For many commentators, one of the big themes of the Xi Jinping administration so far has been a newfound openness to public participation in certain political issues. Both in sending signals and in the actual outcomes of a few high-profile clashes between popular media and local officials, Xi has appeared to be open to experimenting with a greater role for civil society in addressing some social problems. But Xi's “opening” is hardly the first time we have seen relatively open political debate happen in China between crackdowns, and it is hard to pin down real changes in policy that might last.
So it is real news that there seems to have been a breakthrough in drafting China's long-awaited new regulations for registering nonprofit organizations. Karla Simon, an expert on civil society law who has worked with the Chinese government, says that the new regulations will allow China's charities and NGOs to multiply, as well as make it possible for thousands of currently unregistered NGOs to come within the system.
This, she argues in a new book, “Civil Society in China: The Legal Framework from Ancient Times to the 'New Reform Era,' ” is consistent with the overall direction of Chinese policy since the 1980s, which has encouraged the development of NGOs to address social problems. Despite issues with registration, NGOs have already taken on a major role in Chinese society as local governments across the country have moved from providing social services directly toward outsourcing them under the policy of “Small Government, Big Society.”
The book is quite technical reading, but by tracing China's civil society laws in detail it demonstrates solidly that the modern Party does not view civil society with unmixed suspicion – on the contrary, they clearly expect home-grown and international NGOs to play a major role in dealing with the massive social problems that have grown alongside the Chinese economy.
There are already hundreds of thousands of NGOs in China, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), and this likely excludes a much greater number of small local organizations that either operate below the radar of government or are registered as businesses.
Although the new regulations are not expected until close to the end of 2013, it is clear that Beijing will be carrying out a number of changes proposed in the 12th Five-Year Plan in 2010 – most important among them, the end of the system of dual registration, under which NGOs are required to find an official sponsor and obtain a license from the MCA. The sponsor is normally a government office related to the NGOs field, and becomes the main body responsible for supervising the organization.
The sponsorship requirement has proved to be far and away the highest hurdle to organizing new NGOs, Simon says. Although the MCA is relatively eager to encourage charitable work, potential sponsor organizations have had little incentive to accept the extra work and political responsibility.
Simon also predicts that the reforms will remove a rule forbidding the MCA from authorizing more than one NGO working on a given issue in a given geographic area, a relic of Deng-era plans to establish a monopoly of Party-led civil society groups. Almost all NGOs officially established up through the mid-1990s were government- or Party-organized, she notes.
Significant limits on nonprofit activity will, of course, remain in place. For example, the new policy explicitly excludes political and religious organizations from the streamlined registration process. Religious groups have a separate, highly restrictive, process. Simon expects the vague exception for political groups to be interpreted broadly, giving more local governments broad discretion to approve or deny licenses. Public interest law firms will also be unable to register for the time being, pending new regulations from the Ministry of Justice.
The main driver of the new policy seems to be social services outsourcing, according to Simon. With more NGOs, local governments hope to create competitive bidding processes. Of course, this means that the civil society groups that get licenses will be those that somehow serve the Party's policy ends.
But the experience of pilot programs in areas like Guangdong Province and Shanghai demonstrates that this still leaves broad scope for civil society groups to pursue their own ends and engage in advocacy. On many issues – most notably, the environment – there is a huge gap between official Party policy and local results, creating an obvious space for civil society groups to put pressure on local officials.
It will be some time yet before we can see the new regulations in action, but they will bear close watching – both because they will create a much larger space for a fully legal civil society in China, and because of what they suggest about the vision that China's leaders have for the country's future.