POLICY BRIEF NO. 14: The Third Plenum Brings a Chilly Spring for China’s Civil Society

The biggest news for the NGO sector in the last few months came in the form of the Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform (中共中央关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定) adopted by the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee on November 12, 2013. The Third Plenum has historically been the venue at which major policy decisions have been made. It was also seen as the first major policy statement of the new administration of President Xi Jinping. Those in the NGO sector were also waiting to see what the Xi administration’s policy would be toward the various reforms and experiments in the sector over the last few years.

The general verdict about the Third Plenum Decision is quite positive on a number of fronts. Many observers applaud its calls for greater liberalization of the economy and a bigger governance role for the market, private sector and non-state actors, including social organizations, the official Chinese term for NGOs. Of course, the actual impact of these broad policy pronouncements will depend on the details of the implementing laws and regulations that follow. Still, as Xu Yongguang of the Narada Foundation argues in one of the more optimistic assessments, there are a number of areas in the Decision that should raise the spirits of those in the NGO sector.

Perhaps the most important is a change in tone when talking about the role of society and social organizations in governance. Previous high-level speeches and documents have used the term “social management innovation” which emphasized the need to manage society and social organizations. The Decision replaced that term with “social governance,” a term which has never been used before in official discourse but one which more liberal-minded advisors have advocated for because it places society and social organizations more on a par with government. The notion of “social governance” recognizes that social actors have a part in governance alongside the government and business, and that there needs to be greater cooperation between these different stakeholders if China’s development is to become more sustainable and inclusive.

There is thus an entire section of the Decision (Section 13) devoted to “Making Innovations in Social Governance”. Instead of talking about the need to manage social organizations, that section talks about achieving a “positive interaction between government administration on one hand and social self-management and resident self-management on the other.” It also talks about enlivening the role of social organizations by further separating government from social organizations, encouraging government contracting of services to social organizations, making it easier for social organizations to register, and improving tax preferences for charitable donations. The Decision also calls for social organizations to get involved in cultural and educational activities, and for community-level and social organizations to be consulted on policy decisions and their implementation.

In short, the Decision not only gives a green light to the reforms and experiments that have been going on in the NGO sector at the local level over the past few years, but also provides a macro framework decided by the top leadership (what the Chinese call “high-level design” 顶层设计) for envisioning how those reforms should proceed.

The question now is what actual implementing laws and regulations will come out of the Third Plenum? The Decision opens up a number of very broad areas for reform that need to be fleshed out. How will the separation between government and social organizations take place, and how will the roles and responsibilities of each be clarified and enforced? How will government contracting be carried out and what type of social organizations will be eligible to apply? How will registration be simplified and streamlined and what type of social organizations will be eligible? Complicating these questions is another broad reform being carried out to transform and streamline the government by detaching public institutions from the government system and turning some of them into social organizations. This reform will bring a whole new group of actors into a very fluid, quickly changing NGO sector.

The outlines of some of these implementing policies are starting to take shape. On September 26, 2013, the State Council General Office issued its Guiding Opinions on Government Purchasing Services from Social Actors (国务院办公厅关于政府向社会力量购买服务的指导意见). The State Council’s Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan (国务院机构改革和职能转变方案) also lists three other tasks to be carried out. One is experiments to separate trade associations and chambers of commerce from their government supervisors so that they can truly play a service function in responding to their members needs. The second is to enable four categories of social organizations to directly register by revising the Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例), and similar regulations for the two other categories of social organizations. The third is to come up with other specific measures for strengthening social governance.

These three tasks were to have been carried out by the end of 2013, but it appears they are behind schedule. The revised Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例) have still not come out, but recent reports indicate it is still under revision and should come out first, sometime this year, followed at some later date by revised regulations for the other two categories of social organizations, as well as other measures related to social governance. This year should thus be a busy and fruitful one for the NGO sector on the policy front.

If the Third Plenum Decision was the only major event in the last few months, then Xu Yongguang would be right about a spring thaw for China’s civil society. But this same period has seen other events cast a chill on the coming spring. These include a clampdown on prominent bloggers and the arrest or detention of some well-known activists, scholars and businessmen. These events show that even as the government has taken the first, important step towards recognizing the value of civil society, it still has a long way to go in creating a level playing field and protections for the many, diverse individuals and organizations in China that work to create a more just and sustainable society.

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