Elizabeth Plantan on Opportunities and Constraints for Civil Society in China

Though philanthropy and select NGOs are growing, other players in China’s civil society are coming under increased scrutiny and repression, outlines former Ash Center Fellow Elizabeth Plantan.


A black and white images of people moving down a street in China

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provides an opportunity to reflect on the status of domestic and international civil society under one-party rule. Although some China-watchers have warned that civil society in China is facing a unilateral “crackdown,” the CCP’s management of civil society organizations often involves a more subtle and differentiated response. Depending on the organization, party-state actors respond not only with repression but also co-optation or even encouragement. At the same time that new “red lines” are being drawn for those perceived as posing a political risk, there is also a recognition that certain civil society groups could provide important benefits and contribute to regime stability.

Recent changes in the legal environment for domestic and international civil society organizations in China illustrate this. The 2017 Overseas NGO Law provides a clear legal status for international NGOs and foundations that had formerly operated in a legal gray area. But, as my research has shown, this law is not applied evenly to all groups. The Ministry of Public Security has registered overseas NGOs working in certain fields, such as education, health, poverty alleviation, and environmental protection, in greater numbers. Organizations working in these areas are seen as beneficial, engaging in public service provision or aligning with other party-state priorities. In other more sensitive areas, such as LGBTQ+ issues or human rights, overseas NGOs have not been able to register at all. Furthermore, the law’s ambiguous wording bars threats to national security but clearly stipulates the punishment for violation, allowing party-state actors to use the law selectively to minimize risks while maximizing the benefits of overseas organizations.

Laws governing domestic civil society organizations have changed as well. The 2016 Charity Law has encouraged the development of Chinese charitable organizations by providing tax incentives, lowering barriers to public fundraising, and simplifying registration. At the same time, wealthy Chinese individuals and companies are increasingly donating to philanthropic causes. Where Chinese social organizations once relied heavily on foreign support and capacity building, they now have more opportunities to receive funding from domestic sources, including government funding through contracts to provide public services and crowdfunding from the broader Chinese public. In many ways, this is evidence of the development of an increasingly self-sufficient and capable Chinese civil society.

These trends indicate an official preference for more direct control over the activities of civil society organizations in China.

Elizabeth Plantan

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stetson University, former Ash Center China Public Policy Postdoctoral Fellow

However, not all Chinese civil society organizations can take advantage of these opportunities. Certain civil society actors, such as labor NGOs, feminist activists, religious organizations, and human rights lawyers, have faced increased repression over the last several years. The Ministry of Civil Affairs also launched a broader campaign to root out illegal social organizations, including house churches and many other unregistered, grassroots civil society groups. Furthermore, the CCP has increased its control over all civil society organizations by placing greater emphasis on party-building within the organizations themselves. These trends indicate an official preference for more direct control over the activities of civil society organizations in China.

This combination of increasing control juxtaposed with increasing capacity has also created incentives and opportunities for civil society to work overseas. With increased capacity, many Chinese NGOs and foundations are now following Chinese companies in “going out” to conduct activities abroad. In parallel, responding both to domestic pressures and global trends, international NGOs and foundations are increasingly pivoting their China operations to focus on Chinese investment overseas. These actors can work together to address the environmental and social impact of Chinese investment overseas as well as to increase the international capacity of Chinese NGOs and foundations as they emerge as major players within global civil society. Joint overseas activities are one promising area for foreign and Chinese civil society organizations to develop in the future.

Overall, even as the CCP gains greater control over civil society, there are still significant opportunities for continued engagement. This is not to downplay the very serious consequences for civil society actors who have fallen victim to increasing repression in China but to recognize that the party-state’s strategy for civil society management creates both opportunities and constraints. Especially at a time when U.S.-China relations are increasingly strained, it will be important to identify windows of opportunity despite limitations when navigating the future of civil society in China.

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