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

This is the second post in the series on civil society in China.

We took the Chinese government officials to a city council meeting in Evanston, IL, a town of about 70,000 people adjacent to Chicago and on Lake Michigan. The students watched … meeting discussions were about citizen involvement and relations with other suburbs and the federal government. The students later met with the city manager. The questions came fast and furious … who elects the city manager? Why is the mayor just a ceremonial post? Is the mayor just the party leader?

Then we got into the surreal. The city is a corporation?  Can sue and be sued? How can you sue a government? You sue other governments? 


For thousands of years, most of China was a farming economy and a farming and village culture. Great respect was accorded to ancestors, travel options were very limited, and the predominant social organization was the (rather incredibly) extended family and clan. It was the lineage group or clan that functioned in a social capital role – providing education, and welfare, and opportunities, as well as conducting commerce.

Local landowners or wealthy elites could also provide services as long as services provided did not threaten stability. Mary Backus Rankin –

Given the Qing dynasty's proven ability to suppress not everything but what it really wanted to suppress, the best opportunities to expand societal public rôles occurred when they did not threaten the government…. Throughout the Qing an almost certainly increasing percentage of the local public organizations were run by local élites, as opposed to officials with the aid of deputies, clerks, and runners…. The magistrate or other officials might supply funds, sometimes most or all, but often a relatively small amount to initiate proceedings and demonstrate support. The élite sponsors and a small number of friends/donors might supply ail the local funding, or they might collect subscriptions from businesses, neighborhoods, landholders, etc. This money might be temporarily invested in pawnshops; any left over after constructing or buying a building would probably be used to purchase an endowment of agricultural land or urban property to provide income for opérations. Often more money had to be raised for this purpose, and if an institution survived for a long time it periodically required additional funds to continue operating and make repairs.  (Pages 25-27) 

And aside from public sphere organizations in which the local magistrate might contribute funds, there were other models.  

As already indicated, a second form of local public organization, which more clearly suggests strong extrabureaucratic initiative and possibly relative autonomy, consisted of societies (huï) and alliances or covenants (yué) established by local élites for various public purposes.

Mary Backus Rankin. The Origins of a Chinese Public Sphere. Etudes Chinoises IX, 2 (Autumn, 1990) Page 56. Available at


The constant in these arrangements was trust in some local individual and not generalized trust in the norms of society or even the government. This is the essence of guanxi, a relationship that can open doors. Lucian Pye noted that society in China existed only at the local level. There was no national institution such as the Church in Europe. At the highest level, there was only the state.  Chinese people were particularly passive toward the state and made few claims on the central government.

Lucian W. Pye. China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society. Foreign Affairs, Fall 1990. Available at


For all that time, central government in China was a very thin layer over multiple societies that were widely separated physically and impenetrable to each other linguistically. The phrase shan gao, huangdi yuan (the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away) is a good way of understanding local control and imperial impotence, even today.

For two thousand years Chinese social service has been provided on a libertarian model. Government as service provider was nearly absent and the Ronald Reagan threat was taken seriously – that the most frightening words were “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” Avoiding the government was a good tactic then and now and trust was local and personal. That is the essence of guanxi.

People looked to family and clan for assistance in all matters. The government was fine with that, as long as the assistance remained localized and individualized. Even today, Chinese students are quite opposed to government spending to help those in need. "Their families should provide" is what I heard over and over again in class.

Any organized opposition to the government was always perceived as dangerous. Every dynasty fought to muffle alternative voices (that were not already trusted members of the government). There were times of exception, in the Tang and Song, but for the most part, civil society was a threat.


The cultural difference- outside and inside

At base, we must acknowledge differences between Chinese and western cultures. There are some relative constants. But cultures are permeable, and they do change.

This is not the place to make distinctions at length. It can suffice to observe that even within one culture – take American culture – what we believe as truth, accept as norms of civility, what we take as social capital and even what we take as evidence – does change over time. We now get information from so many sources and with so many perspectives we cannot agree on what should be done even if we were to agree on what counted as facts of interest.

Nearly all of us owe our presence in the US to immigration. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Capital punishment was widely accepted, along with gun rights. Now, less so. Slavery and women’s rights and gay marriage – our social ideas do change. What sort of statistical measurements can count as evidence in court?  One sigma, or six?

Western culture has gotten along just fine, thank you, with its celebration of Kantian rationality and at the same time different voices and political ideas and what Joel Mokyr has called the marketplace of ideas.

But there are other ways of maintaining social stability.

Chinese culture has survived for more than three thousand years, not without changing, but certainly without expressing a need for civil society – a sustained ability to express difference with leaders. Enlightenment democratic norms – civil society – are modern, and necessary in modern western global, pluralist societies. China has tried to be modern and global without being pluralist – let science and technology in, keep western values out. There can only be one definition of the Good, and that comes from the government.


A contradiction … for dynasties and CCP …

According to most writers there has never been an independent realm distinct from the state (or, better: the government) in China. The character for “public” (gong 公) opinion meant the “opinion of the imperial court”. Any other opinions not sponsored by the state were seen as private (si 私). Such opinions had a negative image, being seen as self-promoting.

Confucius certainly supported ideas of civility and social capital, but not any sense of civil society. One can see the Confucian focus on ritual and respect for rulers as an attempt to minimize not debate but uninformed debate.

Confucius taught during the Warring States period, after the long-lived Zhou dynasty had collapsed, many small states emerged, and there were hundreds of years of continual fighting. It is not surprising the Chinese axial age arose in this period. Intellectuals debated and sought to influence rulers. There was intellectual conflict as well as state to state war. Out of this terrible period arose the conviction that harmony with a single supreme leader was a supreme value. There was no other way to peace, and words of the common people that incite difference or violence had to be suppressed.  Analects 8.9 (Tai Bo 9) - The people can be made to follow something, but not to understand it. When dynastic governments did permit some openness and public discussion, it was always short lived.

But the contradiction - even authoritarian governments need alternative voices if they wish to remain in power. Chinese dynasties managed to last for two or three hundred years before being replaced, but eventually … well, you know the argument. The mandate of heaven gets passed on. In each dynasty, if only that last couple of emperors had alternative voices to listen to, or listened to the ones they had ….


Why couldn't Confucian scholars be the organized opposition?

The Confucian scholars were supposed to bring intelligence, wisdom and benevolence to potentially mercurial rulers. This they often did, some at the cost of their lives. Why couldn’t the Confucians be that alternative civil society voice?

In his 1988 Tanner lecture on human values at Berkeley Wm. Theodore de Bary discussed civil society in China in the last thousand years –

For their part the Neo-Confucians, advocates of universal education in furtherance of the peoples’ welfare, promoted popular education primarily through self-cultivation and disciplined self- governance (hsiu-chi chih jen) in the context of family life and the local community, leaving a considerable gulf between learning on this level and the higher forms of scholarship or of the expertise required in the civil servant. In the absence then of any significant infrastructure between family and local community on the lower level, and the political and cultural organizations of the educated elite on the higher level, there were few channels that could serve as organs of “public opinion” to communicate between the two or support the noble man at court in his service of the public interest.

No doubt this oversimplified model of China’s political structure and process will invite challenge from those who can think readily of the infrastructure represented by local and regional organizations of an economic, social, and religious character, which at times played a significant part in Chinese life. The question is, however, whether these were able to perform any role in the political process

And –

The trouble with China … in the mid-nineteenth century, was its failure to sustain the kind of discussion and consultation … considered vital to the promotion of the common welfare.

And later -

.... the schools and academies had long since ceased to serve as centers of public discussion, as they had formerly in the middle and late years of the Ming dynasty. And if, among religious or fraternal organizations, one still might think to turn to secret societies, their very secret or esoteric character ensured their ineffectuality as organs of public advocacy.

Thus reform movements at the end of the dynasty lacked any effective political base. Out of touch with the masses, unsupported by any party that could claim to be “popular” (i.e., more than a faction), reformers were prophets without a people.

William T. de Bary. The Trouble with Confucianism. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Harvard University Press, 1996.

 In other words, the Confucians didn’t understand political organizing or marketing. They functioned almost as pure scholars, a la a university department. They remained independent and never sufficiently organized. Even Buddhists and Daoists were more organized.

Lack of a political base was a characteristic problem for Confucians scholar-advisors, as well as more modern reformers.  There has never been a political organization that operated between government and clan or family. This was a hole in Chinese society from a modern perspective.

Jürgen Habermas suggested that this lacuna is a definition of not-modern – that a political civil society is key to a rational-critical capacity that creates political legitimacy – the consent of the governed.  Habermas reserved the term civil society for those organizations that had a policy or political agenda.

Absent the public ability to discuss, argue, and communicate, there is no modernity. Thomas Metzger –

St. Augustine, for instance, quoting "Cicero with approval . . . defines civil society or the commonwealth as 'an assemblage (of men) associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests.' 

Augustine’s corrective to Cicero – that the commonwealth is defined by whatever things are loved in common – serves to make the point about civil society in China. There just wasn’t anything that was loved in common. Beyond the family and extended network, there was little of interest.

Confucius never mentioned civil society. Confucian morality does require engagement in society, and that requires an ability to express oneself and think critically. Modern Confucianism certainly supports the notion of civil society. In most of Chinese history – most of human history - there was no such thing.

The extended family and clans provided much of the social capital needed in any society – education, social welfare, jobs, security. There were merchant associations, and schools, and cultural groups, but these did not act as a check on government in any way. There was no religious third sector.

The Chinese language did not have words for civil society, according to Richard Madsen, until a Japanese import was created in the late 19th century. 

The term civil is even newer, and less well established in modern Asian lexicons. In contemporary Chinese, for example, there are no fewer than four words that are used to translate the civil in civil society.  Alternatively, Chinese intellectuals today call civil society shimin shehui, which literally means “city-people’s society”; or gongmin she- hui, “citizens’ society”; or minjian shehui, “people-based society”; or wenming shehui, “civilized society.”  These are all attempts to name phenomena and to articulate aspirations that have arisen in an urbaniz- ing East Asia linked to a global market economy.

Richard Madsen, Confucian Conceptions of Civil Society, Chapter 1 in Daniel A. Bell, ed., Confucian Political Ethics, 2007. Available at


In Europe there was no concept of secular civil society as an alternative voice to central government until the Enlightenment. The Church was occasionally able to fill that role, without use of the term. 

In China the state and society operated on different planes. There was little to no bonding across towns or provinces. Regarding civil society, if you don’t build it, they won’t come …. Good advice for any authoritarian regime, even today.


Libertarian China

What was striking about this clan and lineage system of social service provision is that revenues to the central government were generally low, even if the tax costs of any transaction to an individual were high.

Yang Lien-Sheng (LS Yang) and Government Control of Urban Merchants in Traditional China, Wentworth by the Sea, New Hampshire (August 31-September 7, 1968).  Sponsored by the subcommittee on Research on Chinese Society of the Joint Committee on Contemporary China of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council.  Published in 1970 by Tsinghua Journal of Chinese Studies. 8 (1-2): 186–206.

In the Ming and Qing, central government revenues were about 1% of GDP – an absurdly small share. In turn, salaries for provincial and local officials were absurdly small. Officials had to pay assistants and helpers out of their own salaries, so they charged their own fees for anything they could get someone to pay for. In this way, local exactions could be quite high, and all of these payments quite illegal. Corruption – meaning payments outside the law or regulation - was built in.

LSE professor Debin Ma describes the bind of low taxation – and low revenues received in Beijing – and the inability to pay government officials in the provinces –

As the official tax revenue allocated to the local administration fell far short of the requirements of normal administration often insufficient to cover the salaries of official bureaucrats let alone their expenses and support staffs such as secretaries, clerks, runners and personal servants various levels of bureaucrats relied on informal or the infamous extralegal surcharges (苛捐) beyond the official level…. the sources of these revenues ranging from the levying of various surcharges, manipulation of weights and measures and currency conversion in tax collection, falsifying reports, shifting funds across fiscal seasons or years, retaining commercial tax revenue, hoarding tax revenue from newly claimed land and exacting contributions and donations from local farmers or merchants. Provincial level officials and their unofficial staffs relied on the extraction of gifts and contributions from the lower level officials and engaged in practises such as skimming funds in purchases and allocations (buying at a low price but reporting a high price).  ( Ma, 2011, page 31)

Debin Ma. Rock, scissors, paper: the problem of incentives and information in traditional Chinese state and the origin of Great Divergence. Economic history working papers (152/2011). London School of Economics and Political Science. Available at  

Since the officials engaged in this corruption were those reporting directly to Beijing, it was possible for the emperor and some officials in the capital to be unaware of local conditions entirely. Allowing negative news to flow up the chain of command was unwise from a personal standpoint for provincial officials. Attempts at stopping corruption involved sending a new cadre of inspection officials to the provinces, who themselves became ensnared.


Whom do you trust?

Over the course of years in China, I watched and heard from friends about corruption and the need to “pay to play” in government promotions and business deals. At the university, my students tried cheating at the beginning of a course, until they found it did not pay. In other circumstances, I asked friends – in and out of government – whether the moral climate had always been so poor. Was cheating always a thing? The uniform answer was no – that lying, cheating behavior, lack of moral behavior, was a recent phenomenon, dating from the last fifteen years or since 1980 or since 1949.  Once upon a time, Chinese trusted each other, I was told. 

But then I began to read. Yang Lien-sheng told us about merchants and government supervision in the Qing era. Even in this relatively enlightened period of Chinese history, merchants were considered low status because they were viewed as crooked and cunning and interested only in profit. (The four social or economic groups were the shi (scholars or gentry), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants)).

Business of all kinds was subject to mistrust and extra scrutiny. Businesses had money and relationships and could organize people, aside from the general mistrust of trade.

Support for and oppression of merchants and trade went in and out of imperial fashion over the centuries. Taxation could be heavy or light, permissions could be easy to obtain or difficult, trade of certain types could be prohibited or reserved to government monopolies – salt and iron being two well-known examples.

Yang tells us that in the Qing era, a guarantee of success was required for loans or applying for a passport. This was a bit stronger than simply collateral. Even registering to take civil service exams required a personal guarantee – not from the applicant, but from a sponsor. The sponsor served as a gate to ensure not only economic success but political acceptability. This made the sponsor a defacto agent of the government and limited most imperial test-takers to those already in a relatively elite family that could afford both schooling and merchant relationships.

A sponsor for a civil service exam applicant could be the local head of a merchant guild. Sponsors were at times required by government to take on a role as guarantors and as responsible for the good conduct of guild members.

One can imagine the opportunities, as a government required but nongovernment guarantor, moral guarantor, and fixer of problems great and small. The godfather comes to mind. One would have to go see old Ma, the local capo, to get an approval to apply to take the imperial examinations. 

Trust requires relationship - not a new idea. But the relationships were closely held and highly valued. Counterparts familiar to us might be mafia or some small religious groups. 

Recommendations were important and the reputation of the sponsor was at stake if the recommended person or action failed. Reputation and relationship were critical when one could not depend on the law to rectify wrong. Dynastic China understood Sister Sledge. We are family.


Next: Some Notes on Ancient Trust - Particular and generalized trust