China’s Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) sector has long been surveilled, regulated, and suppressed by the central government. But there is now a gleam of hope: the Third Plenum of the 18th Congress Party adopted a reformist decision on November 12, 2013, signaling a possible willingness to extending the role of NGOs under the Xi Jinping administration. The Decision highlighted “social governance” to delineate the country’s governing order, acknowledging the significance of a mutual assistance between the government and the people.
In fact, the gesture of relaxed control over NGOs was looming even before this official pronouncement. In just the past 25 years, over 50,000 officially registered NGOs have emerged, and Karla Simon, an author of “Civil Society in China” expects this number to double in the next two years or so. Until 2011, NGOs were required to have a state sponsor to officially register with the government. Nonetheless, the government has eased this rule, and some even say that they encourage organizations to have a non-state sponsoring agency.In China, all NGOs must, by law, be registered with local governments, but the reality tells a different story. There are approximately 1.5 million unregistered NGOs, constantly mounting in number and influence. Although those that deal with overtly contentious or subversive political issues remain on local governments’ radar, the array of causes the government condones has significantly increased as well.
Behind this increasing tolerance is political and social decay that has almost coerced the government into allowing its people more participation in governance. Politically, it has become difficult for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to legitimatize its monopolistic rule. Since the erection of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the CCP’s legitimacy depended on its strict adherence to the socialist ideology, a consummation of Chinese culture. Since the party adopted a market economy which contradicted socialist roots during the 1989 reform, it has constantly refurbished its new economic framework as necessary ‘pragmatism.’ Yet, the party’s intensive reinforcement of a capitalist economy has inevitably breached on socialist tenets and jeopardized people’s trust in the government.
The CCP has also failed to provide its people the ‘iron rice bowl.’ China’s breakneck urbanization and dependence on global markets have led to many social problems including environmental pollution, land confiscation, food scarcity, and shortages of labor resources and public services. In response, inclusive and innovative ways to participate in governance have been introduced by a new middle class less confined by the socialist ideology. The government has little ground to push ahead with in its complete clampdown on Chinese civil society, and they also surprisingly believe in NGOs for their ideas, practical, hard-worn knowledge of social problems, and ability to gain local people’s trust. In short, the economic and social problems that have been limiting people’s lives are now, in the new front, a source of liberty to the people and fetters to the government.
There are still more restrictions and limitations than freedom and potentials. Of the 50,000 official NGOs, most are still quasi-government organizations affiliated with government agencies. Organizations committed to politically subversive subjects cannot be officially recognized. In regards to the government’s intentional oversight over unofficial grassroots NGOs, some argue that there are hidden rules of “no recognition, no banning, no intervention” that implicitly manipulate and restrict organizations’ operations. NGOs are largely seen as a temporary tool for the CCP to realize its ends.
The Third Plenum’s edict does mean a thumbs-up for reforms that have been going on in the NGO sector. With no specific blueprint on how the 18th National Congress will implement laws and regulations, however, the future of Chinese civil society still remains a question in the long-run.