China's Challenges: Civil Society
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China's Challenges: Civil Society

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While China’s economy continues to storm ahead, events in 2010 (in particular, the harassment of civil rights groups and democracy activists) proved that in other areas, the system remains very repressive. The brutal fact is that in 21st century China, it’s still possible to get an 11-year jail sentence for peacefully expressing a desire for political change.

The Communist Party of China has very effectively destroyed all potential sources of organised opposition. It has done this through a combination of inducements to newly rich classes, and threats to those that try to oppose it. And there’s little sign that the current political elite have any intention of changing this in the short to medium term. Premier Wen Jiabao has talked about democracy and the need for reform, but very much within the one-party system. Under President Hu Jintao, inner-party democracy has been as far as things have gone. No indications are given for more radical moves in the newest Five Year Plan to run from 2011 onwards. And despite long-term promises for a form of democracy, the taste within China amongst the vast majority of decision makers for Western style, parliamentary systems isn’t strong. They are seen as inappropriate for China’s needs and its future development.

Whatever reforms might happen in the coming years, therefore, are likely to focus on building stronger rule of law, institutional safeguards against abuse of power and a system that is able to deal with the increasing contention in society as it grows richer and more unequal, so that instability is avoided. On this, at least, there is at the moment reasonably broad consensus. And the continuation of the dominance of the Communist Party is seen as central to the delivery of these aims.

Civil society is growing increasingly important, with government withdrawing from large areas of activity, allowing groups to be active on the environment, care of the elderly and the poor and educational provision. In the next five years, however, the Communist party and the government will come under increasing pressure to give civil society groups proper legal status, rather than continuing with the complex and ambiguous arrangements that exist at the moment. The sheer complexity of society as it develops towards middle income status by 2020 (this is the stated aim of the government) will mean that civil society groups will become more various, and their work will be far more needed. The current restrictions on their activities have already been challenged several times at the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, and are likely to be revised so that they are more fit for purpose.

All of the above is predicated on a China able to deliver decent economic growth in the years ahead, and one which is able to enjoy a peaceful, stable international environment. In the case of a severe upset, such as unexpected international conflict, a pandemic that severely affects China, or an uprising amongst the more disaffected groups in society such as farmers or poor urban dwellers, the outcomes would be highly unpredictable. China continues to face enormous challenges to how it governs itself and develops as a society. It also has to deal with a rapidly aging population, an energy-hungry economy and an environment depleted by decades of rapid growth and industrialisation. While on balance, China is likely to develop politically and socially in the decade ahead, recent history has proved that it is always wise to expect the unexpected, especially as China now enters a crucial phase of its transition, where GDP growth is no longer the sole priority, but far more complex outcomes have to be encountered.

Kerry Brown is a senior fellow with the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London.

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