Civil society rapidly rising as 'the people' wield greater clout

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 December, 2008, 12:00am

When Mao Zedong took power nearly six decades ago, he promised to let 'the people' be the masters of China. But few of the people, namely the peasants, workers and soldiers, could speak their mind - and if they dared, they were dealt a blow from the iron fist of Mao's suppressive regime.

But while the definition of 'the people' is blurring in an increasingly polarised society, the country's masses are starting to wield greater clout, and their voices are being heard. The combination of increasing aspirations and growing prosperity has lead to the dawning of a civil society - a phenomenon that was particularly evident this year.

The rapid evolution of civil society on the mainland was noted in a social-development blue book published this month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which pointed out that the number of non-governmental organisations had risen 6 per cent year on year to 382,000 by the end of September.

Evidence was seen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Sichuan , when more than 10 million volunteers poured into the region in an unprecedented show of national solidarity and altruism.

One of the volunteers was Kou Quanjun, 37, the general manager of a Beijing business journal, who rushed to Sichuan on his own soon after the quake. Mr Kou felt compelled to go after watching television footage of Premier Wen Jiabao touring affected areas in the first few hours after the May 12 quake struck.

'How could a bloke, a soldier like me, just stay at home watching TV?' said Mr Kou, who served in the army for five years in the 1990s. He spent his first few days in Beichuan county and Shifang before he assembled about 25 volunteers to go to An county, where they stayed for more than two weeks helping farmers recover stores of grain and build new homes.

Mr Kou now aspires to set up the country's first specialist disaster relief NGO 'that would be the first to arrive whenever a disaster occurs'.

The Beijing Olympics in August fired the national spirit and inspired public participation, drawing in more than 1.4 million volunteers.

Xu Zhiyong, an associate professor of constitutional law at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said the rising affluence and increasingly free flow of information provided a solid foundation for an emerging civil society characterised by a renaissance of social justice and conscience among the public. Professor Xu, who is also a human rights activist and a citizen blogger, said the internet had played a vital role in the formation of the mainland's civil society.

Fu Dezhi, a senior botanist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, never thought he would become a social crusader when in October last year, he challenged in his blog the authenticity of the photos of a south China tiger snapped by Shaanxi farmer Zhou Zhenglong , who claimed they were taken during a mountain trek.

Professor Fu's blog posting was quickly picked up by mainland media and he was drawn into a protracted tug-of-war with Mr Zhou and Shaanxi wildlife officials about the authenticity of the photos. The campaign in effect forced authorities in Shaanxi to admit the photos were faked with Mr Zhou's help in an apparent attempt to attract funding and tourists to the region.

Mr Zhou was given a 21/2-year suspended sentence for swindling and more than a dozen Shaanxi officials were disciplined for their roles in the scandal. Professor Fu said the debate ended up having little to do with the authenticity of the photos, 'but it will have great implications in terms of social morality and public faith in scientific research, so it could make or break the country'.

Amid tight control over traditional media, mainlanders often band together via the internet to seek justice or make their voices heard, as in the scandal over tainted baby formula.

However, mainland authorities have been wary of any mass movement since the student rallies and the ensuing crackdown in June 1989. While the authorities have largely turned a blind eye to many social campaigns, they remain uneasy about any mass movements they perceive as threatening social stability or the dominance of the Communist Party.

The police raid on the homes of prominent dissidents Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua , who drafted a human rights declaration signed by more than 300 people, shows how far there is still to go to achieve a fully functioning civil society.