POLICY BRIEF NO. 10: The 18th Party Congress and China’s Civil Society

The 18th Party Congress has wrapped up and we now know the number and makeup of the next Politburo Standing Committee which is made up of seven men – Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli in order of their rank on the Committee. There has been a discussion about whether this leadership group is more reformist or conservative, though it is difficult to say how important this issue is given that the distance between reformers and conservatives is no longer as wide as it used to be. Ultimately, the core interest of this leadership is to strengthen the Communist party and its governance of China. Here the term “governance” is used to denote a process of government working through horizontal partnerships with other stakeholders in society. “Rule”, in contrast, implies a process of strengthening the vertical, bureaucratic lines of authority.

The old and new leadership now recognize that the Communist Party will only survive into the 21st century if it “governs.” For the party-state, this line of thinking means reaching out not only to the business elite (a process that started with Jiang Zeming’s Three Represents in the 1990s) but also to NGOs. We saw this outreach in the 16th Party Congress in 2003 when Hu Jintao recognized the need to strengthen the party’s horizontal linkages with society, and create institutional channels for the orderly participation of society in resolving China’s social contradictions.

This recognition is reflected in party jargon such as “social management”, “social management innovation” and “social construction”. These terms received more attention in the 17th Party Congress in 2007 in which Hu’s speech actually mentioned a role for “social organizations,” the official Chinese term for NGOs or nonprofits. Over the last few years, top leaders have spoken on numerous occasions about “social management innovation” and “social construction”, spawning a cottage industry of “innovation” at the national and local levels (See the article by China Development Brief editor, Liu Haiying, “How the Official Discourse of ‘Social Management Innovation’ Has Expanded the Space for NGOs”.).  In the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), an entire section (Party IX) was set aside for the first time ever to discuss social management innovations such as promoting social organizations and community governance, and expanding the space for public participation to improve public services and policies. There has also been a big push for government contracting to NGOs.  Last year, the central government announced it would set aside a 200 million RMB fund to purchase social services from NGOs.  At the local level, a number of localities have been designated to carry out pilots in different aspects of social management innovation.

This news about social management innovation or social reform may come as a surprise to those who have been watching the 18th Party Congress proceedings.  Much has been written about political and economic reform, or the lack thereof, in the run-up to the leadership turnover.  But as Qian Gang noted in an insightful article (“Society Lost”) posted to the China Media Project’s website, social reform got lost in the mix, getting subsumed under the broad rubric of political reform.  Significant political reforms may not be in the offing any time soon, especially with this Standing Committee, but the “social management innovation” initiatives discussed above show that social reform is on the agenda and in the pipeline and will not be easily dislodged. That is because there appears to be a pretty broad consensus among the leadership that the party-state needs to strengthen its governance capacity, and one way to do that is by carrying out social reforms. That is good news for those of us who work in and study the NGO or nonprofit sector.

The bad news is that social reforms will be carried out gradually and on the party-state’s terms. The slogan used to preface the discussion of social management innovation in the 12th Five Year Plan is “the party leads, government takes the responsibility, society coordinates, and the public participates” (党委领导、政府负责、社会协同、公众参与).  Under this principle, GONGOs with close ties to the government will play a primary role with grassroots NGOs bringing up the rear, social service organizations will be encouraged over advocacy organizations, and there will be yet another effort to establish party groups within NGOs.

Still, even within these constraints, the various social reform initiatives that will be carried out over the next five years should provide space for civil society proponents to push for more liberalization. There now exists a debate over how to promote social management innovation. Conservatives emphasize strengthening the state’s vertical management functions, partnering with GONGOs and strengthening the party’s grassroots organization.  Liberals want to play up the state’s horizontal coordination functions and strengthen the role of NGOs and public participation. NGOs and their supporters will need to work diligently to push this debate in a more liberal direction.

There remains a great deal to be done to improve the legal, regulatory and ideological environment for NGO and public participation. NGO and other civil society activists will need to forge strategic alliances with other stakeholders in the government, business sector, media and academia. They will need to call attention to the various ways in which the current system discriminates against grassroots NGOs and activists and privileges GONGOs and others inside the system.  And they will need to advocate for further changes in the legal and regulatory system to make it easier for grassroots NGOs to register, fundraise, gain tax exemptions, and monitor and influence policy.

China’s civil society has come a long way under Hu Jintao’s administration, though due more to their own efforts than to any reforms Hu and Wen put through.  Now they face a similar situation with this new leadership core. Rather than wait for China’s leaders to move in a liberal direction, they will again have to take the initiative to preserve and build on their hard-earned gains.

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