“Civil Society” or “People’s Society”: Where’s the Party?

Introduction: University of Oxford China scholar, Patricia Thornton, uses the case of Shanghai to examine an important trend that has received little attention: the increasingly proactive role of the Party and Party-organized NGOs (PONGOs) in managing and guiding the development of the NGO sector.

The Eighteenth Party Congress underscored the waxing importance of social organizations in China, ending with a renewed call to “increase the strength of Party-building in social organizations” (jiada shehui zuzhi dangjian gongzuo 加大社会组织党建工作).  By the end of 2012, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had established well over 4.2 million grassroots Party branches and committees, including those in over 40,300 social organizations (shehui tuanti 社会团体) and more than 39,500 private non-enterprise units (minban feiqiye 民办非企业) as part of its broader effort to “comprehensively cover” (quan fugai 全覆盖) society1.

This new advance of the Party in the wake of the state’s scaling back of its public welfare role is being heralded by some as a uniquely Chinese “theory of limited government” (youxian zhengfu lilun有限政府理论) involving a new model– “big Party, small state, great society” (da zhengdang, xiao zhengfu, da shehui  大政党、小政府、大社会)2.  Even more recently, in the People’s Daily, Tsinghua’s Hu An’gang heralded the building of a Chinese “people’s society” (人民社会) that would differ from traditional Western conceptions of civil society centering on the rights and interests of private individuals.  According to Hu, the core principles of the superior Chinese model include public ownership, public welfare, fairness and impartiality beneath the aegis of the Chinese Communist Party3.

Hu’s analysis appears amidst ongoing reconsideration among scholars and Party theoreticians in China regarding the optimal balance between state, market, and social power in the PRC.  While most agree that China’s flourishing “third sector ” (disan bumen 第三部门) offers both challenges and opportunities for the regime, some envision a clearer division of roles between social groups, the Party, and the state, but also warn of potential dangers ahead.  At stake is the nature and extent of Party leadership to be exercised in the “third sector ,” as well as the Party’s capacity to “selectively absorb,” “integrate,” or “comprehensively cover” new social forces in a manner that permits their continued development with a degree of autonomy.

“Comprehensively Covering” Grassroots Social Organizations

Intensive Party-building efforts in China’s emerging “third sector ” began  as early as 1997, when Jiang Zemin stressed the importance of “cultivating and developing social intermediary organizations” (peiyu he fazhan shehui zhongjie zuzhi 培育和发展社会中介组织) in his speech to the 15th Party Congress4. This was quickly followed by the Organization Department and Ministry of Civil Affairs’ joint call in February 1998 for Party personnel to establish grassroots Party branches in those social organizations under their supervision5. This new initiative to “eliminate blank spots, expand comprehensive coverage, increase effectiveness” (xiaomie kongbai dian, kuoda fugai mian, zengqiang youxiao xing 消灭空白点,扩大覆盖面,增强有效性) resulted, by the end of 2008, in the creation of Party branches in 53.5% of eligible6 social groups (shehui tuanti 社会团体), 55% of eligible private non-enterprise units (minban feiqiye danwei 民办非企业单位), and 51% of eligible foundations (jijin hui 基金会)  nationwide7.

In Shanghai, where grassroots party-building aimed at “comprehensive coverage” (quan fugai 全覆盖) began at least as far back as 20018, one recent report suggests that the Party’s penetration of eligible social groups now approaches 100 percent9. To accomplish this aim, the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee experimented with a variety of new organizational forms, including joint branches (lianhe zhibu 联合支部) combining members employed in different enterprises and local residents in a neighborhood or district; temporary branches (linshi zhibu 临时支部) for seasonal workers or temporary residents; and Party working small groups (dang xiaozu, dangde gongzuo xiaozu 党小组,党的工作小组) to address specific problems at the grassroots level.

These new institutional arrangements fuse entrepreneurial and philanthropic aims at the urban grassroots.  Under “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) programs, new Party branches in private firms push their members to participate in public service activities; Party members working in and for social organizations are likewise pressed to adopt professional standards and commercial practices10. In addition, the Party has established new non-governmental organizations that I have referred to as Party-organized NGOs or PONGOs11,  a new hybrid form designed to encourage the formation and growth of professional charitable organizations capable of taking on public welfare provision. In the urban districts of Shanghai, these new PONGOs encourage public-private partnerships, social entrepreneurship, and branded corporate sponsorship of charity and community events.

The need for charitable and other social organizations to provide high-quality services is growing.  Shanghai municipal and district level administrative bureaus already contract out several million to several tens of millions of yuan to non-state entities for public services per year.  In 2006, for example, municipal authorities contracted out a staggering 150 million yuan of special operations, extrabudgetary funds to the Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation for various cultural projects. The municipal and district governments spent another 67.79 million yuan discharging various legal and penal obligations, including community crime prevention, youth services, and care for drug addicts. In 2007, Huangpu District purchased over 22.19 million yuan from various community service organizations and enterprises; and in Pudong New Area, the cost of services purchased more than doubled in three years, from 22.282 million in 2003, to 59.55 million yuan in 2006.

Pudong New Area, for example, a designated “national comprehensive reform municipality,” is experimenting with a “service purchase model” (goumai fuwu moshi 购买服务模式). The district government “jump-started” 26 community-based organizations (CBOs) capable of providing social services on a contractual basis through subsidies, loans, and other inducements.  In order to qualify, CBOs must observe “six divisions” (六个分开) from the state: no sharing of administration, organizational structure, functions, staff, property or physical facilities; during the course of the contract there must be no subordination of the CBO to the district, no exchange of personnel or employees between the two, and no shared property or capital between them12. The “six divisions,” however, do not apply to the Party. To the contrary, social organizations with large and active Party branches are increasingly at the center of public service provision within grassroots urban communities like Pudong New Area, and elsewhere in greater Shanghai.

For example, in the case of the Putuo District Changshou Road (Street-level) NGO Service Center (Shanghaishi Putuolu jiedao minjian zuzhi fuwu zhongxin 上海市普陀路街道民间组织服务中心), established in August 2002 as the first Party-organized NGO clearinghouse for non-state, civic, and non-profit organizations in Shanghai, the center’s director concurrently serves as the service center’s branch Party secretary at the behest of the Putuo District Joint Party Committee.

The Service Center received 280,000 yuan in operating funds (jingfei 经费) from street offices in 2006, which covered approximately 100,000 yuan to subsidize the salaries of six full-time employees (the director, a deputy-director, and four staff members), and another 180,000 yuan to support the activities of various social organizations within the district.  Its chief function is to coordinate the activities of the 281 registered NGOs and CBOs in the area, advise them regarding existing regulations, and assist and assess their readiness to prepare competitive bids for local public service provision totaling some 1.5 million yuan.

The Center’s member organizations—in effect, Party-organized NGOs (PONGOs), with the Center facilitating the process of registration– employ or represent over nine hundred Party members, and are in turn represented by nine overlapping Party organizations at the enterprise, street, building (楼宇), or district level, including, as of July 2009: 56 private non-enterprise units , 7 social organizations  (社会团体), 25 charitable organizations (慈善类社会组织), and 193 teams (群众团队)13.

The Center’s constituent organizations span six categories—private non-enterprise units, social organizations (社会团体), public groups and teams (群众团队), volunteers (义工), collectively supervised entities (综合管理), and charity supermarkets (慈善超市).  Hailed as a great success in both local party- and community-building, the “civic organization service center” model has been adopted in the nearby districts of Jing’an and Minhang as well14.

In addition to opening up a “civic organization service center” to sponsor PONGOs modeled on the one in Putuo, in 2007 the Jing’an District Party Committee and district government established a district social organization union (社会组织联合会, or shelianhui 社联会) to mobilize the district’s social organizations to collectively and conscientiously implement the opinions and advice of the Party committee while maintaining communication with district Street Offices.

The additional public services provided by member organizations in exchange for registration and support included a series of science lectures that involved the distribution of “anti-cult propaganda materials;” the negotiation of the peaceful resettlement of a district homeowner who had threatened to self-immolate if forced to move; helped to educate 350 prisoners; and two social mixers, a “white-collar salon” (bailing shalong 白领沙龙) and “salon for middle-aged and elder singles” (zhonglaonian danshen shalong 中老年单身沙龙), that drew in 8,000 local residents15.

Likewise, in April 2007, Pudong Party and state officials jointly established a “non-profit incubator center” (Shanghai Pudong feiyingli zuzhi fazhan zhongxin 上海浦东非营利组织发展中心) with the aim of “assisting the creativity of Chinese society and entrepreneurial talent to cultivate public welfare.” The incubator provides administrative support, field equipment, and registration assistance to social groups, non-enterprise units, and foundations within the district, and claim “I Study Net” (Wo xue wang, www.5xue.com), and “1kg” (www.1kg.org), as successfully “incubated” organizations that are now nationwide non-profit service providers16.

The Shanghai Municipal Party Committee’s new “hub-style” (枢纽性) network facilitates the exchange of resources and organization of joint activities among various “two new” linked party branch groups.  For example, at the behest of their enthusiastic Party branch secretaries, staff members of the Xu Beihong Fine Arts Kindergarten and Yixian Garden celebrated International Women’s Day with a series of “rich, colorful and varied” activities arranged around the theme  “I am healthy, bright, happy, and beautiful” in the multi-purpose room at Yixian Garden, where they were joined by representatives of the beauty product line COCO, who offered live skincare demonstrations and professional makeovers for members of the staff.  Other recent events have included dominoes tournaments, dance contests, and a three-legged race17.

Party branches that span community and civic associations are also pressed to perform important stability maintenance roles, serving as “barometers” (qingyubiao 晴雨表) of grassroots popular sentiment18, or “early warning” (yujing 预警) nodes capable of portending social discontent or threats.  In 2003, grassroots NGO branch Party cadres in Xigong uncovered an underground cell of qigong practitioners; and the following year, broke up a practice site for the banned “Fragrant Gong” (Xiang Gong 香功) sect in their area19. In 2008, the Changshou NGO Service Center routed out twelve illegal and unregistered grassroots societies, and uncovered plans for twenty illegal collective activities, which were reported to Party and municipal authorities20.

Perhaps not surprisingly, concern about increased surveillance, additional financial obligations, and potential meddling has occasionally frustrated Party-building in social groups.  The perception that state- and Party-organized social groups are merely an extension of the government persists, despite official insistence to the contrary: “some take government-established civic associations that are neither wholly independent nor autonomous, known as GONGOs, and go so far as to disparagingly refer to them as the ‘second government’ (er zhengfu 二政府)… [implying] that they function as government lackeys and mouthpieces21.”

Party Transformation at the Grassroots?

In many urban centers, the Party is busily recreating itself as both a service hub and a social network in realms which are “difficult for the state to access and manage22,” by selectively encouraging social groups to operate with Party support.  These benefits are by no means lost on NGO activists: according to one author, the presence of an internal Party branch can reverse the popular perception that a group’s activities are either mere “child’s play” (xiao’er ke 小儿科) or “irregular” (bu zhenggui 不正规), “dissipate the wariness of potential clients and society at large,” increase effectiveness and attract talented volunteers and employees23. However, at the same time, perceived “conflicts of interest” can and do arise, as has occasionally been the case within state-organized NGOs designed to advance the interests of their supervising government units.  In some cases, supervising state units have purportedly repelled Party-building efforts within affiliated organizations.  Striking a satisfactory balance between the interests of the Party and the original mission of a social group therefore requires both “first-rate management skills” and the willingness to negotiate with both state and Party authorities, qualities that not all activists possess24.

For this and other reasons, Wu Hui and Zhao Xusheng of the Central Party School argue that social groups represent a “double-edged sword” (shuangren jian 双刃剑) for the Party, helpful in providing much-needed public services and therefore improving governance over the long term, but also potentially threatening the Party’s leadership by “crowding out” the social space traditionally occupied by party organizations and in some cases displacing them at the grassroots25.

Luo Feng, an associate professor of public administration in Shanghai, agrees, agrees about the serious impact (chongji 冲击) on the Party’s power and prestige, but also finds that current efforts to incorporate (naru 纳入) civic organizations into the Party’s orbit restricts their autonomy and functionality, and moreover engenders political conflict and resistance.  What is required, Luo proposes, is a more nuanced approach that will preserve the administrative order of the Party-state, and the ability of legitimate social groups to respond to real social needs. That balance has yet to be struck26. In the final analysis, as Li Jingpeng at Beijing University observes, what is most crucial is the nature of the Party’s advance: “If the ‘advance of the Party’ means that the Party goes a step further in grasping administrative power, then…the result is that the space within which civil society can develop shrinks…[but] if the ‘advance of the Party’ means only the expansion of its power to lead (lingdao quan 领导权), and not the expansion of administrative power, then it is possible that the ‘advance of the Party’ will benefit the development of civil society27.”


  1. 中央组织部:全国共有共产党员8512.7万名,人民网, 2013年7月1日,http://js.people.com.cn/html/2013/07/01/238271.html

  2. 胡兵, 探索民间组织最佳的生存环境—政党组织对民间组织的影响”,学会[Academe] 226 (No. 9, 2007), p. 15. 

  3. 胡鞍钢,人民社会为何优于公民社会,人民日报,19 July 2013, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2013-07/19/content_1270853.htm

  4. 高举邓小平理论伟大旗帜,把建设有中国特色社会主义事业全面推向二十一世纪——江泽民在中国共产党第十五次全国代表大会上的报告,”12 September 1997,  www.gov.cn/test/2007-08/29/content_730614.htm

  5. 中共中央组织部、民政部,关于在社会团体中建立党组织有关问题的通知(February 16, 1998) ,http://news.xinhuanet.com/ziliao/2005-10/18/content_3637783.htm

  6. “Eligible” here means those social groups which have three or more party members and therefore meet the conditions for establishing a party group. 

  7. 孙伟林,社会组织管理, 中国社会出版社 2009, pp. 204-05. 

  8. 洪梅芬,上海基层党建硕果累累,解放日报 (June 23, 2001). 

  9. 孙伟林, p. 205. 

  10. 王国樑,王朝晖,关于加强党员服务中心功能建设的 对策与建议,上海党史与党建 ,2006 年1 月号 pp. 37-38. 

  11. Patricia M. Thornton, “The Advance of the Party: Transformation or Takeover of Urban Grassroots Society?” The China Quarterly 213 (March 2013), pp. 1-18. 

  12. 曾永和, 城市政府购买服务与新型政社关系的构建,探索创新, pp. A41-43. 

  13. 周嘉艳,夯实民间组织党建,促进和谐社区建设” (July 31, 2009),  http://stj.sh.gov.cn/Info.aspx?ReportId=c915ef27-e978-4c2d-8bea-d0a3ff31ec6e

  14. 周扬, 基层政府职能转移上海 NGO 治理社区 —为 NGO 服务的NGO,上海长寿路街道的民间组织管理样本, (November 23, 2007), 21 世纪经济报道, p. 4. 

  15. 上海市静安区社会组织联合会, 静安区社会组织发展状况, Nov. 25 2008, http://tinyurl.com/389vkr4

  16. 仲志磊,上海浦东非营利组织发展中心 —以NPI 模式为例,知识经济  (No. 13, 2009), pp. 34-35. 

  17. Xu Beihong Yishu You’eryuan. 

  18. Hu Bing, p. 14. 

  19. Zhou Jiafeng 周嘉艳, “Hangshi minjian zuzhi dangjian, zujin hexie shehui shequ jianshe 夯实民间组织党建,促进和谐社区建设” [Solidify Party-building in civic associations, promote the building of harmonious resident associations]  (July 31, 2009), at http://stj.sh.gov.cn/Info.aspx?ReportId=c915ef27-e978-4c2d-8bea-d0a3ff31ec6e

  20. 孟谦,长寿模式:”民间组织服务中心”的社区创新,社区杂志, No. 2, 2009, p. 10. 

  21. Zhou Hongyun, pp. 12-13. 

  22. Zhou Yang (2007), p. 4. 

  23. 刘莉,加强民办非企业单位党建工作研究,理论导刊, 11 (2009), p. 58. 

  24. Liu Li, p. 59. 

  25. 吴辉、赵绪生,加强党对社会组织的领导,发挥社会组织的积极作用,国家民间组织管理局编, ed., 20082008年中国社会组织理论研究文集,中国社会出版社 2009, pp. 8-10. 

  26. 罗峰,社会组织的发展与执政党的组织嵌入:政党权威重塑的社会视角”,中共浙江省委党校学报,(No. 4, 2009), pp. 31-37. 

  27. 李景鹏, ,后全能主义时代的公民社会, 中国改革, 11 (2005), p. 37. 

University Lecturer, Tutor and Fellow, Merton College, University of Oxford.

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