Civil society thrives on the mainland, so long as it leaves politics well alone

Joseph Cheng surveys the internet-aided growth of NGOs on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 2:33am

Each year on the mainland, there are hundreds of thousands of "mass incidents", that is, protests involving more than 50 people. Indeed, demonstrations involving thousands of people are a frequent phenomenon. Chinese leaders are concerned about serious domestic as well as international challenges, and there is less talk of a "glorious era" in the mainstream mainland media.

The Communist Party refuses to abandon its monopoly of political power; the Hu Jintao administration has followed the formula of promoting growth, with a basic social security net covering the entire population, plus good governance without democracy to maintain social stability.

But this formula is proving increasingly inadequate because of rampant corruption and the vested interests' resistance to the necessary reforms to improve China's development model.

The widening gap between rich and poor and the ruthlessness of local officials in pursuing growth and private gains naturally generate dissatisfaction and widespread grievances. The appropriation of land for development without adequate compensation has been the principal cause of protests and riots. But this is an important source of local government revenue.

Under such circumstances, the enlightened segment of the population struggles for more freedoms while the majority of underprivileged groups demand economic and social justice, as well as the basic rights they deserve but have been denied.

The aggrieved grass-roots that includes peasants, migrant workers, urban labourers and the elderly therefore get involved in petitions, protests, judicial processes and the like, to fight for their rights. When these measures fail to have an impact, violence sometimes ensues.

The civil rights movement has been aided considerably by the internet, especially microblogs, and the guidance of human rights lawyers. Hence, to some extent, a consensus often emerges among the highly dispersed and disorganised public. This "organisation without organisation" has been a response to the authoritarian regime's draconian measures to suppress independent civic groups, including trade unions, underground churches and peasant associations.

Roughly, there are about seven million groups with a total of some 200 million to 300 million people, in contrast with the 620,000 registered groups in 2008. They include: about one million underground churches; a million traditional rural groups such as clans; a million modern rural groups including service groups for the elderly; about one million groups of petitioners; about one million unregistered cultural, interest and sporting groups in the city; and various cause-based groups such as those dedicated to environmental protection, poverty alleviation and human-rights promotion.

These figures include the virtual groups formed via internet contacts.

At this stage, civil society on the mainland is fairly well developed. It can organise social campaigns of different scales; that is, it can say "no" to the government. It is almost impossible for the state to suppress civil society now. The civil rights movement has become more autonomous, more critical, and it wants to be free from the state's control.

However, it is still not strong enough to force the Chinese leadership to engage in genuine political reform. The Chinese authorities remain very powerful and have ample resources at their disposal. Last year, the expenditure on "maintaining stability" exceeded that on national defence.

The ideal scenario is that civil society will continue to grow and, in co-operation with the reformist segment of the party regime, would be able to promote liberal political reforms. In the worst-case scenario, the authorities will continue to step up suppression, leading to more violent confrontations and finally to a chaotic and potentially revolutionary situation.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong