with children in Henan’s
AIDS villages was told it must cease operations. According to many sources, the
repression of these and other NGO activities was conducted at the behest of central
government authorities in Beijing. Foreign media like The New York Times or The
Guardian regularly report on NGOs and activists who have been shut down or
convicted for ‘revealing state secrets’ or ‘subversion’ by a frequently opaque Chinese
While repression is a fact of life, people unaware of the NGO-government dynamic in
China sometimes fail to appreciate the opportunity China’s relative lawlessness
creates for socially progressive activities. For scholars and observers in the US, there
is a great deal of concern about improving ‘the rule of law’ in China (China Rights
Forum, 2003). At Yale University, for example, since 1999 the China Law Center
19 The irony of it all was not lost on the NGO leader, who related the story with more
than a little bitterness in his voice. “Through the whole thing I was thinking, ‘the
work we do – this stuff – this is what you’re supposed to be doing! But since you
aren’t doing it, we have to do it.’ And then they have to go and make it as difficult as
possible for us to work.”
has supported exchanges of legal scholars and a wide variety of programs and
initiatives aimed at changing China’s legal system. Newspaper reports and scholarly
accounts of contemporary China point to a weak rule of law as a hindrance to social
justice and a range of social ills, even economic growth. Of course, better rule of law
– depending on how the law is structured – could expand space for all NGOs to
operate. And, in some fields, stronger legal structures would help address some of the
issues NGOs currently work on. On paper, for example, China’s labor law offers great
protection against some common forms of abuse and exploitation. Likewise,
environmental protection rules, if enforced, could help curb pollution.
For grassroots NGOs, however, the relatively lax enforcement of law actually helps
keep them running. As one activist explains, even at her properly registered
organization they push the limit where possible: “In China, if the government doesn’t
say ‘no’, you can experiment and understand their failure to say ‘no’ to mean ‘yes’, or
you can say ‘I thought since you didn’t say no, I could do this’. That’s the way things
work here. So we do take some risks here in our work.”
The leader of a labor group in Shenzhen echoes that view, explaining that they have
taken advantage of the situation to conduct their work:
The way our legal system is set up, as long as the
government law doesn’t prohibit it, we can do it… The
government isn’t involved at all in what we do, and the
government doesn’t interfere with anything we do…
We don’t work with the ACFTU on anything. They
don’t interfere with us, either. Why should they? We’re
not organizing workers into unions. The law only
allows one union, as you know. But you can bring
workers together in other ways to accomplish similar
functions to a union. You just can’t call it a union,
because that would be illegal.
Enforcement requires both will and capacity. According to one Chinese scholar of
NGOs, “at the provincial level, some MOCA staff are tiny – ten or less, or 20 or less.”
The head of one registered NGO was emphatic about her provincial MOCA office’s
inability to manage the supervision workload.
The MOCA at the provincial level has one deputy head
who’s responsible for NGOs. But this doesn’t mean
anything. How can one person take care of these things?
Ha! So I guess this is why the government and the
China Charity Federation want us to self-regulate. They
can’t do it.
There are only three people in the provincial
government’s MOCA office responsible for registering
NGOs – one for social organizations, one for
foundations, and one for private non-commercial
enterprises. It would only seem reasonable that if
they’re responsible for registering organizations, they
should visit those organizations. But with over 9,000
organizations registered at that level, how could they
ever do that?
As with virtually all the registered grassroots NGOs I spoke with, this group had very
little contact with their designated supervisory agency:
Once a year I give them a report on what we’ve done,
and that’s it! They don’t bother us at all. We never see
them… We have another government relationship – the
director of [a government office] is our honorary legal
representative, but if I seem him more than once a year
it’s a rare thing. The [supervisory agency] head never
sends anyone to our activities or events, and he never
comes around, either.
To be sure, the lack of enforcement is visible in many fields and at many levels. One
grassroots NGO registered at the provincial level, for example, is restricted by the
official regulations to only working in that particular province. Yet in actuality it has
established offices in two other provinces where it carries on regular work. “We
haven’t been able to register [in the other two provinces] yet,” explains the NGO’s
leader. “Of course, what we’re doing, by going out of the province, is illegal. The
governments there won’t let us register – no one is willing to be our supervisory
agency. But they don’t oppose our working there, either. They actually need us, and
we’ve cooperated with them on several public activities before.”
A broader indication of lax enforcement is found in the requirement that all registered
NGOs with three or more Communist Party members on staff must form a Party cell
within the organization. Nationally, in 2007 about one-fourth (26%) of all NGOs were
required to establish internal Party cells. However, in practice not even half of those
(44%) were in actual compliance with this requirement. NGOs registered directly
under the Ministry of Civil Affairs – those with national-level operations – faced the
highest requirement for party control; 96% of them were expected to establish party
offices. Yet even at this level, there was some non-compliance; only 81% of those
had in fact established such offices by the end of 2007 (Ministry of Civil Affairs
2008). One high-ranking MOCA official acknowledged this as a problem, saying,
“Well, they really should establish party cells so that their staff can know what the
party’s latest directives are. But sometimes there’s no one there to make sure it
actually happens. It’s an enforcement problem.”
Even at the highest levels, oversight and ‘management’ of NGOs is hampered by a
lack of capacity. The central government’s NGO Management Office is charged with
overseeing the 1,800 NGOs registered directly under the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Each of these 1,800 is authorized to operate across the entire country, but with a staff
of fewer than 50 people, the government has difficulty overseeing them. Complicating
their task, as one official explained, is that “all those organizations have branches and
sub-branches around the country. We totaled it up and it came to between 9,000 and
10,000 organizations. How can we manage [guan] all those? We don’t have enough
people on our staff to do it.” Moreover, because the NGO Management Office is not
organized in a vertical chain of authority, provincial and lower-level offices report not
to the ministry in Beijing but rather to the MOCA office at their own administrative
level, who, in turn, often fail to ‘report up’ information to Beijing. The result of such
a system is that there is no centralized clearinghouse of information about even
registered organizations, much less commercially-registered or un-registered NGOs.
Aside from the well-funded Ministry of State Security, perhaps no other organization
in China has very detailed knowledge on either GONGOs or grassroots NGOs.
MOCA officials are subject to the same political pressures and constraints as officials
in other branches. Policy-makers and policy implementers at the highest level are
generally unaware of the ground-level realities experienced by NGOs. In late 2008,
for example, one lawmaker indicated a total lack of knowledge about China’s first
officially-registered environmental NGO, Friends of Nature (FON). FON was
founded by a prominent intellectual, is based in Beijing, has been registered since the
early 1990s, and has won recognition both domestically and internationally for its
contributions to environmental protection issues. Yet this official had never heard of
the group, even though he represents the agency responsible for NGO regulations and
Another official responsible for implementation, in a more candid moment,
emphatically acknowledged that she had little to no knowledge of grassroots groups.
“Do you mean those NGOs that weren’t created by the government, that don’t get any
government money or support, those self-started NGOs?” I was asked. “Yes, those are
what I mean by grassroots groups,” I replied. “You know, that research you’re doing
is extremely important. Chinese scholars don’t look into those much, I think. They
always just tell us about these big GONGOs, and they always tell us how great they
are. But I’m skeptical, and I don’t find that research very useful for policy purposes.
There are lots of grassroots groups, I think. Isn’t it funny that we’re responsible for
making and implementing policy for NGOs, but even we don’t know much about
In sum, inaction on the part of government agencies is matched by action on the part
of grassroots groups. To borrow from social movement theory, this situation
constitutes a kind of political opportunity that is sometimes skillfully exploited to the
benefit of NGOs. One could, however, argue that rather than conceive of this as
political openness – which Chinese leaders, on the whole, are still unready to offer – it
is simply a vacuum of engagement and enforcement created by a lack of resources
and awareness, not by active intent. Nonetheless, many NGOs – whether registered or
not – are able to operate far beyond what the letter of the law allows by taking
advantage of the often lax enforcement of NGO regulations. Although Yu (2007)
seems to view GONGOs as the main instantiation of China’s emergent civil society,
his observation that “the space the system permits [for NGOs] is far smaller than the
actual space that exists” (p. 21) is perhaps most relevant for China’s grassroots
organizations. As one government official summed it up for me, “Don’t look at
whether the government supports NGOs publicly, look at whether it opposes them.”
MUTUAL SUSPICION, MUTUAL NEED
As the above quote suggests, support and opposition are two sides of the same coin.
The contingent symbiosis that characterizes grassroots groups’ relations with
government is built upon a shifting sand of mutual need and mutual suspicion. In this
section I first highlight the ways in which mutual suspicion permeates the NGO-state
relationship, even for registered NGOs. I then turn attention to how the state’s
retrenchment from welfare provision creates space for grassroots NGOs and bolsters
the social legitimacy of their work.
Mistrust and Avoidance
In contrast to the findings of political scientists who have suggested that political trust
in China, at least towards the central government, is quite high (Li 2004; Shi 2001;
Bernstein and Lü 2000), my data point to a distinctive lack of social trust in China,
not only toward government agents and agencies but also among citizens.20 This
mistrust can severely hinder cooperation between NGOs and government agents and
lead to mutual avoidance. One NGO leader made the case for this most clearly:
The biggest problem is the lack of trust. It has been
destroyed in China. We used to have it, with farmers’
cooperatives in rural areas and other things in cities.
You know, Chinese people talk about hospitality, and
taking care of their bigger families, and things like that.
Our history is not devoid of social trust… But ever
since 1949, from ‘49 to ‘89, you know… Over and over
again, the turmoil people faced, the government turning
people against each other, and the government forcing
people to turn against the government, everyone
attacking each other and struggling against each other.
That’s what’s led to this situation today where the
government doesn’t trust the people, the people don’t
trust each other, and the people don’t trust the
My field notes are replete with examples of people describing their suspicions and
mistrust of others, in matters both small and large.
Although it is beyond the scope of this study to conduct an in-depth exploration of
these problems, I hypothesize that social trust is a particular problem for those
generations who participated in or came of age during the multiple political
campaigns that swept the nation between 1950 and 1976.21 While China’s economic
20 For an excellent discussion of issues of response bias in surveys on trust in China,
as well as for insights into the linguistic and cultural difficulties of cross-national
quantitative studies of trust, see Dalen (2005).
21 These particular experiences reflect a general belief that trust bonds were decimated
by political turmoil in the latter half of the 20th century. As Richard Madsen (2000)
has so succinctly described it: “During the Maoist era… successive political
campaigns targeted an ever-wider array of victims. The bureaucratic apparatus
expanded and ramified. Megalomaniacal mismanagement led to the Great Leap
Forward, which led to a massive famine. Infighting at the top led to the chaos of the
reforms have created new concerns about social stability, the younger generations
have lived largely free of the sorts of mass political mobilizations that engulfed most
of China in their parents’ and grandparents’ youth. As a result, younger NGO
participants may be more successful at making change in the long run than those 10 to
20 years their senior.
For NGOs, then, especially those comprised of people born before the 1980s, this
generalized lack of social trust has direct implications for their willingness to even
approach government officials and their ability to win support for their work. Its most
frequent expression is found in the fear that NGOs – registered and unregistered –
often have of any interaction with government agencies. Fear of “what they might do
to you, no matter what the law says, or what they should do” to support a socially
legitimate NGO is the underlying concern preventing many NGOs from reaching out
to government. At the same time, the lack of trust and openness functions as a
mechanism for plausible deniability for officials, who can claim no knowledge of a
‘problem’ organization in their jurisdiction.
After one registered NGO ran afoul of MOCA officials unhappy with an event the
NGO had planned, I spoke to the group’s middle-aged leader to ask if he had
encountered this type of problem with the government before. The short answer was
‘No’, but the long answer was much more revealing:
I’ve always tried to avoid the government altogether.
Maybe this is my problem. But I think that the less you
involve the government the better. If you don’t tell them
about something you’re doing, and as long as in the
process of doing it you don’t create any trouble, you’ll
be fine. They don’t care. But the moment you tell them
about something, they feel they have to approve it. And
then they’ll usually want to reject it. If they approve it,
they have to take responsibility for whatever happens
with that activity. But if they don’t approve it, they can
be seen as actively doing their job. So my approach has
always been to simply not tell them. That way, I can do
what I want to do, and they don’t have to absorb any
risk. If something goes wrong with it [the clear
implication here is politically wrong, not operationally
wrong], they can say they didn’t know about it and that
therefore you were engaging in illegal activity. Then
they can shut you down. But by operating in this way,
I’m the one bearing all the risk. I’m willing to do this,
though, I guess because I’m sort of a risk-taker.
Besides, if I don’t take risks, nothing will get done.
Not seeking out government officials, and not bringing attention to oneself are
strategies consistently preferred by many grassroots NGOs. “It’s not because I don’t
Cultural Revolution. By the end of the Maoist era, much of the Chinese population
had experienced new forms of starvation and anarchic violence” (Madsen, 2000, p.
want their support, but because I don’t know what they’ll do [to me],” explains
another NGO leader. With the media, as well, many NGOs are extremely reserved
because of fear of the government’s reaction. Before opening a public exhibition
about his NGO’s work, another middle-aged NGO head explained it this way:
I recently had a reporter repeatedly pressing me for an
interview and I kept telling him ‘No’. At one point he
said, ‘But you don’t understand me, what I’m doing.’
And I replied, ‘I don’t want to understand you. I haven’t
even held one [event] yet, and if I talk to you now, if
you report on me, I may get closed down before we can
even open.’ I don’t want to take that kind of risk… I
would rather the media not report at all, and just have
people walk by and find out about it, than have reports
done that just bring trouble.
This fear of government suppression is substantiated by actual incidents in which
NGOs are shut down or “asked to move” to another location. Conversely,
government officials, even those who “in their hearts may be supportive,” are still
sometimes afraid of NGOs, worried that an NGO could cause a social disturbance or
incite violence in their jurisdiction. One supportive government official explains the
suspicion from the government’s perspective as follows:
Not enough government officials know anything about
civil society. Some of them are very afraid of it,
wondering what it is and what political motives people
have… But I think that the government needs to
understand that civil society in China today is not
political. These NGOs, the grassroots NGOs who are
mostly registered as businesses, they’re outside of the
civil affairs system, but they’re not looking to do
anything political. They’re trying to help alleviate
poverty or provide educational assistance or help people
with diseases… This is something the government
needs to understand.
Ironically, the occasion of my conversation with this official also offered a lesson in
trust and suspicion. While we were talking in the coffee shop where we had met, a
young man sitting very close to us, but with his back to us, turned around a few times
and glanced back at us both. A couple of hours into our conversation, the official said
to me in English, “Just a moment, please.” He then took out a business card, flipped
it over, and wrote in Chinese “This person may be listening in and monitoring our
conversation.” I read it, and said, “I know.” His next question for me (in Chinese)
was, “Who do you expect to be meeting with during the rest of your time here?”
Noting the afore-mentioned concern to myself, I replied, “Oh, really no one, just the
folks at the university. I don’t have anything special to do on this trip, but I would
probably like to see some other old friends.”
Vagueness and generalities are always safest, it seems. By asking me whom else I
intended to meet, he was doing his official duty of helping to ‘monitor’ the foreigner
asking about politically sensitive issues. And by replying in vague terms, I was
offering him plausible deniability and assuring him (and our presumed listener-spy)
that I had no ill intentions and was acting completely above-board. It was a dance I
had performed multiple times already, and I felt it was quite well executed that day,
whether or not there was really an audience.22
Government ‘Management’ (Guanli) of Properly Registered NGOs
Government fears of un-official NGOs – and even registered NGOs – doing
something ‘bad’ create a subtle, sometimes overwhelming constraint on NGO action.
For the few grassroots groups who do manage to obtain proper NGO registration, they
often play a sort of cat-and-mouse game to avoid being ‘managed’ by their
supervisory agencies. Due to the many restrictions placed on registered groups, ones
that started out as a bottom-up effort to meet pressing needs often find themselves
bumping up against official constraints if they do manage to register with a
supervisory agency. More than a few of these groups insist on doing things their way
to meet the needs of the population they are serving, even if that means going beyond
their approved field of work or geographical location.
But with official recognition can come greater scrutiny, and thus begins NGOs’
efforts to avoid being ‘managed’. The Chinese term ‘guanli’ is generally translated as
‘manage’ (as in, the ‘managing’ of a business). Yet, as one European corporate social
responsibility consultant noted at a gathering about labor issues, when she visits
factories in China to talk about improving labor conditions, “it seems that when I say
‘manage’, the factory owners and managers hear ‘rule over the workers and make
them do what we want’. I think we have a very different definition of management.”
Factory bosses’ definition of the word ‘guanli’ (to manage) holds true for NGO-
government relations, as well. The first character of the term, ‘guan’, is used as a verb
in a variety of ways both alone and combined with other characters to mean to
control, to take care of (children, housework, etc.), to administer, or to discipline. In
short, it is a word with broad applications. The second character, ‘li’, has the
connotation of ‘to put things in order’ and presupposes a ‘correct’ order or
On the face of it, ‘guanli’ need not be normative in intent. But in common usage, as
the CSR consultant quoted above discovered, the word and its main verb, ‘guan’,
imply strong, hierarchically structured power dynamics. In official government
rhetoric, ‘guan’ is used in discussions of the government’s “need” to “add and
strengthen management” (jiaqiang guanli) over and of NGOs. The ‘supervisory’ in
the official term for ‘supervisory agency’ (zhuguan danwei) features the word ‘guan’,
22 When we finished our conversation, the official left and I stayed on to type up some
notes. From what I observed later of the man behind us, he was simply a university
student borrowing the space to catch up on homework while waiting for his girlfriend,
a waitress, to finish her morning shift. Perhaps it was unnecessary to end our
conversation the way we had, but who knows?
and the office within MOCA that is responsible for administering NGOs is a
‘management’ office (guanliju).
In short, in the formal language of government, the verb ‘guan’ is ubiquitous and
bureaucratically rational. But in the everyday language of society, ‘to guan’ is to put
your nose in matters that are not your concern or to attempt to exert power and control
over others. When asked about government supervision, the head of one registered
education-related NGO became downright indignant:
How can they guan us?! These are things they should
be providing themselves, as the government. If they
haven’t provided these things themselves, how is
possible for them to supervise us? On what basis could
they judge our performance?... Of course, if I lose a kid
on the street or something awful, that’s an obvious
problem. But if we’re just going on with our work, on a
daily basis, and nothing extreme happens, how can they
say whether we’re doing a good job or not? Humph!...
The government is used to being all-powerful. So even
when they don’t know what they’re doing, some
officials will still try to guan you. It’s a habit they can’t
While challenging the legitimacy of government’s impositions is one way NGOs may
respond to top-down efforts to manage them, communicating one’s needs and
circumstances to government officials is another. One registered NGO leader
explained that his experience with the NGO Management Office was far from
positive, and that he wished the officials there would “come out of their offices” to
learn more about what NGOs actually do.
It’s not that we’ve never wanted to talk to the
government, but simply that we’ve never before had a
way in. The conference [held recently] was a big
help… But other than [one government official], the
only other government person who attended was a [a
lower level official]. And he just came to make an
appearance – he gave a talk and then left right
afterwards. He didn’t hear any of the voices he needed
to for it to make a real difference for NGOs… The
people I wish would have attended are those people at
the NGO Management Office. They’re the ones who
could make a difference for us. But, at this point in
time, trying to talk with them as equals is impossible.
They talk to us [NGOs] like ‘You can’t do this… You
need to do this… I’m warning you, be careful…’ – like
they’re up here [he holds his right hand up high in the
air] and you’re down here [moving his hand lower], like
you’re beneath them. It’s that attitude that makes it
impossible for us to have any real dialogue with them.
Even one sympathetic government official admitted:
People in the government are of the mentality that
they’re providing a service, not delivering what people
have a right to obtain. At the extreme, this mentality
shows itself in the expression ‘I’m an official. You’re a
plebeian. I’m bigger than you!’ (wo shi guan, ni shi
min. wo bi ni da!) This problem is visible in virtually
every government office.
One former government official turned NGO activist insisted that by improving
communications with government officials, NGOs could lessen the risk of being
controlled (guan – ed) by them.
Some NGOS that are in a rush to ‘get things done’ act
without first thinking about how to handle the
government. That can be bad for their organization.
Once you start doing something on a large scale and get
the government’s attention, you risk having your
organization ‘managed’ (guan) tightly by the
government or even completely shut down. Sometimes
lots of people are doing things in small ways first, then
the government notices it and asks ‘Hey, what’s this all
about? What are you doing?’ If you let the government
know – for example, by bringing them in to participate
in conferences like this, where you tell them about what
you’re doing and how you’re doing it – your
organization has a better chance of survival.
At a small gathering of academics, activists, and government officials, one scholar-
activist worried that under the current system, the government risks ‘managing’
NGOs “to death” (guansi ta le). Another injected some humor into a very serious
discussion by summing up the situation this way: “I think there’s a fundamental
problem [in the government’s approach to NGOs]. Although our government agencies
all have a sign hanging up that says, ‘Serving the People’ (wei renmin fuwu), in reality
it’s more like the government is ‘Managing the People’ (wei renmin guanli)!” Indeed,
in an authoritarian state, pervasive restrictions on freedom easily give the lie to
beneficent government slogans.
The Social Legitimacy of Grassroots NGOs
While the mutual suspicions described above highlight the many contingencies
inherent to the NGO-government relationship, a focus on the legitimacy of NGO
work reveals the symbiotic nature of these ties.
The onslaught of social changes brought about by China’s economic reforms has been
well documented. Whether in labor, health-care, education, the environment, or many
other fields, Chinese society underwent many dramatic changes in the last two
decades of the 20th century and into the 2000s. Not only particular goods, but whole
areas of life once managed exclusively by the government have been subjected to
privatization and market forces (see, e.g., Davis 2000). With these changes, new
problems have arisen, some of which the government is either unwilling to address or
incapable of resolving effectively. It is precisely these problems that grassroots
NGOs strive to address, problems that emerge off the official media’s radar screen or
in the gaps between government rhetoric and people’s lived realities.23
Indeed, at all levels of society and in all walks of life, many Chinese people are aware
and concerned about these new social problems. So while the technical legality of a
commercially-registered or unregistered grassroots organization may be questioned,
the social legitimacy of NGO services goes virtually unchallenged. Reasonable
people at all levels see the need for action and sympathize with the causes
championed by grassroots groups. The lack of government approval and official
sponsorship, although a reality about which many potential supporters are aware, is
not necessarily a reason to withhold support from such groups. As one liberal-minded
member of China’s newly rich class put it, “They may not be legal (hefa), but they’re
entirely legitimate (heli)!”24
At a commercially registered international NGO focused on corporate social
responsibility in labor practices, the leadership walks a fine line but believes their
function is complementary to the government’s policies and China’s social needs:
We’re not giving out legal advice or anything. And
we’re not inciting any workers to riot. Of course, if we
went to a factory to do a training, then the next day that
factory’s workers went out on the street protesting for
something or another, the government might come
looking for us. But that’s very unlikely. All we do is
focus on communication-building. We give factory
management and workers a new way to talk to one
another. Typically if a worker has a complaint or a
suggestion they write a letter or fill out a ‘comments’
card. Or managers simply say ‘Just come talk to me if
23 Democratic countries have in recent decades undergone a not too dissimilar
restructuring of the state-society relationship, but with differing impacts for NGOs.
Ullman (1998) found that in France, “decentralization… brought the crisis of state
capacity to local government. Newly burdened with responsibility for difficult social
problems, these local governments often delegated their new tasks to nonprofit
organizations” (Ullman 1998, p. 100). In a democratic state like France, such a
delegation is politically possible (even though perhaps difficult). For an authoritarian
state, however, widespread delegation to non-governmental, non-party-controlled
groups is a politically unacceptable solution to the problem of social service delivery.
For this simple reason, if none other, experienced NGO participants often see keeping
a low profile and not making political demands as crucial to their continued survival.
24 I have considered carefully how to best translate the term ‘heli’ into English.
Typically, it is translated as ‘reasonable’, but because of the way it is used in
reference to the larger social context of NGO work, I believe ‘legitimate’ is more
you have anything to say.’ But this is very ineffective
for really passing along problems and ideas. What we
offer them is another option for transmitting different
Whether in health, labor, education, or another field, the legitimacy of grassroots
work can be leveraged by both the government and NGOs themselves in a way that
allows them both to achieve related goals. Some environmental NGOs, for example,
are allowed to exist, even when technically illegal, because they help bolster the case
of a local Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). As one government official
The EPB needs NGOs to voice their concerns. Without
them, when the EPB tries to tell other government
officials or units to take some action to protect the
environment, the response is always ‘But is there really
a need for that?’ So the EPB wants NGOs to speak
loudly, because then it can say ‘Well, of course. See,
society is demanding it.’ It’s more persuasive when
NGOs give voice to these problems, because many
government agencies are extremely concerned about
meeting demands voiced by society. If they don’t
respond to these needs, things might get out of control.
The government, again, has multiple layers, divisions, and personalities. One labor
NGO focusing on workplace injuries has met with both resistance and support from
local government, but no denial of the fundamental need for their work:
One time a factory owner who didn’t like what we were
doing complained to the local government. Then the
local health department officials came to us and said
we’d have to leave the area, but they offered to help us
find another location close by. It’s to their advantage,
too, because if we can help lower the incidence of work
injuries, local factories can keep more workers and the
health department has fewer headaches. And we can
help educate workers about what to do if they run into
health problems, which helps the local offices, too.
Political scientist Mary Gallagher (2004) explains well why the state is unwilling to
formally recognize the sorts of groups I describe here. As she notes, “corporatist
incorporation [would entail] the legitimation of these groups and at least some degree
of recognition that their interests are justified and should be represented in policy
debates. Such legitimation, however, remains anathema to the Chinese party-state”
(Gallagher 2004, p. 436). Yet while this assessment of the political threat is within all
reason, it is difficult for individuals within the party-state to deny the social
legitimacy of these groups. In “offering to help us find another location close by,”
local officials such as those described above are recognizing the contributions of
grassroots NGOs, although, as Gallagher correctly points out, they may not be able
(or willing) to grant such organizations formal recognition. In short, it is partially
with these individual officials’ support, or through their willingness to turn a blind
eye to unauthorized activities, that grassroots groups are able to survive and even
In addition to NGOs’ ability to find allies within various government agencies who
acknowledge the legitimacy of their work, it is also to the benefit of grassroots NGOs
that many express no anti-state, anti-party political agenda. This was the case with
the groups I found in Guangdong. As patriotic progressives pushing to realize the
egalitarian goals of the Chinese communist revolution, they present no explicit
political threat to the established order. And unlike the Falungong, which was
suppressed after being labeled an ‘evil cult’ by the central government in 1999,
grassroots NGOs in Guangdong displayed no ability or inclination to mobilize large
numbers of people, nor were they linking up in any regular way. Moreover, some key
staff and volunteers are themselves Communist Party members.
“I’m actually not an anti-party person,” emphasized one non-party-member NGO
leader in his mid-20s. He, like many others, can be very critical of the government
and find fault with the party on many levels, but such criticism is often predicated on
a belief that the current system cannot be changed radically to any good end. The fear
of ‘chaos’ often cited by Chinese leaders and scholars seems to be shared as well by
participants in China’s nascent civil society.
One recent university graduate who led an NGO as a student chose to take a job at a
government agency. He wants to work within the system to promote a progressive
social agenda and the stable development of NGO-government relations:
I try to tell people in NGOs to be calm and not too
extreme. The kinds of protests and actions taken by
NGOs overseas simply won’t work in China. Because
extreme groups who call people onto the streets or
whatever will just be shut down by the government.
But the government needs NGOs, so as long as an NGO
doesn’t incite people to illegal protests, the government
won’t oppose it.
The image of patriotic progressives is actively cultivated by some NGOs. The leader
of an education-related NGO in Beijing emphasized in a discussion of his work that “I
prefer the NPO [non-profit organization] term, because when you say ‘NGO’ people
of think of ‘anti-government’, but NPO presents it in terms of ‘compared to for-profit
organizations’…” In Shanghai, the leader of a registered grassroots NGO voiced a
similar concern: “In China, if you use ‘NGO’, people think ‘anti-government
organization’, so we say ‘public welfare organization’ (gongyi zuzhi) instead. Even
within our circle, we also introduce ourselves as a public welfare organization.”
This type of framing, or self-presentation, is not uncommon with Chinese NGOs.
Keech-Marx (2008) found in her study of three women’s organizations in Beijing that
“by representing their activities as complementing existing government services,
popular women’s organizations portray themselves as a useful component of Chinese
society, rather than as a threat to the Chinese state” (p. 193). Although the groups she
studied had much closer personal and official ties to the state, for grassroots groups,
too, using the rhetoric of the state fits well with their own self-image. On the whole,
virtually all of the people I talked with who were engaged in NGO work, however
critical they may be of government inadequacies, corruption, or other problems,
remained uninterested in political action that would destabilize the regime. “We just
want to do some things, not oppose the government,” emphasized one of my closest
NGO contacts. “I’m not fundamentally opposed to the party,” says another, “I just
think the government needs to improve things in some crucial ways.” Indeed, in
meetings with government officials, in private, and in public forums, a common
refrain of NGO activists is that ‘We hope the government is clear that we’re not doing
anything bad, we’re just trying to help people in need.’ In more candid moments,
many present themselves as critical thinkers, patriotic progressives who dare to
pursue the promises of socialism that the government has seemingly abandoned in the
name of economic reform.
Tocqueville-inspired work on the connections between associations and democracy
suggest, on the whole, that civil society organizations play key roles in supporting
democratization processes and in maintaining democratic regimes. In line with recent
analyses of other authoritarian states, the evidence presented in this article acts as a
corrective to these views, cautioning that we should not assume that NGOs in an
authoritarian state, even independent grassroots organizations, are working towards
democratic purposes. While NGOs’ individual or collective impact may certainly lead
to democratic pressures, this is far from guaranteed.
Other scholars have described how authoritarian states may pursue a corporatist
strategy in hopes of fending off democratic demands and ensuring tight control over
newly emergent social issues and interest groups. While this may reflect the
relationship between government and official NGOs – GONGOs, to be more accurate
– corporatism cannot be suitably applied to understand the existence and survival of
ostensibly illegal grassroots organizations.
As my data show, in an authoritarian state where independent organizations are a
potential threat to official power holders, grassroots groups can survive, but they exist
only under a constant threat of suppression. Within such a precarious existence, these
groups are far too weak to be the natural agents of democratization that casual
observers might presume them to be. Indeed, grassroots NGOs survive only insofar
as they limit any democratic-claims making and help promote the social welfare goals
of the state. Broader contextual factors such as the weak rule of law, the social
legitimacy of NGO goals, the lack of media reporting on NGO activity, and a general
fragmentation of governance and enforcement allow NGOs to operate and
relationships to develop between NGOs and particular government officials. Despite
widespread mistrust between government and ‘illegal’ organizations and a tendency
to mutual avoidance, local government officials are willing to turn a blind eye to
ostensibly illegal organizations as long as those organizations’ good works can be
appropriated by officials and contribute positively to their annual performance
reports. The symbiosis that characterizes these relationships, however, remains
contingent upon the political calculations of government officials. Suppression always
remains an option (and an official obligation) for officials who deem it prudent.
Keeping this in mind highlights the fragility, and the unequal power balance, inherent
in the NGO-government relationship. In sum, the contingent symbiosis that
characterizes relations between grassroots NGOs and the authoritarian state suggests
that NGO development in such environments takes on a self-limiting character.
Unless there is a fundamental shift in broader political arrangements, the threat and
reality of repression will remain a key constraint on the development of grassroots
Further empirical research is essential to deepen our understanding of the
phenomenon of contingent symbiosis. Yet there are tremendous difficulties to
studying associations in any authoritarian regime, and there are many additional
questions that I am unable to answer with my current data. Is there a particular
combination of strategies, for example, that might account for the long-term survival
of particular NGOs or success in particular realms of activity? Given the
fragmentation of governance, are there particular institutional circumstances in some
cities or provinces that permit greater or less NGO freedom than in others? Do small
communities promote NGO growth because of the (presumably) stronger levels of
social trust in those communities? Are GONGOs less or more successful than
grassroots groups at negotiating with the state for autonomy? Future research that
takes any of these issues and compares strategies and outcomes across a sample of
organizations would provide a wealth of insight relevant to not only the civil society
debates but to social movements and other literatures concerned with state-society
Additional research is needed to determine how the performance of contingent
symbiosis might vary, but given similar political arrangements and concerns, one
would expect the core logic of contingent symbiosis to hold true across a variety of
authoritarian regimes. Government agents in North Korea, Cuba, and Burma, for
example, may grant some degree of tolerance to unauthorized organizations that
contribute to the social welfare goals of the state. Such toleration would likely vary
according to the size and complexities of the society in question, its historical
experience of un-official associational life, and the presence or absence of other large
institutions that might compete with the state as an organizing force (e.g., the Catholic
Church in Cuba or Buddhism in Burma).
Regardless of where in the world we look, those interested in civil society in
authoritarian states would do well to move beyond the conventional corporatist model
and toward the concept of contingent symbiosis, a concept which acknowledges the
real-life micro-level negotiations that take place between the state and bottom-up
associations. It is in these details that we can start to understand both the possibilities
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APPENDIX 1: METHODOLOGY AND DATA
Selecting a site in China for this research was not a smooth process. Contacts in
Beijing and Shanghai were understandably reluctant to officially vouch for an
American researcher conducting research on a topic they themselves had been warned
to avoid. Eventually, however, I was granted access and an affiliation with a
university in Guangzhou, the capital of southern China’s Guangdong province.
Between 2005 and 2008, I interviewed and conducted participant observation
alongside a varied group of Chinese government officials and leaders, staff, and
volunteers in Chinese GONGOs and grassroots NGOs. These comprise the research
data on which this article is based. The data presented here are drawn primarily from
intensive fieldwork conducted over a 15-month period between 2005 and 2007, with
some follow-up work continuing into 2009. In total, over 120 people assisted in this
research by sharing their thoughts and experiences in interviews, informal
conversations, and numerous NGO gatherings and activities. The organizations on
which my analysis is based include 31 grassroots NGOs, mostly located in
Guangdong but also including some in other regions. By simple virtue of the fact that
I found them, these organizations are ‘successful’ organizations.25
While space constraints prevent a detailed discussion of the difficulties of conducting
research in an authoritarian state, a brief note is in order. In most societies, the study
of illicit activity is rife with methodological and ethical difficulties. In an
authoritarian state like China, restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of
speech make such a study all the more challenging. Ensuring the safety and
confidentiality of my informants and managing my own personal and political risks
were ever-present concerns that undeniably shaped the research process itself and my
perspectives on the data I collected. Virtually all the interviews and conversations
described here were held in Chinese, and all translations are my own.
Despite the dearth of generalized social trust that I found in my research, building
relationships with NGO participants, although not immediate, took surprisingly little
effort. People were eager to tell their stories, to express their frustrations and
anxieties, and to encourage others to take up similar efforts. Being non-Chinese,
moreover, I was not suspected as an internal Chinese spy or security official come to
check up on them. Yet as a US citizen I walked a political tightrope between Chinese
government authorities afraid of grassroots groups and on the lookout for American
spies, and US government officials seeking to encourage and support NGO
expansion. Ultimately, several key Chinese government officials came to see my
research as non-threatening, a judgment that allowed me to continue my inquiries and
activities and provided me access to higher level government offices. Nonetheless,
trust-building sometimes requires a multi-layered unfolding of relationships. I
frequently treated initial conversations and meetings with new people as only hints
into their experience and views, data that were then confirmed or modified through
25 For some scholars of organizational growth, this study, which focuses on survival
strategies, may naturally raise the question of organizational death. My data reflects
the fluid situation in China today. Rather than organizational death, NGOs frequently
experience a process of birth, death (e.g., being shut down by authorities), and re-birth
under a different name. This process, however, is a topic for future study.
APPENDIX 2: PROFILES OF GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS AND
INDIVIDUALS INCLUDED IN THIS RESEARCH
Participants from a total of 31 different grassroots NGOs were interviewed as a part
of this research. These NGOs’ fields of activity are roughly categorized in the chart
Supplementary Notes on NGO Categorization
Many of the organizations involved in this research engage in multiple activities. Due
to the dynamic nature of Chinese society in this current period, some groups shifted
their focus frequently depending on their organizational resources, their perceptions
of local need, and their own ambitions. As an example, one group working with
female sex workers shifted from providing psychological counseling to focusing on
education about sexually transmitted diseases, and then later yet to education about
protecting against violent clients and police exploitation. Another group working
mostly with people affected by leprosy also began to shift part of its focus to
supplementary education for children in impoverished rural villages. Despite the
difficulties such changes pose to easy categorization, in describing the grassroots
NGOs listed above I have tried to capture what I believe to be the main focus of their
activity during the time covered in the fieldwork. Given the small numbers of NGOs
that were active during this period, to be more specific about the individual groups’
activities would put them at risk of being identified and subjected to official
harassment, investigation, or suppression.
Supplementary Notes on NGO Participants
During the course of fieldwork, paid staff sizes changed according to the resources
and circumstances of the organization. At one point in the study, three organizations
had no paid staff while one (of exceptionally large size) had over 30. Throughout the
study, however, most organizations had less than four full-time paid staff. In addition,
some NGOs had ‘volunteers’ and ‘members’, although due to a lack of consensus
over the meaning of ‘volunteer’ (how frequently do they lend a hand? financially
compensated or not?) and ‘membership’ (dues paying, or just frequent joiners?), staff
within the same NGO often offered different estimates. Popular understandings of the
term ‘volunteer’, for example, were affected by previous government-led campaigns
to force ‘volunteers’ into public action and by workshops organized by local and
foreign elites that brought NGO leaders together and in contact with academic and
overseas understandings of these terms.
Supplementary Notes on NGO Financial Resources
As with the actual programs of the grassroots NGOs that inform this research, the
financial resources of these groups were ever-shifting. Funding models included
membership fees, fees for services, gifts from individuals (both Chinese and foreign),
grants from international NGOs (in rare cases), self-funding by NGO founders
(through savings, earnings, or some other means), and self-funding by volunteers. For
the few organizations that had regular sources of income, of the budget numbers I was
able to obtain, the wealthiest organization had an income of about 3 million yuan
(approx. US$440,000) in one year. On the lowest end, the groups without paid staff
were entirely self-funded, whereas at least three organizations with paid staff survived
on meager resources of less than 100,000 yuan per year (approx. US$14,000). Again,
however, as resources shifted every few months for many of the groups, I did not
keep a running tally of their budgets. In retrospect, taking a periodic ‘snapshot’ of
financial resources may have been a more prudent approach.
Supplementary Descriptive Information on Interviewees and Participant
During the main part of the fieldwork, between 2005 and 2007, interviews were
conducted with 101 people, 43 of whom were interviewed more than twice, nine of
whom were interviewed twice, and 49 of whom were interviewed once. These
include NGO participants, GONGO staff, government officials, and a handful of
representatives of foreign-based NGOs or foundations with programs operating in
mainland China. Another 20 people were also regular joiners in the participant-
observation activities I took part in. Although I did not formally interview them,
informal chats with these people were frequently illuminating and informed my
understandings of the dynamics at play.
Of this 121 person total, 69 were male, and 52 were female. The age distribution of all
121 is as follows:
50 In their 20s
34 In their 30s
27 In their 40s
6 In their 50s
2 In their 60s
2 In their 70s
As most of my interviewees were found through introductions by others, these
descriptive statistics should by no means be understood as a representative sample of
China’s civil society participants. However, for reasons that cannot be elaborated here
due to space constraints, it does seem likely that participation in China’s NGOs would
skew to younger generations if a broader survey were to be conducted.