China: Citizens united; Civil activists pose a growing threat to the Communist party as they link up

July 29, 2013 5:36 pm

China: Citizens united

By Kathrin Hille

Civil activists pose a growing threat to the Communist party as they link up, writes Kathrin Hille

When the Chinese police arrested rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong on July 16, they charged him with “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place”.

As Mr Xu had been under house arrest since April, the charge triggered an outcry. But in the eyes of China’s ruling Communist party, the softly spoken but stubborn lawyer is still a threat, even while confined to his Beijing home. Over the past year, Mr Xu has worked to link activists who were each running individual campaigns, marshalling them into a broader movement called “citizenry” to foster a sense of rights and responsibilities across a range of public issues. It is the virtual equivalent of a crowd in the street.This has touched a raw nerve with the new leaders in Beijing because Mr Xu is not alone. Despite the Communist party’s claim that China must take its own path of development and that concepts of western democracy do not apply, the middle class has begun following the lead of its counterparts in South Korea and Taiwan. After achieving a degree of economic affluence, people are starting to demand a greater voice in determining how society is run.

“Civil society has already become very firm and deep-rooted in China,” says Gao Bingzhong, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at Peking University. He adds that delegates at the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, who traditionally did little more than rubber stamp government plans, are now consulting civil society groups on policy proposals and legislation. “The transformation of civil society into political demands is a general phenomenon. China is no exception,” he says.

Nothing could be more unwelcome for Xi Jinping, China’s new party chief and president. The party’s propaganda apparatus this year informed cadres and academia of “seven things not to talk about” – a list of the core concepts of western democracy, including constitutionalism, rule of law and civil society.

But activists and academics believe it is far too late to turn back. “China is like a game of Go,” says one Chinese scholar who also does public advocacy work, referring to the highly tactical board game. “The government always pays attention to a few certain dots but we have put down so many pieces. By the time the government notices, they’ve already lost control.”

Experts see the devastating earthquake in the western province of Sichuan in May 2008 as a seminal moment in the development of civil society. The disaster triggered a wave of charity initiatives as millions all over the country sought to help. As a result, the government was forced to allow non-governmental groups a greater role. Many non-governmental organisations learnt how to organise themselves, negotiate with the authorities and campaign for public support.

The most striking example of this trend has been environmental activism. In recent years China has experienced a plethora of big protests against projects such as petrochemical plants and incinerators.

Behind this is the rapid emergence of a web of NGOs that are increasingly vocal and interconnected. Wu Fengshi, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found in a recent study that environmental NGOs in Guangdong, the populous industrialised province next to Hong Kong, “are politically conscious – and even savvy”. She observes that those groups frequently bargain with the authorities and “sometimes make bolder statements disagreeing with the state . . . and offering specific policy recommendations”.

In some cases the government has reacted by bowing to demands, for example suspending construction of a plant for the production of paraxylene, a petrochemical feedstock, in the southwestern city of Kunming in May. There have been similar cases over the past three years.

In general, the party has been urging its officials to monitor the public mood and adjust its policies to public demands. A growing number of officials and government departments have microblogs to engage the public. “This government is a responsive government,” says Shi Zengzhi, another civil society expert at Peking University. “China has already seen big changes in the binary structure of government and society.”

Relations between the Communist party and the people have changed beyond recognition since the party decided in 1978 to replace its strategy of permanent political struggle with economic reforms. With that, it began a long transformation from totalitarianism to authoritarian rule, partly retreating from people’s personal lives. For many years, that was enough for most people.

There have long been significant levels of unrest in China. According to figures reported by Sun Liping, a professor at Tsinghua University, the country saw 180,000 protests and riots during 2010. But until a few years ago, most of these “mass incidents” were desperate outbursts from people who had long tried and failed to push their local government to address a particular grievance such as corruption, forced relocations or industrial pollution that made their children sick.

The protesters almost never drew the conclusion that there was something wrong with the political system, rarely raised broader policy demands and normally did not link with others with similar grievances. That is changing – both because of the rapid rise of social media and because dissatisfaction is spreading through the middle class.

China has already seen big changes in the binary structure of government and society

– Shi Zengzhi, civil society expert at Peking University

China now has almost 600m internet users, with more than half of them going online from a mobile device, and two-thirds using social media. Media such as Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, help individual stories travel fast and gain support for those seen as the victims.

Last year Zhan Haite, the daughter of migrant workers in Shanghai, called for help on her microblog in her quest to be allowed to participate in the high school entrance exam in the city, a right so far denied to those without local household registration. The ensuing public debate led 30 provinces and cities to adjust the rules, in a powerful demonstration of the influence of social media.

In addition, people who would have nothing to do with activism in the past have joined the game. In recent years property owners, the embodiment of the Chinese middle class, have rushed to organise themselves to defend their rights against abusive developers and management companies, and sometimes against a government that often takes developers’ side.

“The first time I participated was when the property management company at the apartment complex where I used to live announced a rise in parking fees,” says Bei Ye, a writer and owner of a villa at Le Leman Lake, an upmarket complex in Beijing. “We protested by blocking the driveway with our cars. We ended up setting up a property owners’ association.” Mr Bei is now one of the city’s best-known property owner activists.

The same is under way all over China. Chen Youhong, an associate professor at the School of Public Administration at Renmin University who also coaches property owners and advises the government, estimates that close to a third of apartment compounds in urban China now have property owners’ associations, up from less than a fifth just three years ago. “Property owners are the most successful group in protecting their rights in China today because the basis for their rights is so clear,” she says. “From the very beginning, property owners’ associations have been like a wild horse that cannot be tamed. The government hates them.”

And yet, so far, property rights activists have suffered far less repression than other civil society groups because it is hard to label their work as political. But while many participants are keen to keep it that way, they are aware that their activism is part of a broader movement that challenges the government.

Chen Fengshan, a former political activist who went into “inner exile” after the bloody crackdown on the 1989 student democracy movement, is now active again as a property owner. He helps other owners prepare lawsuits against rapacious developers or local government decisions that infringe upon their property rights, and lobbies legislative delegates to strengthen property owners’ legal protection. “I believe that through what we are doing we are helping to change the system,” says Mr Chen.

Moreover, non-governmental groups are increasingly interconnected, enabling them to learn from, and support, each other. According to Prof Wu, Guangdong’s environmental NGOs have built extensive links both inside and outside the province.

It is the attempt to build such a network that makes arrested lawyer Mr Xu’s “citizenry” movement look so threatening to the Communist party. At the movement’s monthly lunches over the past year, participants discussed issues including a call for publication of government officials’ assets and equal rights to education.

Li Huanjun is one of those whom the lunchtime initiative has inspired to become all-round activists. Ms Li has petitioned the government for years about her forced eviction from her family home in a village on the outskirts of Beijing that is being razed. Her fight has led more than once to her detention. But while her campaign has mirrored those of millions of others preoccupied with their own cause, the young woman has also begun taking up other causes. This year she has campaigned against domestic violence and about employers’ discrimination against people with HIV.

This is the spectre the Communist party fears most. A task force of party scholars assembled three years ago to discuss the merits of civil society. It subsequently wrote that some groups could become a “catalyst for social conflict” and warned that the party “must strengthen its vigilance against them” as the rise of civil society in other countries had made it more difficult for ruling parties to hold on to power.

Since then, Beijing has allowed civil society groups some role in areas such as poverty alleviation or caring for the elderly, and has loosened restrictions on registration for some, such as charity groups, which it regards as non-political. Scholars see these steps as a recognition that civil society can help build citizens’ “orderly participation”, resolving social problems and nurturing social values in a materialistic society.

Given the leadership’s latest taboo list, none of this can be said out loud. Last week Hu Angang, an economics professor at Tsinghua University, declared in an article that China must choose a “people’s society” led by the Communist party instead of the western civil society. And yet, many academics and activists think that this is not something the party can decide. “Civil society is society,” says Prof Gao. “You can’t ban society. If you do that, you turn against the people.”

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

The NGOs taking on the state’s burden

The Chinese Communist party’s latest crackdown on civil society, as reflected by the arrest of lawyer Xu Zhiyong and several other rights activists, has sent a shudder through the country’s advocacy community.

But at the same time, some non-governmental organisations are experiencing a new spring. In March the state announced that it would relax restrictions on certain NGOs this year. Under the policy, industrial and commercial associations, research groups, charities and community service organisations are allowed to register independently, without having to find a government “sponsor”.

Under the old system, many groups failed to find such sponsors and were forced to operate as commercial enterprises or in a legal grey area, making them vulnerable to prosecution on tax or accounting charges.

The new regime could free immense energy and resources in fields such as poverty alleviation and social security, and enhance private participation on a scale unseen before.

According to state media, 227 NGOs registered in Guangdong province in the first six months after it allowed direct registration in January 2012, a 36 per cent increase on the same period a year previously. That contrasts with almost no increase nationwide last year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It is clear that there are things private actors do better than government departments,” says a retired official from Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong and pioneered the more liberal regime.

In the past, Beijing relied almost exclusively on government-backed bodies organised as non-governmental organisations, known as GONGOs, to work on poverty alleviation, women’s rights or caring for the disabled.

“In recent years these big GONGOs have been outsourcing more and more work to local groups and found they get better results,” says Yu Xiaomin, an expert on NGOs at Beijing Normal University.

At the national legislative plenary meeting last year, a Buddhist delegate even proposed that the government make fast-growing religious groups an integral part of its social services infrastructure. Using these groups to care for and monitor the elderly could ease the government’s burden, the proposal stated.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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