Transnational Activism with Chinese Characteristics

This review introduces a newly-released book on transnational civil society in China written by Professor Chen Jie of the University of Western Australia.

Chen Jie, Transnational Civil Society in China: Intrusion and Impact(London: Edward Elgar Publishing, November 2012). 224 pages.

Based on extensive fieldwork and mining of the transnational civil society literature, this book looks at the socio-political implications of the operation of international NGOs (INGOs) in China. Its main ideas are summarized as follows.

While it is impossible to gather accurate and comprehensive statistics on INGOs and their projects in China, INGOs have been a growing presence in the country since the mid-1990s and they are estimated to number in the thousands. However, due to the Chinese government’s generally restrictive policy towards civil society, it is evident that the presence of INGOs in the country remains limited to the issue areas of ‘low politics’, particularly environmental protection, conservation, development, humanitarian assistance and public health. As a corollary, while active in Beijing, INGOs are more concentrated in poorer regions, particularly China’s southwest. Transnational intrusion in China reflects INGOs’ growing influence in global governance and their specific concerns in relation to China. Following its rapid economic growth and social transformation, China has a substantial impact on the sort of global issues that typically galvanize INGOs. China’s growing diplomatic clout has also made it a crucial party in crafting regulatory regimes regulating international conduct in those issues.

China cannot ignore transnational civil society campaigners. Since Beijing has placed much emphasis on the role of the UN and global governance, INGOs should be treated as legitimate players in world affairs, considering their important contributions to the making and implementation of international laws and conventions. Also, in need of acquiring ‘soft power’, China has not lost sight of the significant influence that leading activist groups enjoy in the Western media. More consequentially INGOs have distinct contributions to make in China if only because they represent the issue-oriented and lifestyle-centered new social movements, and have a wealth of knowledge about social and environmental challenges encountered in the West before and in other parts of the developing world. China needs transnational assistance to build a harmonious society by softening the harsh edges of a crude market economy, and honoring its international obligations. It has reaped benefits from INGOs’ charitable contributions to rural poverty alleviation and development, environmental protection, HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation, and improvement of the conditions of ethnic minorities, women and children. INGOs have not just brought in funds and projects but also passed on new models and advanced managerial expertise.

INGOs, however, must walk a fine line and try various ways to maneuver through China’s fluid and transitioning socio-political landscape since the government does not want to see INGOs bring in the sort of values and practices which may undermine the legitimacy of the party-state. This partly explains the lack of an explicit legal and administrative framework for the operation of INGOs. Tensions exist and crackdowns can take place, sometimes unexpectedly and inexplicably, particularly for those INGOs headquartered in the US and receiving its government’s funding.

INGOs working in China have modified their behavior while seeking to fulfill their global missions. In doing so, they have tried to improve their own conditions and expand their operations by changing the perceptions of the officials and general public. This is seen, for example, in the earlier experiences of Heifer Project International (1985-96), Greenpeace (1996-2003) and The Nature Conservancy (1997-2002). Under the circumstances, one can discern some liberalizing and democratizing effects of INGO activism, though in many cases this is not so much by intention as by virtue of their projects on the ground working in cooperation with local civil society partners and government authorities.

Maintaining active collaboration with grassroots activist groups, INGOs have facilitated Chinese NGOs’ contributions to democratic social and political changes in a number of ways.

First, transnational connections assist Chinese NGOs’ development as institutionalized platforms to expand civic space, by inspiring their leaders, building up their operational capacities, strengthening their solidarity, and connecting Chinese activists to UN agencies and the international media.

Second, INGO activism is the main source of the idea and practice of community empowerment. The participatory model used by INGOs in their environmental and development projects have influenced their Chinese counterparts. These projects often value the equality, capacity and the opinions of the target communities. They have raised the beneficiaries’ awareness of their own rights and improved their ability to organize to defend these rights, as well as improving their material welfare.

Third, INGOs help ease the way for their Chinese partners into the official policy-making arena. The government’s satisfaction with the benefit they have received from INGO participation in the making of certain policies and legislation have generally opened up policy space for civil society by reinforcing the officials’ appreciation of the value of expertise from civil society groups. Broadly speaking, one catalyst for the Chinese government’s increasing acceptance of the country’s own NGOs is the influence or pressure coming from the international trend of civil society engagement with the major inter-governmental organizations, particularly the UN agencies. This culture, and the various consultative mechanisms created, is in no small way a result of INGO campaigns for participatory multilateralism and inclusive governance. The active part taken by INGOs in international regimes also means that they are able to disseminate global concepts and standards to Chinese activists working on these issue areas.

Finally, transnational solidarity helps reduce Chinese nationalist fervor, which is a potential obstacle to political liberalization, by fostering multiple social and political identities centered on global issues and causes.

At the same time, INGOs clearly have different preferences in balancing engagement with local civic communities and collaboration with government agencies. Chinese activists have complained about various problems and frustrations in their interactions with INGOs. International funding to Chinese NGOs is largely directly related to the implementation of projects or activities, rather than to organizational and staff development. INGOs should assist Chinese civil society in ways other than funding. In addition, good governance practices and management methods introduced to Chinese NGOs may not be that effective or applicable given the country’s delicate socio-political environment. There is even occasional competition between Chinese and foreign groups for talents and funds. However, empirical observations suggest an overall encouraging and positive picture of the transnational presence in China in which INGOs have made significant contributions to the growth of grassroots activist communities. INGO operations in China have provided a protective cover for, and helped legitimize, the local NGO community. Over the past twenty years or so, social and political space for civil society in general, and for INGO activism in particular, has expanded in the country, partly thanks to the efforts of Chinese and international activists in pushing the boundaries, leading to the redefinition of the permissible despite occasional crackdowns and reversals in recent years.

This book’s analysis of the impact of INGOs also compares China’s case with the experiences of Taiwan and Eastern Europe before their regime transformations in the dying days of the Cold War. The impact of transnational relations in Taiwan during Chiang Ching-kuo’s rule was similar to mainland China’s situation in that both addressed a range of issue areas classified as low politics. Transnational networking contributed to the island’s budding social movements in the fields of consumer protection, environmental protection, and the conditions of women, children, indigenous peoples and the disabled. In the Taiwan case, transnational solidarity also revolved around the issue of human rights and democracy, involving the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, international church organizations, and the cross-border campaign networks formed by Western students and expatriates based in Taiwan. What further distinguished Taiwan from the mainland was that during the 1980s the role of overseas Taiwanese activists became integral to the campaign for political transition on the homefront. The politicization of transnational relations in Taiwan pales in comparison to the Eastern European experience unfolding during the same period. Under the Helsinki framework, extensive connections between dissidents in the Soviet bloc and Western social movements thrived, focused on the twin themes of human rights and peace. As a result of these open, dense and systematic exchanges, independent civic organizations in the East were strengthened, contributing directly to regime changes in the region.

Thus obviously transnational experiences exerted far more political impact on Taiwan and the Soviet bloc states, particularly the latter, in terms of empowering civil society and forcing changes to state policies, than what is imaginable in China today. What underscores this difference is, among other things, that the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan and Eastern European communist states were more vulnerable to international pressure, though for very different reasons, and social movements there were more robust.

The book finally compares and contrasts the transnational experiences of the pre-1949 or ‘old’ China, when Western women activists campaigned against female foot-binding and organizations like YMCA and Rotary became well established in the country, with today’s China where INGO activists speak the global rhetoric of climate change and development, and Rainbow Warrior only docks in Hong Kong. It concludes by exploring the future prospects for INGOs and transnational activism in China.

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