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What Challenges Do Civil Society Organizations Face in Contributing to China's Development?

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What challenges do civil society organizations face in contributing to China's development?

1. Introduction

With responses to its fast changing associational life for the past 3 decades, China experiences a proliferation of civil society organization reflexing a complex picture of large and fragmented society. From its root in Greek and Roman era, the concept of civil society has been altered as different political ideology emerged. Although there are numerous scholar thoughts that look at civil society at different angles, all of them share a common feature, which refers civil society to " the arena of unforced collective actions around shared interests, purposes or value". Given the diverse nature of China, it is increasingly acknowledged that civil society plays a vital role, which help to fulfill the areas left out by the government and market. The state, however, until nowadays still somehow see civil society as sources of threat to its power and therefore impose strict controls with limited space for activists and practitioners to occupy. Interestingly enough, the public, who are considered as NGOs and charities organizations' motivation, show low participation and support for the activities because of their caution about transparency and quality of those organizations. The China NGOs themselves carried distinctive characteristics, which are not fall into purely voluntary sectors, still struggling to define who they are, constructing their belief and choosing their path for development in years ahead. This article focuses the difficulties and challenges that civil society in China has been facing, categorized into (i) relationship with government, (ii) interaction with other external actors and (iii) the struggle within the organizations.

2. Relationship with the government

The Chinese Party has long reputation for its restrictive and tightly control over the society. The degree however varied along with each period of political leaders. Pre-revolutionary periods before 1927 witnessed a power shift from the state toward the society and, allowed more freedom and autonomy for third-sectors organizations. Although there is still debate about whether it was the origin of NGOs in China, the political decay created a favorable environment for traditional associations to become more active in both political and social life. When the Nationalist ruled the mainland from 1927 to 1949 with consolidation of the nation was championed ideology, movements of civil society were suppressed in the attempts of the government to repressed or incorporate them into new political system. Under Maoists era, China went through a highly segmented society with 2 homogenous sectors in rural and urban separated by household registration system (hukou) and managed by vertical incorporation political system which restricted ability of individuals and organizations to mobilized horizontally with their counterparts. The main challenge of civil society back then was to face the pervasion of the State into to every day life activities. Economic reform periods brought on fundamental changes to this pattern of state-society relations. Privileged economic growth and openness, individualism and materialism gradually displaced egalitarianism and collectivism, which was built under Mao's influences. Competitiveness for wealth generated and exaggerated social unrest and instability, which resulted in a sprout of intermediate associations.

As mentioned above, 300 years history of civil society in China showed a significant dependence over the State political ideology and implementation systems. In contemporary China, if categorized according to the relationship with the Communist Party, civil society can be divided into 4 subgroups in which, each category subjects to different views and certain level of control of the State : the caged sector, the incorporated sector, the limbo world and the suppressed sector (Howell,2004)

Firstly, the caged sector, which is known as traditional massive organizations, rooted from pre-reform era, function as the right arm of the Communist Party. These organizations namely the All-China Women's Federation, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the Young Communist Party, play subordinate role for the State to govern to society. As the result, they adopted the bureaucratic system of the State where members are state officials, appointed and remunerated by the State. Posed as no threat, controlled and supported by the Communist Party, the mass organization face any worry to their existence. Its meanings, nevertheles, is questionable as their 'clients' - the public- show little trust over its representatives role and regard them as no different to the State. Therefore, one question that continually needs to be addressed by these organizations is whether to strike out for their own autonomy and regain credibility or remain unassertive under the safeguard of the State.

Secondly, the incorporated sector classifies civil society organizations, which are recognized formally by the legal systems and operated within realm of the Communist Party. Those organizations vary greatly in both terms of size and sectors, from local to national level, from intelligentsia to cultural and business groups. The influences of the State regarding those organizations are thereby diverse, ranging from one extreme of complete controlled organizations such as GONGOs (Government organized NGOs) to another extreme of negligence of perceived unimportant associations such as friendship or cultural groups. Subjected to regulations imposed by the government, incorporated associations are used as a tool to manage potentially troublesome groups and complement the state in new process of governing China socio-economic system. They are also effective screening device to eliminate unnecessary or threatening practice. Among four types of civil society organization, incorporated sector might be the most idealistic form of NGOs as they gain sources of support from the government at some degree due to their legitimacy, yet still enjoy certain level of autonomy to act on their marginalized client's behalf. Freedom however is not granted completely and the judgment of effectiveness depends heavily on practical conditions of each organization and on the stiffness of the string that they are attached to the government.

Thirdly, the 'limbo world' of civil society arises when a number of urban associations fail to achieve legal acknowledgement from the government. Despite the invisible status, they exist enormously in the society and in various forms of associations. Most informally yet easiest to find is the 'salon' of intellectuals that can be seen in any room available

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