Emerging Civil Society in China, 1978-2008

By Shieh, Shawn | The China Journal, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Emerging Civil Society in China, 1978-2008


Shieh, Shawn, The China Journal


Emerging Civil Society in China, 1978-2008, edited by Wang Ming. Leiden: Brill, 2011. xiv + 397 pp. euro130.00/US$185.00 (hardcover).

In this last year, two collections of translated Chinese academic writings on civil society have appeared in print. One is State and Civil Society in China, edited by Deng Zhenglai, which was reviewed in an earlier issue of this journal. The other is this book, edited by Wang Ming, director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University. Whereas the first was a collection of seminal writings on civil society over the last 20 years, this book brings together more recent articles written almost entirely by Beijing-based scholars and government officials.

The first chapter, by Wang, is a useful, wide-ranging introduction that lays out a framework for understanding "civil organizations" (Wang's preferred term) and civil society in China. Wang defines civil organizations as nongovernmental, nonprofit and self-governing, and provides a comprehensive discussion of the many kinds of civil organizations that exist in China. Civil society is defined in a narrow sense as this sphere of civil organizations, and in a broader sense as a hypothetical state in which civil organizations can be formed voluntarily by citizens, receive legal protection and be a means for citizens to engage in discussion and participate in public affairs. As Wang notes in the Preface, the argument made by the authors in this book is that China's civil organizations constitute civil society in the narrow sense and are moving toward civil society as hypothesized more broadly.

The remainder of Wang's long chapter traces the development of civil organizations over the last 30 years of reforms, and the role of civil organizations in shaping the public sphere and collective action in China. He offers an optimistic prognosis for civil society as China's reforms progress, and ends by discussing the possibilities of civil society joining forces with China's political, intellectual and economic élites.

The next three chapters take up where Wang's chapter leaves off, to examine changes in the regulatory environment of China's civil organizations. Together, they provide the most comprehensive coverage of the laws and regulations governing civil organizations in the existing literature. Liu Peifeng's chapter on the gradual expansion of the right to association is notable because it looks not only at policy changes but also at changes on the ground, detailing cases of independent organization in the last 20 years. Liu is also the most explicit in recognizing the excessive restrictions which the state places on independent organization.

The following two chapters, by Jia Xijin and Tao Chuangji, examine the effects of civil society on state and society respectively. Jia's chapter on the governmentcivil organization relationship examines the changes in top-down and bottom-up organizing during the reform period, and shows how bottom-up civil organizations have increasingly sought to influence public policy. One recent trend which may allow civil organizations a greater voice in policy is the growth of government contracting of social services to civil organizations. Jia also sees civil organizations seeking more influence by organizing around community and private interests in cases involving homeowner associations, as well as NIMBY protests over chemical plants, incinerators and railway projects. …

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