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

American Journal of Sociology (Impact Factor: 3.17). 07/2011; 117(1). DOI: 10.1086/660741


In the study of civil society, Tocqueville-inspired research has helped illuminate important connections between associations and democracy, while corporatism has provided a robust framework for understanding officially approved civil society organizations in authoritarian regimes. Yet neither approach accounts for the experiences of ostensibly illegal grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in an authoritarian state. Drawing on fieldwork in China, I argue that grassroots NGOs can survive in an authoritarian regime when the state is fragmented and when censorship keeps information local. Moreover, grassroots NGOs survive only insofar as they refrain from democratic claims-making and address social needs that might fuel grievances against the state. For its part, the state tolerates such groups as long as particular state agents can claim credit for any good works while avoiding blame for any problems. Grassroots NGOs and an authoritarian state can thus coexist in a "contingent symbiosis" that-far from pointing to an inevitable democratization- allows ostensibly illegal groups to operate openly while relieving the state of some of its social welfare obligations.

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