Between Family and State – The Center Cannot Hold

This is the sixth post in the series on civil society in China now.

Nothing can stand between family and state. True in dynastic times, true now. Outside of government, disagreement can easily become disloyalty. Western NGO are characteristic of civil society. Now, they must go.

At one time the strength of family and clan and the relative impotence of the central government made civil society in China a ... foreign ... idea. But China is no longer a village society, and just as we are told about democracy, the ability to get along in a modern economy requires the ability to interact with strangers. But Chinese don’t have good experience of that.

This view is reinforced by research showing that societies with lower levels of interpersonal trust seem to favor more government regulation – that is, government regulation is strongly negatively correlated with social capital.  

Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, Andrei Shleifer. Regulation and Distrust.  NBER Working Paper No. 14648, January 2009.  Available at

When individuals don't settle disagreements between themselves some supra authority must be able to step in. That is usually the state.

This fits with the ancient Chinese aphorism -  guo jin min tui – the state advances, the private sector retreats. This is meant to refer to interaction between the state and businesses, but one sees it at work in socialization as well. The more that interactions between people are government regulated or prohibited, the less ability to carve out civil agreement. 

Some international studies show that Chinese have great faith in others and in CCP. These studies can be flawed in many ways, including not distinguishing local and central government, ideological responses, and faith in family as surrogate for “others.”

We already know that some social capital is high in China – trust in the family, trust in the network, and much less so outside. China has an odd mix in this regard – low social capital outside the circles of trust, but also low government intervention. To put it another way, there are police everywhere, but they are mostly unseen. And when they are seen, their principle job is to maintain order, not write a first draft of a violation of rights.


The public sphere in China

In the Xi era the term civil society gongmin shehui 公民社会 is politically sensitive. A preferred term is social organization or social group shehui tuanti 社会组织. The law regulating foreign non-profits is here - Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China. CCP now requires government registration and a government sponsor for all foreign NGO. For organizations working to alleviate poverty or provide legal aid for farmers, this can be a death knell.

Government is now the sole provider of services outside the family – even if government essentially subcontracts with local organizations to accomplish tasks. Organizations like the Red Cross that we understand as NGO are intimately linked to the government in China. The international organization of the Red Cross does not claim jurisdiction over the Red Cross in China. 

There are still foreign and domestic NGO in China. Association is permitted and even encouraged in China if it promotes government intentions or is absolutely innocuous. Any resident committee, any group of singers or dancing grannies is welcome – as long as it sticks to its purpose and doesn’t pick quarrels and cause trouble. Challenging the state is the red line.

But the pertinent definition is that from Lucian Pye –

Civil society, which consists of those institutions which can assert the interests of society so as to challenge the state, or at least check its authority.

Lucian Pye. International Relations in Asia: Culture, Nation, and State.  Sigur Center for Asian Studies,  George Washington University,  July, 1998. Available at

Pye again –

Chinese civilization has produced a distinctive and enduring pattern of relations between the state and society. Although the affairs of the state were always secret and tainted with the suspicion of scandal, the realm of government projected grandeur and thus gave all Chinese a right to pride and dignity. Chinese society, on the other hand, was peculiarly passive toward its government, made no claims on state policies and concentrated its energies on the private domain. It has always been a society composed of inward-looking groupings, and thus cellular in its structure. Society in China existed only at the local level; there were no national institutions of society, such as the church in Europe. Thus the state existed alone at the highest collective level.

Lucian W. Pye.  China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society.  Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1900.  Available at


That was then ...

There were bars, teahouses and clubs, libraries and cultural and public sphere venues in Beijing, in Shanghai, in Hangzhou in the early 20th century. They might have helped develop a real civil society, were it not for the ensuing warlord conflicts, the civil war and the Japanese war. Now, in the Xi era, foreign NGO are welcome only at the margin. They now need a Chinese government sponsor and their activities are closely monitored. We are back to the dynastic era.


This is now ... what public sphere?

There is the Weiquan movement, the informal group of attorneys and intellectual who seek to protect civil rights in China through litigation and activism. Needless to say, members of this informal group have been subjected to disbarment, jail and torture for their work. You can think of these selfless promoters of the good as modern Confucian scholars. It has been pointed out that a number of these crusaders are Christians.

The civil rights attorneys are thinking of protections for people  from the government, and that just cannot exist. 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) 

To be sure, there are many organizations in China that are not directly government and not directly business – professional and business organizations, chambers of commerce, art and music appreciation groups, even resident committees on city blocks and in otherwise private residential communities.   But these serve utilitarian or private benefit purposes, and are often created by the government itself. They are, in our terms, quasi-public organizations at best. 

Chambers of commerce are a good example of what is called an NGO in China. In China such groups are government sponsored. I have friends who work for chambers of commerce in significant provinces and cities. These are substantial organizations, with well-paid staff and outreach to business groups around the world, sponsoring trade missions and conferences. But the leaders of the organizations don’t know who their members are, or the characteristics of the businesses they represent, beyond some generalities. These are NGO in the general Chinese sense – only that they do not directly sell a product to customers. They are units of government in any other sense.

In kindergartens and primary schools, there is some form of public sphere operating - cooperation among parents, to produce materials for art projects or cooperate on phone trees, as in the US.  But again, these are for the benefit of the child, not the society. 

Public sphere organizations that pursue public benefits – environmental organizations, political organizations, legal aid organizations, as prime examples – are those that have not developed. These would be civil society organizations because they have some larger public agenda. They will not develop as long as the CCP remains so frightened of its own people that it cannot let them see YouTube. Or watch Under the Dome, the 90 minute documentary about Beijing air pollution produced in 2016 by a Chinese journalist. The video was online for a few days before being … harmonized. Or stop censoring stories about protests over land theft or environmental worries, of which there are many thousands each year, with overturned police cars and injuries to police and plenty of arrests and beatings of protesters, with the occasional murder of farmers who lead the protests. Not only can people not trust each other on the street, CCP cannot trust the people either.


Eyes on the street … or the street has eyes

Lack of a sense of a third sector is well illustrated by community management organizations – resident groups that ostensibly provide management oversight to the real estate management companies that provide garbage pickup, landscape maintenance, sweeping, general cleaning, and some minor physical maintenance in residential communities. These are the counterpart to condominium association boards in the US. But these organizations fail dramatically to crystallize into what Jurgen Habermas called a “public sphere.” Chinese community organizations do not organize, do not collaborate, do not share information, do not lobby, and do not represent citizens in complaints or disputes with local government. They are, in fact, “top-down” organizations, created either by the government or by a real estate developer. “Bottom-up” organizations are unknown. Student organizations in universities are still branches of the CCP Youth League or related to a university student affairs department that watches closely. Resident organizations in real estate developments in China mostly organize picking up the garbage. 

Now, some of these street organizations are devolving to what Xi fondly remembered in 2013 as the Fengqiao Experience – a pre-Cultural Revolution grid system in every neighborhood in every city with volunteer or paid watchers. In Zhejiang, some watchers are paid up to 5000 yuan per month, which is a decent starting salary for most college graduates. Eyes on the street were critical to the success of the response to the coronavirus. They are also critical to CCP stability maintenance. It is a bit of, “I know where you live and I know what you did.”

From a Bitter Winter piece-  The Fengqiao Experience: The CCP Revives a Maoist Terrorist Strategy -

What happened in Fengqiao was that the “reactionary elements” were dealt with not (more exactly, not only) by the police, but by the “masses themselves,” meaning that activists “rounded up” the enemies and submitted them to public “struggle sessions” in which they were insulted, threatened, and terrorized until they admitted their “crimes.” 3,000 out of 130,000 people in Fengqiao were identified as “reactionary elements” and publicly humiliated. This was a sinister anticipation of what was later generalized in the Cultural Revolution.

I don’t anticipate new struggle sessions. Cutting off one’s social media accounts and debiting one’s social credit score will probably be sufficient in our more modern age.

Mass surveillance has gone professional in the last few years. This article and this one do a good job of covering digital and camera surveillance – all done, of course, for the safety and security of the Chinese people. No need for trust if you can just watch.

Item – what CCP giveth, CCP can take away    In 2011 villagers in Wukan in Guangdong province organized protests over land theft and corruption. This was big news in the western media for some months. To tamp down anger, CCP at first agreed to negotiate with a chosen group of thirteen farmers. Five of the thirteen were then arrested, and one of the five died in police custody two hours after being arrested.  CCP officials agreed to most of the villagers’ demands, which then stopped the violence of the protests.

Shortly thereafter, the demands were rejected by the province.

“Organized” was the red line for CCP, which worked at first to tamp down anger. Retribution came later. The box below is about further Wukan protests in 2016, over similar problems of land theft and bribery.



                         The mills of the security forces may grind slowly …

World News|Mon Dec 26, 2016 | 8:51pm EST

China jails nine over protests in 'democracy' village

A court in southern China has handed out jail terms of up to 10 years to nine people from a Chinese fishing village once seen as a cradle of grassroots democracy after finding them guilty of illegal protests and other charges.

Wukan, in Guangdong province, erupted in renewed protest in September. Unrest had rumbled on since June after the arrest of a popular leader who was finally jailed in October for corruption, charges widely disputed in Wukan.

The village received international attention when a 2011 uprising over land grabs forced authorities in Communist Party-ruled China to back down and grant local direct elections.

The Haifeng County court said in a statement late on Monday the nine had been jailed for crimes including illegal demonstrations, disturbing traffic and intentionally spreading false information.

The court did not specify sentences for individuals, but said the sentences ranged from two years to 10 years in jail.

An indictment from the same court earlier this month said their crimes occurred between June and September this year.

While low-level democratic experiments have been tried in villages across China, Wukan's took place in the glare of both domestic and international publicity, and marked a rare moment when Communist Party officials backed down in the face of protest.

Beijing leaders are fearful of growing calls for democracy and losing their grip on power. Weeks of "umbrella revolution" pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, to the southwest of Wukan, in 2014 presented Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges in decades.


The dangerous American NGO import – a model

In the ten year prior to the Xi era Chinese government officials expressed a lot of interest in American NGO, particularly community based organizations. A good American example, among hundreds just in Chicago, was the Roger’s Park Community Council – (RPCC) in Chicago (now Northside Community Resources).  

RPCC was not a “pure” NGO, in the sense of operating totally without government funds. It was a community based NGO, meaning it served constituents in one neighborhood rather than the entire Chicago general population. It had a defined legal status, as a 501(c)(3) organizations.  There were bylaws and elected boards and paid staff and – most importantly – RPCC occasionally took positions counter to that of local government policy. At the time, in the Hu Jintao era, a breath of freedom and openness was blowing through Chinese government.  My Chinese government students were fascinated with the operations and format – who elected board members? Who votes? What does it mean to take government money and not be part of government? They were interested in the distinction between projects and programs.  And how can you oppose government action or the alderman – publicly - and still retain government money? 

Every American community oriented NGO faces these issues.  At the time, foreign NGO in China were expanding efforts to provide health care, health advice, legal aid, labor conflict assistance, and a host of other services.  In 1998 the American Bar Association opened a branch office in Beijing to provide training to Chinese lawyers.  

With the crackdown on dissent in the Xi Jinping era, all that interest in foreign NGO is out the window.  As with foreign tribute to the emperor in the old days, as with the saying west for science, east for culture – China is happy to accept foreign money and talent. But any NGO activity that smacks of a civil society, as defined in the west – legal advice, free press, labor rights, advocacy, environmental monitoring or religion - anything that could be construed as intruding where the state wants sole power – will be carefully monitored, if not forbidden.  There can be only one truth, and that is defined by the state. I think a way of understanding the difference between the state and civil society is to remember that politics is the process by which we divide up resources in society. Civil society is the process by which we share resources in society. In China, that sharing is determined by the state – in which case, the civil becomes political. 

The state protects itself at every turn. A few examples -

As a last reminder that nothing will stand between the family and the state, Reuters reported that mainland Catholic bishops (whose installation is now subject to CCP approval) traveled to Hong Kong in October, 2021, to instruct Hong Kong priests in Xi Jinping thoughts on religion. "Religion with Chinese characteristics" is what Xi calls it. In other words, alternative moral voices are permitted, if they voice the permitted views.

In 2013 Mr. Xi’s Document No. 9 warned Chinese against American practices such as free press and civil society. When I left China in 2016 I gave ACLU t-shirts to several students and colleagues in China. I don’t know if the government can crack down on four letters on a shirt. If they knew the policies behind the letters, the shirts would certainly be considered counter to the interests of the state. At least that is what I hoped.


Next: Moral Freedom and Nihilism