By Andreas Fulda.

Civil society as a discourse and practice is coming under increasing scrutiny in China. Prior to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership succession this coming autumn local government officials are increasingly unwilling to provide space to China’s proliferating civil society organisations, which they see as a potential source of instability. First-in-Command (yibashou) safeguard their career prospects by making it harder for civil society practitioners to organise at the grassroots level.  

Such breaks on local civil society activism have received political backing from the centre. In January 2011 the CCP Propaganda Department (xuanchuan bu) issued a directive to Chinese media organisations and effectively banned the term civil society (gongmin shehui). A search of “civil society” on Weibo – the country’s most popular micro-blogging website no longer produces any results.

Chinese journalists, academics and civil society practitioners countered the Propaganda Departement’s directive by using alternative terms such as public society(gonggong shehui) or civil society organisations (minjian zuzhi) instead. Such attempts to dilute the meaning of civil society – however understandable from the vantage point of practitioners – may impede rather than enhance their search for a more open Chinese society.

The vague and rather abstract term public society has not been used internationally and is unlikely to gain traction among academics and civil society practitioners outside China. It also does a disservice to a concept and practice which focuses on citizenship. Substituting civil society with civil society organisations is not without its problems either. As Nick Young has argued ( , Chinese individuals as spokesper sons for civil society need to be included, too.

While the term civil society is still being used in oral communications among Chinese reformers it has become a much more controversial term in its written form. This will make it more difficult for practitioners to set the agenda for future civil society fora in China, one the most common venues for inter-cultural exchange, capacity building and networking among civil society practitioners from China and abroad. It results in an uneven playing field for critical and constructive China engagement.

 If China’s official discourse on civil society continues to diverge from international norms and practices this will discourage outsiders who are sympathetic to the complexities of China’s modernisation to become partners in the long-term process of civil society building. It is thus in the interests of both Chinese reform-minded government officials as well as civil society practitioners to start to push back and make a case for civil society which is compatible with China’s new role and responsibilities on the global stage.

Dr Andreas Fulda is a Senior Fellow of the CPI, and the Program Manager of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on Participatory Public Policy (2011-13). This dialogue and delivery program is funded by the European Union, co-funded by the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and implemented by the University of Nottingham and its six consortium partners in Europe and China.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham nor can in any way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.



  1. The question is, what will happen after the succession period is over – whether the current trend of tightening rules will continue and or it will be at least partly reversed.

  2. Why saying that, the concept, the Civil Society, ought to have remained in China, if it is an art merely for the art’s sake? That is to say, if it is to cultivate what is of the secular humanism of the West, pretending to be, as by the name of humanity. But the Chinese humanism is a quite different one, traditionally though. Which is more superior after all? Perhaps, that humanism of the West should not have prevailed in its own continents, but, so that it comes to now a postmodern era. Isn’t it?

    On the other hand, the “First-In-Command,” (not necessarily one by us and never having been,) neat-shaved but even more powerful than the mustachio’d, seeing those with eyes yet unable to see such as what the “people’s republic” stands for, a word play not to be dismantled but rather ridiculously aided by the Western humanism aforesaid, may feel comfortable enough to do what he still wants to, making use of say the “Ignorance Is Strength,” as sending forth currents of watery bodies, deluges, washing away all that are not scuba divers.

    Nevertheless, what dilutes is as usual a double-edged sword, so that, all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

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