Contested symbiosis: state-NGO relations in China

To ‘beat the government at its own game’, Chinese NGOs need to act as rebels and conformists at the same time.

Joy Y. Zhang
20 August 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Beijing Old Bell Tower in Winter.jpg

Beijing Old Bell Tower in Winter. Credit: Joy Zhang. All rights reserved.In May 2015, China’s legislative body, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, issued a draft of the statute for foreign non-governmental organisations (NGO) for public consultation. The draft immediately triggered widespread criticism and concern. The controversies focused mainly on two points:

1) Foreign NGOs, just like Chinese domestic NGOs, would also be required to have an official government ‘sponsor’, which acts as a parental organisation that screens their annual activity plans.

2) Foreign NGOs would be registered at the Ministry of Public Security, instead of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Beijing is determined to further its political control of civil society and this draft law is a reminder of its intolerance to dissent.

My friend Tao is worried. He is a Chinese national working at the Beijing branch of an American public health NGO. Even before the proposition of this law, his organisation already struggled to register its employees properly in China. In fact, for the past few years, Tao’s contract has always been in a nebulous state, shifting according to government policies. This newly proposed legislation makes it more difficult for his organisation to operate in China and creates a higher employment risk for himself. But Tao is also worried about the prospect of his friends working in Chinese home-grown NGOs.

The heightened political control over foreign NGOs will no doubt have a significant effect on domestic NGOs. For years, collaborating with international NGOs has been more than just an important way of institutional learning for Chinese home-grown NGOs. As NGO registration in China is notoriously stringent, most home-grown NGOs have not been able to find a government sponsor to acquire legal status. This means that they are not able to conduct public fundraising. Conducting joint projects with international NGOs has therefore been a key strategy for many grassroots NGOs to survive in China. To be sure, a large part of Tao’s job has been collaborating with and sponsoring home-grown NGOs in public health campaigns. With the prospect of the new law, these existing channels of cooperation will be closed. 

Yet, as someone who has been part of China’s growing civil society for the past ten years, Tao remains hopeful. Political censorship and administrative control are not novel features in an authoritarian state. However, as Chinese society develops, there is increasing social as well as political recognition that civil groups are important actors, filling the gaps left by government services, monitoring local accountabilities and promoting public education. To be sure, the government has again raised the bar for NGOs. But the growing demand of meeting diverse social needs and increasing public awareness of what civil society can achieve are also real. Tao believes that people in the NGO sector will explore new ways of mitigating government constraints, as they have always done. Tao has reserved optimism that the NGO sector in China will expand.

Tao’s feelings of concern and hope at the same time are not unfounded. While many political science studies have used a corporatist model to characterise China’s civil society governance, the state-NGO relation in China is never black and white. Typical academic interpretations of China’s state-society relationship see the state enforcing ‘singular, compulsory, non-competitive, hierarchically ordered’ control over social activism. Social and economic exchanges are corporately controlled by the state; societal campaigns must operate within existing political frameworks and institutions.

But by presuming a vertical relationship between social organisations and the state, a corporatist analytical approach is invariably ‘state-centred', with a keen eye on “top-down control”. It falls short in explaining the increasing (international) visibility and influence of grassroots NGOs in China. With high profile cases such as public demonstrations against petrochemical (PX) plants across Chinese cities, the nation-wide "I Monitor the Air for My Country" campaign to fight air pollution, and the campaign for an accountable global supply chain of IT products, Chinese activists can hardly be characterised as being passive and submissive in an authoritarian state.

In fact, state-NGO relations in China somewhat more resemble a symbiosis, in which both state and civil society actors acknowledge a level of mutual dependency in achieving their respective aims and getting things done. Yet the power dynamic within this symbiotic relation is continuously contested, as both the state and civil society actors are seeking to defend and expand their sphere of influence, questioning each other’s priority and accountability, and competing for supremacy in social support. To understand my friend Tao’s concerns and reserved optimism, one needs to first understand how NGOs operate in China.

Unregistered but not underground 


Smog in Beijing. Demotix/Nicola Longobardi. All rights reserved.China has a notoriously stringent standard for NGO registration. To be legally registered, any civil society organisation needs to first find a government institution that is willing to act as the parent institution that censors and supervises NGO operations. In addition, homegrown NGOs also need to establish the fact that their organisational function does not overlap with that of any other civil groups in their cities. This non-competitive clause significantly cuts down potential numbers of legitimate NGOs. To collect and compile all necessary paperwork could take years, and even then, a good personal rapport with local Civil Affair officials would still be crucial for the final approval. 

Yet, arguably, this highly controlled and heavily politicised registration system with the aim of bringing NGOs under state surveillance is self-defeating. For the registration requirement is so high that it has effectively become the norm rather than the exception for many NGOs to forfeit registration altogether. This is especially true for small to medium-sized NGOs.

One example is a Beijing-based green NGO, which caters approximately 50 public events to its 2000 members annually. Its co-founder, Teng, told me that she and her colleagues originally wanted to register their organisation properly. However, after inquiring about the usual process of obtaining official recognition, she realised that the time and financial cost to play along with policy is so high that the application process alone would exhaust the limited human and financial resources they had. So in the end, she decided to remain underground. In fact, during my fieldwork in China during 2011 to 2012, I learnt that many grassroots NGOs were quite relaxed about slipping into the legal grey area.


Protesters in Maoming. Credit: photo from a Weibo user. All rights reserved.To refer to these unregistered NGOs as ‘underground’ NGOs may be somewhat misleading. For despite the absence of an official status, many unregistered NGOs often run very much ‘above ground’. Their activities range from weekend public lectures, routine civic monitoring of local water, soil and air qualities, to one-off campaigns. In fact, as Teng later told me, the reconciliation that they would never be able to register with the Civil Affair Bureau and not be able to obtain legal status was hard but also ‘liberating’: "We don’t have the “mother-in-law”. We are on our own. So long as we are happy to bear the risk, we can go ahead with any agenda". 

This ‘unregistered but not underground’ mindset is revealing. At least in the eyes of grassroots actors, the government only exerts limited significance and dominance in organising civil initiatives. For many, state approval was considered as a ‘plus’ rather than essential accreditation for bottom-up projects. But this is not to undermine the operational difficulties and political risks state policy imposed on NGOs in China. As one environmental NGO organiser admitted: "The most effective way of promoting environmental causes is to play by the government’s rules as much as possible and beat government regulation at its own game. Of course, to push for grassroots initiatives, one will confront many constraints in China. And one will not be as free and or legally protected as civil groups in the west. But, once activism is out in the open many things can still be achieved. You just have to act creatively". 

One practical challenge for operating ‘above ground’ is securing financial maintenance. This difficulty is not limited to unregistered NGOs, who obviously do not have the legal status to conduct public fundraising, but also presents a constraint to most licensed NGOs as well. This is because there is almost no alternative public funding apart from government channels. However, this situation has begun to change in recent years, as NGOs have started to explore online media as an alternative channel in pooling funds and tackling this constraint. For example, many of them raise funds on Taobao (the Chinese equivalent of Ebay) to raise for their staff’s salaries. They sell ‘conceptual’ products on e-commerce sites. Here, ‘conceptual products’ refer to their respective services, such as environmental monitoring or the organisation of one-off event. Anyone can buy their ‘products’ online; NGOs deliver their goods not through postal boxes but through their activism. To mitigate constraints set by the government, Chinese NGOs are sensitive to new options. To ‘beat the government at its own game’, NGOs need to act as rebels and conformists at the same time.

Conformist rebels


The scale of the protest in Maoming. Credit: photo from a Weibo user. All rights reserved.Chinese activism is often described as ‘intra-system operations’. That is, so long as there is state hegemony over social activism, civil society is confined to operate within the space allocated by the state, with limited capacity to enact meaningful institutional reform. Whilst this characterisation has some truth to it, it is somewhat misguided. My friend Tao sometimes complains that his American funders do not understand China, as they only see getting policy recommendations onto the desk of an official as an evidence of ‘impact’. But they forget that in an authoritarian state, social change does not work the same way as in democratic countries. From the perspective of Chinese civil actors and for a country with little tradition of civil society that has relied more on administrative command than enforcement of the law, even within the system there is still much worthwhile to be done: rights to be secured, rules to be established, opinions to be voiced.

For example, the booming housing market in China has pressured local officials into a slippery-slope of compromises to ease environmental standards. In the last few years, the official safety distance separating a waste incineration plant from residential buildings has shortened from 200 metres to 70 metres. In 2009, a young woman in Beijing sued both the disposal company and the waste disposal trash office for air pollution. Her aim was to send a strong message to the authorities rather than seek personal compensation, for which she only asked for 300RMB (£30). The first of its kind, this case attracted much attention amongst urban property owners. But such activism is not only found amongst middle-class city dwellers; it can also be found in groups traditionally considered disadvantaged. One such example is Chen Faqing, a farmer who is known for exploiting existing legal channels in bringing irresponsible authorities and factory plants to justice and for promoting China’s public interest litigation reform. An often neglected fact is that, in an authoritarian state, instating the rule of law and holding institutions accountable to existing regulations is an important and perhaps more needed ‘impact’. To teach the public how to defend and exercise their rights is an important way of turning the public into ‘stakeholders’.

While most NGOs devoted much energy to mitigating administrative and financial constraints set by the government, few activists would see the state-NGO relation as antagonists. In fact, many environmental activists I interviewed perceived the roles of government institutions from a utilitarian perspective in terms of its financial, executive, legislative and managerial contributions to the proposed projects.

Beijing Tian'anmen Army Guard_0.png

Beijing Tian'anmen Army Guard. Credit: Joy Zhang. All rights reserved.For example, a programme officer working at the Beijing office of an international NGO pointed out that a ‘partnership’ with the government is crucial: "A major difference between doing environment protection in China and in the west is that, in the west, many civil organizations are empowered and have the capacity to promote an idea on their own. In China, for various reasons, one still needs to run by the government to make progress on things." This point was further expanded by Huang Wei, who, relating to her work on trash recycling, said bearing the government’s name also facilitates the institutionalization of new practices: "Take domestic disposal assortment for example, we can let the residents see that this is a good thing to do, but it relies on the local government as well as the resident committee (juweihui) to institutionalize such a practice".

Getting government involved in previously neglected societal issues and improving institutional behaviour have been important aspects of political reform. In cases such as the aforementioned nation-wide civic air monitoring and data sharing initiative, "I Monitor the Air for My Country", public campaigns also  applied pressure from the bottom-up in ‘coercing’ Chinese authorities to bring forward its timetable of improving various social services. Activists in China are neither defiant of authorities nor submissive to them. They exert influence by following the rules of the game and, in the process, improve the rules. 

Contested symbiosis


Paramilitary police seal the highways after violent protests. Credit: photo from a Weibo user. All rights reserved.To make a difference and promote social change, there is a widely shared stance among Chinese activists that sometimes it is necessary to work from within the nexus of power. NGOs’ recognition of overlapping interests, and their potential to lead to collaborative rather than antagonistic relations was not just a one-sided wish. It was also reciprocated by the government. In recent years, a number of civil activists have taken on government advisory roles at various levels. While the actual scope of political participation these civil society groups are entitled to remain unknown, some NGOs have started to see the Chinese government as their biggest client. In 2011, the Beijing municipal government allegedly spent 200 million RMB in 600 purchases of NGO programmes in extending its social services.

The symbiotic relationship between the Chinese government and civil society has been captured by a number of studies. Anthony Spires has rightly warned that the symbiotic relation is hardly harmonious, for the relation between civil society and democratisation is ‘highly contingent’. A strong civil society may not necessarily lead to a strong democracy. The intricate relationship between Chinese political authorities and civil society is reflected in China’s repeated emphasis on the goal of encouraging societal contribution to governance. That is, the point of reform should not lead to ‘small government and big society’, as western public management theory would say, but for the building of ‘strong government and strong society’. The choice of adjectives reminds us of the limits of political tolerance Beijing is willing to stomach.

What is often ignored is that the power dynamic between the Chinese state and NGOs is not static, but involves continuous contestation from both parties. To some extent, China’s heightened regulation of NGOs serves to pressure (global) civil society’s activities back into the government’s comfort zone. Compared to the loose network of homegrown NGOs which have been effectively pushed out of the government radar due to its high registration bar, foreign NGOs are easier to account for. To defend their sphere of actions, NGOs, both international and homegrown, need to act creatively to mitigate these new constraints.

While the government aims to bring NGO operations into its close supervision, NGO activities bring state accountability into public scrutiny. While ‘Chinese particularities’ have been a blanket justification for government agendas, NGOs challenge their banality and steer political attention to actual social needs. To be sure, there is a long way to go. The nature of this symbiotic relation between the state and NGOs is contested. It is through this ongoing competition for influence that social changes take place. More importantly, it is also through this contested symbiosis that both the Chinese state and Chinese civil society learn, reflect and develop.

How to cite:
Zhang J. Y. (2015) «Contested symbiosis: state-NGO relations in China», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 20 August. https://opendemocracy.net/joy-y-zhang/contested-symbiosis-statengo-relations-in-china


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