Note: this is first in a series of posts on civil society in China. Some posts will be too long for some readers, but the citations make this more than just personal opinion. These are notes to myself, with some analysis.  These civil society posts are themselves part of a far larger work on zhongguoxing – Chineseness. 

 Posts are –

  1. Society, Civil and Un - Definition of civil society and some history in China
  2. Non-History of Civil Society in China -  If you don’t build it, they won’t come
  3. Some Notes on Ancient Trust - Particular and generalized trust
  4. Faith and Trust - In whom can you trust? Epistemological optimism and pessimism
  5. How Lack Of Trust and Communication Manifests In Government - what happens with no ability to call foul
  6. Between Family and State – The Center Cannot Hold
  7. Moral Freedom and Nihilism - See, hear, speak no evil … What, me worry?
  8. Failures Of Civility and Social Capital In China Now - No generalized trust means no loyalty and no moral authority  
  9. International Difficulties - Forget civil society, we’ll take civility
  10. Trusting is Believing. To Evaluate is to Doubt - meiyou wenti
  11. Legitimacy - Who else you gonna call?
  12. Does China need civil society to innovate or prosper?


Society, Civil and Un   We are Family …

Foreign business people sometimes rant about the “lying, cheating people” they meet in China.  But would you loan six months income to an old college classmate, one you’ve not seen for years, with no paperwork and no doubts about its return?

The one term that most describes differences between Chinese and western ideas about business, morality, and freedom would be “civil society.” Western democracies need it. China has never really had it.

These are notes on civil society broadly construed and its absence in China. This lacuna has implications for trust, freedom, business and international relations. I want to explore that here.

Civil society is not a so-called third place, between home and work. It is not a workout club, weekend sports team, or coffee house. It is a social practice that makes use of the attributes of democracy – free speech, writing and association. It is prior to democracy, however and is in some sense “in the air.” No civil society, no democracy. It may solidify into organizations, mostly non-profits, but first and foremost it is a practice.

It is more than simply people getting together for sociability. There is a policy or political agenda to a civil society organization that sets it apart from just a third place or a social club, church or coffee house or after-school sports club. It must be able to seek truth and offer alternatives to government action without fear of retribution.

We sometimes define civil society to include any organization that is not government and not home, but I think this is too general. It is civic – part of the duties of a citizen. A civil society organization should have the potential to make government uncomfortable. It is an essential feature of democracy in the US. It is the public sphere as described by Jurgen Habermas.


What is this civil society of which you speak?

We can start with De Tocqueville. In 1831, he explained America to Americans in a way that still rings true. A spirit of volunteerism, the ability to criticize, and fundamentally, a third sector – between government and the family – was critical to success of democracy. His term for that third sector was civil society. Civil society and what it implies – ability to form groups of like-minded citizens, a free press, universities with faculty able to decide for themselves what to study, a free press – serve to check the activities of government and, at the same time, provide the relationships among strangers that foster a commitment to liberal democratic principles.

Most broadly, civil society implies an ability to trust strangers; to expect people generally to tell the truth; permit a relatively free flow of information to inform people’s actions; a willingness to do one’s part to support the common good; and to seek the truth without fear of retribution by government. There are two prerequisites for civil society - civility and social capital. The most basic requirement is civility.


What is this civility?

Civility is conformance with social norms and rules for behavior, whether respect for parents or holding doors for someone coming right behind you. In society, it takes on a greater role, as described by the Institute for Civility -

Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. …. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored.

No question but that is necessary in the US as well as in China. 


Thomas Metzger on Civil Society

Intellectual historian Thomas Metzger describes in great detail what the notion of civil society entails. Civility and social capital are prerequisites to formation of civil society.

Civil society requires a sense of the civil, of civility, of what a person must do to be part of a city, a community of people. Metzger on civility -

I have elsewhere tried to enter this evolving discussion about the orientations or other conditions hypothetically needed to produce the "civility" a modern society seems to require, listing: (1) considerable cultural homogeneity; (2) cordial, trustful relations between fellow citizens who are strangers to each other, a condition not fully met in Chinese societies, as scholars agree; (3) some political consciousness, such as a sense of nationalism; and (4) the assumption that the realization of moral-sacred values depends at least partly on the moral performance of the political center, as illustrated by the Confucian ideal of nei-sheng wai-wang (within, a sage, without, a true king). Also, (5) politics cannot just revolve around a shared saga of past glory, suffering, struggle, and present ambitions, what Robert N. Bellah calls "a community of memory." It must also be based on the intention to follow an abstract, unifying principle, such as the Greek idea of justice or the Confucian idea of jen (compassionately equating the needs of others with one's own). Political disagreement can then consist of arguments about who is being hypocritical instead of murderous struggles between groups who merely feel victimized by each other. Moreover, (6) this concept of principle has to be linked to the idea of the ruler's accountability to the people, an idea common to all axial civilizations, as S. N. Eisenstadt has noted; (7) accountability has to be linked to the kind of emphasis on legality Quentin Skinner saw arising some five centuries ago in the West; and (8) civility entails what Sunil Khilnani called the legitimization of politics as "a terrain upon which competing claims may be advanced and justified," a political marketplace complemented by an open intellectual marketplace and the free economic marketplace.

Thomas Metzger.  The Western Concept of the Civil Society in the Context of Chinese History (Volume 21, Hoover Essays) 1998.

Social capital entails the ability to trust strangers at a distance, sufficiently to make and implement plans and programs. Civility tends to be performed one-to-one, as with respecting parents or holding a door for a stranger. It can be relatively passive. Social capital is more active. It is the joining together for common interests, whether starting a business or a singing club.

Obviously businesses and singing clubs are started in China, but more so than in the US, those ventures tend to be initiated within the family or a close network of associates.

Civility and social capital are required before civil society can emerge, but civil society is a step too far in China.  There is a political agenda to a civil society organization that will not be permitted in China.

Metzger makes the point that of the three marketplaces cited above – political, intellectual, and economic – the first two are significantly lacking in China now. There is civil society in China, he notes, if by that we mean organizations that exist apart from government permit or sanction – though that arena has shrunk considerably in the Xi era. Those organizations cannot work to oppose government policies or promote alternative policies. We might refer to such organizations as public places or places of private interest. Civil society organizations in our terms have a policy or political agenda and they facilitate discussion and cooperation among strangers.


First, loyalty

Civility and social capital are lacking in Chinese society generally, a point I will demonstrate in later posts. I should point out that there is great civility and social capital available within CCP. It would be impossible to achieve the success of the past forty years without respect for leaders and ability to trust in colleagues. CCP operates as a family, and uses that word in describing ties of obligation to each other. It is perhaps the single extra-municipal, extra-provincial organization in China that is not a business. The civility and social capital emerge first from loyalty to CCP. The process of becoming a member is prolonged and intense. The membership pledge is the badge.

But civil society as offering an alternative to government policy is aggressively put down. There is no clearer restriction than that in Mr. Xi’s infamous Document No. 9 from 2013. This is a list of seven deadly sins with which the west (read America) is trying to destroy CCP. Number 3 on the list -

Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation.

Civil society is a socio-political theory that originated in the West. It holds that in the social sphere, individual rights are paramount and ought to be immune to obstruction by the state. For the past few years, the idea of civil society has been adopted by Western anti-China forces and used as a political tool. Additionally, some people with ulterior motives within China have begun to promote these ideas.

This is mainly expressed in the following ways:

Promoting civil society and Western-style theories of governance, they claim that building a civil society in China is a precondition for the protection of individual rights and forms the basis for the realization of constitutional democracy. Viewing civil society as a magic bullet for advancing social management at the local level, they have launched all kinds of so-called citizen’s movements.

Advocates of civil society want to squeeze the Party out of leadership of the masses at the local level, even setting the Party against the masses, to the point that their advocacy is becoming a serious form of political opposition.

Well, yes.


Has anyone proposed civil society in China?

There are three ancient features of Chinese culture that make civil society a very tough point to make. First is the extraordinarily intense focus on family and relationships, to the exclusion of outsiders. Second is that family and clan have provided most social services throughout history. Third is a trust in leadership and concomitant unwillingness of rulers to tolerate dissension. These combine to put virtually nothing between family and the state – not church, not merchant organization, not unions or any version of “citizens united.”

Certainly some intellectuals have seen the need for greater people’s voice in governance, if only to stem the constant stream of violent protests, uprisings, and insurrections that have typified China for more than two thousand years. The most recent attempt to promote civil society was in the Three Principles of the People, a political philosophy announced in 1905 by Sun Yat-sen to help unite the Chinese people and form a nation.  His principles would have moved China toward democracy when he was elected president of the Republic of China in 1912, but his presidency lasted only a bit more than two months.     

Sun’s three principles –

Minzu zhuyi populism or people’s rule, or perhaps more accurately, nationalism, meaning independence from foreign domination. This would require a common purpose and sense of identity among the major ethnic groups in China, including Han, Uyghur, Tibetan, Muslim, Manchu and Mongol (remember, this is Sun writing in 1905, about ideas dating from the 1890s). This seems not feasible. One can think of this as the national identity or national story that Lucian Pye felt was missing in modern China.

Minquan zhuyi means democracy, or government by the people.  Sun adopted ideas of constitutionality and governance from the US and from Europe in proposing a system of checks and balances and democratic voting for leaders. 

Minsheng zhuyi means the people’s welfare.  Sun saw the need for government action to provide minimum living standards in health, education, housing, and nutrition.  He saw the land value tax as promoted by Henry George as the way to achieve the people’s welfare.  Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan use this form of taxation now. 

Pointedly, the democratic element of the Three Principles was realized only on paper in the constitution of the Chinese republic, which lived only for a few years. Democracy was never implemented and never reflected the hearts and minds of the people.


If we don’t want it, you don’t need it

From dynastic times there has never been strong and loyal opposition to rule – not the Church, not Buddhism, not merchant societies, not clan or lineage groups. The lack of a forceful alternative to government works to the advantage of CCP. No one thinks China is near to being an emerging democracy and Chinese elites at Central Party School and other institutes think hard about how to prevent such a calamity. 

De Tocqueville wrote another book, one that is scarcely read in the US, but has been gobbled up by elites in China – the Ancien Régime - the Old Regime - describes the failure of the monarchy in France, and how the Revolution might have been prevented. Essentially it is a primer on what not to do, lest a civil society emerge. China scholar Joseph Fewsmith on reading deTocqueville in Beijing in 2012 –

The discussion revolving around de Tocqueville’s classic study of the French Revolution may at first seem incongruous in contemporary China with its rapidly expanding economy and seemingly greater swagger in world affairs, but in fact the fears that Wang Qishan allegedly voiced about the Chinese people likely needing to pay a still higher price for modernization capture a mood that seems prevalent in China’s capital these days.

DeTocqueville thought that a highly centralized regime sapped a society of its creativity, energy, and spirit. The centralized state produced subjects but not citizens, as James Ceaser noted in Why Tocqueville on China?  DeTocqueville describes China now quite well. Government is highly decentralized, but society looks to government to solve problems and government wants that role of being sole decider.

People do bargain with each other on small matters – responsibility for a minor car accident, a leak from the apartment above. The law requires drivers to bargain to resolve their accident responsibilities before dealing with police. But for matters requiring resolution larger than one on one, it is difficult for Chinese to resolve. They do not have the experience of discussing and deciding.


If you didn’t want it then, you can’t have it now - Lucian Pye on civility and social capital and civil society

Political philosopher Lucian Pye explored civility, social capital, and civil society in a 1999 article. There can be great civility within one’s guanxi network – attention to norms, formal terms of address, honoring of elders and leaders. Civility permits social capital, which fundamentally means an ability to cooperate to produce desired results. My own preferred definition for social capital is that which permits translation of the intangible – relationships, ideas, plans – into the tangible – a business, a building, a funded program. Great social capital is behind the extraordinary ability to cooperate in business within one’s network. But civil society requires ability to cooperate easily with strangers, and that is usually a step too far in Chinese society.

Pye notes that formalism in relations – think of it as social distance -  is not conducive to the “trust at a distance” that necessarily characterizes democracy and a modern economy of myriad interests and functions. 

Such intense concern with conforming to refined and ritualized behavior and suppressing strong emotions can be inimical to democracy.   It compels people to mask their real sentiments, practice conformity, and pretend to positions that they actually do not hold.

Lucian W. Pye. Civility, Social Capital, and Civil Society: Three Powerful Concepts for Explaining Asia. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29:4 (Spring, 1999), 763-782. Available at


Pye notes that the third sector in China – what was not government and not familial - worked on behalf of the state, not in opposition to it. This, he says, was unlike the third sector in Europe and Japan. Third sector development in China, he says

… also produced a tradition that inhibited the development of a true civil society, because it worked to suppress the articulation of special interests and to deny legitimacy to a political process in which the society could balance the powers of the state.

Pye sees civility and social capital evolving in China in ways that inhibited the development of democracy.

Evolution was different in Europe.  For centuries the Church served a vital role as corrective to government. Rulers may have had divine right, but the Church had a strong opinion on the legitimacy of that right. As the strength of the Church declined, independent businesses and business associations were able to fulfill a similar role. Eventually the marketplace of ideas, in Joel Mokyr’s phrase, was allowed to grow.

China scholars John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman defined civil society as a pluralist society in which, for example, the church is independent of the state, religion and government are separate, while civil liberties … are maintained under the supremacy of law.   (Fairbank and Goldman, p. 257) 

It is fair to conclude that civil society existing as an alternative to or in opposition to government cannot exist in China. I want to explore what that meant day to day in China and what it means now.


Next:  Non-History of Civil Society in China -  If you don’t build it, they won’t come