Saturday, October 31, 2015

Update on Developments in 2013-14: What Will the Third Plenum Bring for China's Civil Society?

In the fall of 2013, observers and practitioners in China’s civil society were waiting for a major policy statement from the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee which was held the second week of November. The Third Plenum has historically been the venue at which major policy decisions have been made. Deng Xiaoping’s call for “reform and opening” was made at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978. Since this was the first plenum to be held after Xi Jinping was confirmed president in March, it was seen as Xi’s stage to lay out his policy blueprint for the next few years. People were particularly eager to see what the Xi Jinping administration’s policy would be toward the various reforms and experiments that had been taking place in the NGO sector over the last few years[1]

The Xi administration’s answer came in the form of the Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform (中共中央关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定) which was adopted by the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee on November 12, 2013. The Third Plenum Decision received the greatest attention for its calls for greater liberalization of the economy, and more use of market levers. But it also called for a bigger governance role for the market, private sector and non-state actors, including social organizations, the official Chinese term for NGOs. Of course, the actual impact of these broad policy pronouncements will depend on the details of the implementing laws and regulations that follow. Still, as Xu Yongguang of the Narada Foundation argued in one of the more optimistic assessments, there are a number of areas in the Decision that should raise the spirits of those in the NGO sector.

Perhaps the most important is a change in tone when talking about the role of society and social organizations in governance. Previous high-level speeches and documents have used the term “social management innovation” which emphasized the need to manage society and social organizations. The Decision replaced that term with “social governance,” a term which has never been used before in official discourse but one which more liberal-minded advisors have advocated for because it places society and social organizations more on a par with government. The notion of “social governance” recognizes that social actors have a part in governance alongside the government and business, and that there needs to be greater cooperation between these different stakeholders if China’s development is to become more sustainable and inclusive.

There is thus an entire section of the Decision (Section 13) devoted to “Making Innovations in Social Governance”. Instead of talking about the need to manage social organizations, that section talks about achieving a “positive interaction between government administration on one hand and social self-management and resident self-management on the other.” It also talks about enlivening the role of social organizations by further separating government from social organizations, encouraging government contracting of services to social organizations, making it easier for social organizations to register, and improving tax preferences for charitable donations. The Decision also calls for social organizations to get involved in cultural and educational activities, and for community-level and social organizations to be consulted on policy decisions and their implementation.

In short, the Decision not only gives a green light to the reforms and experiments that have been going on in the NGO sector at the local level over the past few years, but also provides a macro framework decided by the top leadership (what the Chinese call “high-level design” 顶层设计) for envisioning how those reforms should proceed.

The question now is what actual implementing laws and regulations will come out of the Third Plenum? The Decision opens up a number of very broad areas for reform that need to be fleshed out. How will the separation between government and social organizations take place, and how will the roles and responsibilities of each be clarified and enforced? How will government contracting be carried out and what type of social organizations will be eligible to apply? How will the registration of social organizations be simplified and streamlined and what type of social organizations will be eligible? Complicating these questions is another broad reform being carried out to transform and streamline the government by detaching public institutions from the government system and turning some of them into social organizations. This reform will bring a whole new group of actors into a very fluid, quickly changing NGO sector.

The outlines of some of these implementing policies have already begun to take shape. On September 26, 2013, the State Council General Office issued its Guiding Opinions on Government Purchasing Services from Social Actors (国务院办公厅关于政府向社会力量购买服务的指导意见). The State Council’s Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan (国务院机构改革和职能转变方案) also lists three other tasks to be carried out. One is experiments to separate trade associations and chambers of commerce from their government supervisors so that they can truly play a service function in responding to their members needs. The second is to enable four categories of social organizations to directly register by revising the Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例), and similar regulations for the two other categories of social organizations. The third is to come up with other specific measures for strengthening social governance.

These three tasks were to have been carried out by the end of 2013, but it appears they are behind schedule. The revised Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例) have still not come out, but recent reports indicate it is still under revision and should come out first, sometime in 2014, followed at some later date by revised regulations for the other two categories of social organizations, as well as other measures related to social governance. The year 2014 should thus be a busy and fruitful one for the NGO sector on the policy front.
IF the Third Plenum Decision was the only major event in the last few months, then Xu Yongguang would be right about a spring thaw for China’s civil society. But this same period has seen other events cast a chill on the coming spring. These include a clampdown on prominent bloggers and the arrest or detention of some well-known activists, scholars and businessmen. In January of 2014, Xu Zhiyong, founder of the NGO, the Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng) and one of the drivers of the New Citizen Movement, was tried and sentenced to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” That same month, the moderate Uighur intellectual and economics professor, Ilham Tohti, was detained in Beijing on charges of “inciting separatism and ethnic hatred” and in September sentenced to life imprisonment.

These events show that even as the government has taken the first, important step towards recognizing the value of civil society, it still has a long way to go in creating a level playing field and protections for the many, diverse individuals and organizations in China that work to create a more just and sustainable society.

[1] For a summary of those local experiments, see the ICNL China NGO Monitor.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Update on Developments in 2013 (with the benefit of two years of hindsight)

Let me start this blog post with an apology for the two-year hiatus in this blog. It’s been a busy period during which I left China Development Brief and Beijing in June of 2014 and moved to Hong Kong in August to join China Labour Bulletin, an internationally-recognized NGO that works on labor rights and organizing in China. The work at CLB requires me to keep abreast of developments in China’s civil society, though with more of a focus on the south of China, and I continue to update the China NGO Monitor for the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

I realize it’s very possible that many old readers of this blog gave it up for dead and are no longer reading this. But I thought it was important to revive it because of the harsh and sustained clampdown on civil society activities under the Xi Jinping regime since early 2013. That clampdown has led to less analysis and information about the civil society sector getting out, particularly in the mainland. CDB, to take one example, has become more careful about what it publishes. As a result, alternative sources like this blog have become important for getting different views out about ongoing developments in China’s civil society.

Given that my last post was in 2013, I thought I’d try for some continuity by providing updates on the two-year gap from 2013 to 2015 to bring us up to the present. The next few posts will thus be a review of developments over the past two years, a period that has been one of the most difficult in recent memory for Chinese civil society.

Spring and Summer 2013: life under the Xi Jinping administration

At the March’s 12th National People’s Congress session, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have been formally anointed the president and premier of China. If everything goes as planned, they should serve our two five-year terms and then step down in 2023 to make way for the next generation of leaders.

In the spring, several high level officials from the State Council and Ministry of Civil Affairs signaled that revisions to the registration and management regulations for the three types of social organizations (Social Organizations, Civil Non-Enterprise Units and Foundations) will be ready by the end of this year after the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee. We had seen similar signals every year for the past 4-5 years from lower-level officials, so it remains to be seen whether the government will deliver, but this is the first time we have heard from the Minister of Civil Affairs and officials in the State Council. It also remains unclear how many of the three regulations under revision will actually be issued.

These developments have been the culmination of a flurry of activity among local governments across China to “innovate” by lowering barriers to CSO registration, contracting social services to CSOs, building programs and platforms to coordinate, support and incubate CSOs, and creating more detailed regulations and standards to guide the development of the CSO sector. Increasingly, however, it is becoming evident that these “innovations” are targeted at certain categories of CSOs such as social service provision and economic and trade associations, while excluding CSOs engaged in advocacy, ethnic minority affairs, religion and other sensitive areas.

The spring and summer months reinforced this perception of the Chinese government’s bifurcated approach to regulating the nonprofit sector. This period saw a major round of crackdowns on lawyers, journalists, bloggers and a few NGOs and think tanks and greater restrictions on social media. It began with detention and arrests of individuals in central China and Beijing demanding that government officials publicly disclose their personal assets. Xu Zhiyong, a prominent activist and founder of the NGO, Gongmeng, which was investigated for tax problems in 2009, was arrested. An independent think-tank, the Transition Socio-Economic Research Institute (Chuanzhixing), was also closed down. In addition, some high profile bloggers, including a billionaire businessman who had previously supported Xu Zhiyong, has been arrested.

There have been periodic crackdowns on civil society activists in the past, so it was difficult at the time to know how long this latest campaign would last. With the benefit of hindsight (writing this in October of 2015), it turned out to be a sustained campaign that would continue well into late 2015, and may not be over as of the time of this writing.