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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
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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.