The Interactions of the State and NGOs in China

The rise of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) since the early 2000s has been a watershed moment for state and society relations in contemporary China. This project, supported by large research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, commenced during the early days of this period. The project broadly looks at the organizational birth, maturation and mortality of Chinese NGOs. It analyzes how the state and NGOs engage and influence each other in a bi-directional fashion [public talk: video and podcast]. It further discerns Chinese NGOs’ strategies and barriers for survival and growth.

One study, stemming from the project, argues that not only is the central state actively involved in the development of NGOs, but increasingly the successes of NGOs are determined by their interactions with the local state. This oft-cited study can be found in the Journal of Contemporary China [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese].

In another study, it is strongly suggested that collaboration between the local state and NGOs can be advantageous [public talk: video and podcast]. It will alleviate the local state’s burden to address a number of social welfare concerns, and it will allow Chinese NGOs, who have increasing resources and capacity, to meaningfully engage with relevant social problems and issues. The available literature suggests two different explanations to understand a lack of collaboration between both parties, namely (1) the Chinese state’s strength and domination, and (2) organizational differences between both sectors. This study proposes a third and new explanation, which draws on theories of epistemic awareness and institutional knowledge production. The study has been published in the noted journal, The China Quarterly [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese].

A third study analyzes the potential for Chinese NGOs to be epistemic communities and to develop a communities of practice. The argument advanced in a journal article published in China Information [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese], is that gathering information and developing a knowledge base is not the dominant tactic Chinese NGOs utilize to inform and influence state policy. Rather, establishing direct relations with relevant state authorities is the preferred tactic to influence policy deliberation and action. Relatedly, in a journal article published the Journal of Chinese Political Science [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese], the proposition that communities of practice have emerged as an important mechanism for sharing important sector-specific knowledge is tested. This is particularly significant given that the 2016 Charity Law provides a greater space for NGOs to form a professional association, allowing them to overtly forge networks to share best/worst practices, and to foster common norms of conduct. This in turn, offers a chance to hyper-professionalize the sector to the extent that there will be greater predictability in NGOs’ activities. This study has been profiled in the influential Stanford Social Innovation Review.

In a fourth study, published in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese] it is suggested that the characteristics and structures of NGOs in China are shaped by resource strategies developed in response to their ecology of opportunity. The study further examines how these characteristics and structures influence the construction and performance of citizenship in an advanced authoritarian environment.

Additional outcomes of this project can be seen in a journal article looking at the survival strategies of religious NGOs in the Journal of Civil Society [audio paper: video and podcast] (see policy brief here); another journal article looking at the century of Chinese corporatism [audio paper: video and podcast] [translations: Chinese, German and Russian]; an edited book The Chinese Corporatist State: Adaptation, Survival and Resistance; and, a co-organized conference looking at NGO Governance and Management in China [video and podcast], with an accompanying edited book of the same title. I have also written an article published in The Diplomat Magazine, and was featured in a segment in the Voice of America, looking at how China’s new charity and foreign NGO laws will, in sum, create a less free civil society, but a more accountable and predictable one. I argue, over time, this predictability will provide space for the state to further trust domestic civil society actors, which may lead to greater state-NGO collaboration.

Further note, some of the background thinking for this project stems from an earlier study looking at good governance and accountability mechanisms for NGOs in China [audio paper: video and podcast] [translation: Chinese] (serialized in the China Daily), and edited book China in an Era of Transition: Understanding Contemporary State and Society Actors.