Written by Andreas Fulda.

Neither pro-establishment intellectuals nor anti-establishment protesters possess sufficient clout to convince party cadres that democratic reform in China is a necessity, leaving the West unsure whom to support. Yet a growing if disparate group of “trans-establishment” reformers, successfully navigating the delicate balancing act between party-state ties and sympathy for civil society, may prove a winning bet.

Just as hazardous smog has lingered over Beijing since the turn of the year, an increasingly toxic political climate has developed in China since its new leaders were unveiled last year.

This stalemate presents a real challenge to those in the West looking to support domestic reforms in China. Options are limited. Unconditional support for conservative pro-establishment intellectuals – those that advocate moderate reforms in line with loosely defined party pledges – would lead to consternation or outright condemnation among Chinese liberals. Furthermore, it would do little to break the status quo. Yet, direct Western support for the more internationalist anti-establishment camp risks arousing suspicion among conservatives that Chinese liberals have become instruments of outsiders. Is there a middle ground?

Reform Petitions Falling on Deaf Ears

Campaigners for political change in China greeted the final Politburo line-up with dismay as those candidates perceived as reformers failed to secure promotion. A Christmas Day petition followed, signed by 72 academics and lawyers. The mild-mannered document did not advocate an immediate end to one-Party rule in China. It called for the separation of party and state institutions, greater freedom of expression, and deeper market reforms – all fairly non-controversial issues raised repeatedly by those within the party establishment.

Yet a week later the petition was removed from Chinese websites and banned from social media. Around the same time, a zealous propaganda chief in the southern province of Guangdong disemboweled a New Year editorial by one of China’s boldest newspapers Southern Weekly calling for constitutional rule. The no-nonsense act of censorship sparked a walkout by protesting journalists.

The petition’s fate was an early indication that the new leadership under Xi Jinping is opposed to any immediate steps towards political liberalization. The Party’s stalling prompted more than 100 anti-establishment figures to up the ante in late February. In an open letter initiated by mainland Chinese journalist Xiao Shu, they demanded the National People’s Congress, the Chinese Communist Party’s rubber-stamp parliament which convened in early March, to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN-backed human rights treaty.

Many of the signatories had previously supported Charter 08, a major political reform agenda published in October 2008 by 303 firmly anti-establishment reformers including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei. Far more combative than the Christmas Day petition, it called for an end to one-party rule and the founding of a legislative democracy.

What is clear from the CCP’s opposition to both petitions is that neither pro-establishment intellectuals nor the anti-establishment camp possess sufficient clout to convince party cadres of their reformist goals. And what is certain is that reform will not come from within the higher echelons of the party, where there is little appetite for political change. These career politicians have succeeded in scaling the greasy pole to be the most powerful individuals in the world’s most populous country. They are senior CCP officials, not Western liberals.

Whom to Call a Partner?

The prospects, then, for a peaceful political evolution in China are murky. This poses a challenge for European member states like Germany, which has traditionally partnered with organizations under control of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese government agencies and government-affiliated research institutes have been the main recipients of German development aid to China from the early 1980s onwards. An exception to this rule has been the Frankfurt-based Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM), which for many years has placed German and European experts both in Chinese government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) as well as grassroots NGOs. German church foundations such as Misereor and Brot für die Welt as well as German private foundations such as Stiftung Mercator and Bertelsmann Stiftung have also pursued a multi-partnership approach, which is open to cooperation both with state and non-state actors in China. They are committed to engage China, even after the official phasing out of German developmental assistance in 2014.

German politicians visiting China have sporadically engaged in conversations with Chinese civil society representatives at roundtables organized by the German Embassy in Beijing. Such face-to-face conversations have helped visiting politicians gain a better understanding of the complexities of China’s transition. Such interest in China’s growing third sector, however, has not translated into substantial funding support for Chinese CSOs. With the exception of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Heinrich Böll Foundation, many of Germany’s political foundations have been reluctant to fund Chinese non-state actors. Instead they have favored work with pro-establishment officials and academics and their affiliated organizations.

This is not without its problems, since pro-establishment intellectuals tend to adhere to the strong legacy established by the CCP, and the notion that Chinese are in some way inherently different from others and ill-suited to democratic governance. It is a constraining narrative, one that means they suggest piecemeal reform rather than allowing themselves the freedom to reimagine the Chinese nation.

Anti-establishment figures, on the other hand, are by and large internationalists, more open to ideas from outside China. The suspicion of Western influence on Chinese liberals, however, can explain why Germany’s state-owned development organizations such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as well as political foundations such as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) or Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSS) have been reluctant to provide financial, technical, or personal assistance to Chinese individuals or groups openly expressing their opposition to China’s current political system.

There is, however, a third way. To overcome the increasing polarization of China’s political elite, the West must identify and work with another reform camp in China, a rising but disparate group that can be termed the “trans-establishment.” These younger Chinese liberal reformers, mostly scholars but also those working within China’s nascent voluntary sector, are cleverly maneuvering within official channels to push for reform.

China’s “Trans-establishment” Reformers

A key protagonist is 50-year-old Professor Yu Jianrong, named by Foreign Policy last year as one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers. As a scholar at the party-funded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu is firmly embedded in the Chinese political system. And he has real influence: at seminars held to “enlighten” conservative officials, he reportedly scolds senior cadres for their corrupt behavior. On the surface, he resembles pro-establishment intellectuals such as those signatories of the Christmas Day petition. But while the pro-establishment ranks are primarily focused on improving the CCP’s ability to govern China in an efficient and effective way, Yu’s reform demands are distinctively more populist and transformative in nature.

According to his 10-year plan for social and political reform published in March 2012 on Weibo, China’s more popular alternative to Twitter, Yu called on the new CCP leadership to focus on welfare reforms during the first five years of their tenure. More specifically, Yu demanded an overhaul of the household registration system, which limits the rights of rural-to-urban migrants, and the abolition of “reeducation through labor” camps.

Only during the latter five years of his plan does he call for the establishment of multi-party democracy. By delaying this key element of his reforms beyond the tenure of the new CCP administration, he is protecting himself against possible political reprisals, even though he is effectively only reshaping the goals of Charter 08. Such reformist craftsmanship allows Yu to continue his work unimpeded. He also has the Chinese public on his side, enjoying a Weibo following of millions.

Trans-establishment reformers like Yu can be found both in Chinese academia as well as China’s nascent voluntary sector. Professor Yang Tuan, another scholar at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, not only researches the cooperative relationship between the Chinese party-state and organized society, but also acts as an adviser to many Chinese grassroots NGOs. Huang Haoming, Executive Director of a GONGO, the China Association for NGO Cooperation, regularly hosts training seminars at which both party-state officials as well as civil society reformers jointly conduct their lectures. In southern China Professor Zhu Jiangang has gained nationwide recognition for his ability to foster dialogues between pro- and anti-establishment reformers and to promote tangible reforms such as the liberalized regime for NGO registration in Guangdong province.

How Trans-establishment Reformers Negotiate the Political Minefield

These highly-networked individuals are in effect split personalities. On the one hand, they function within the confines of the party-state; on the other, they harbor sympathies for a more independent and organized civil society in China. Rather than looking to resolve this tension, they conduct a delicate balancing act between the two to advance change. Trans-establishment reformers often have good working relationships with leading figures in China’s government bureaucracy, sometimes due to family ties. They leverage their contacts not for personal gain, but to advance reform processes which require the tacit approval of Chinese government officials.

Trans-establishment reformers often employ constructivist approaches in their work. Professor Li Dun, an expert on environmental governance and human rights campaigner at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, has for years skillfully circumnavigated the minefield of censorship. In training seminars, trans-establishment reformers like Li tend to refer to the CCP as the governing party (zhizheng dang), which implies to their domestic audiences that it could be an opposition party in the future. Or they refer to temporal nature of current systems (xianyou de zhidu), which hints at the possibility that such systems can change. Alternatively, they take existing political-legal frameworks at face value. They quote from China’s constitution and outline the fact that human rights have been enshrined in it. What they do not necessarily mention is the preamble which postulates the CCP’s exclusive right to interpret China’s constitution. Domestic audiences are able to decipher such coded language which opens up possibilities for future political structural reform.

While trans-establishment reformers are constrained by existing party-led discourses, they also skillfully expand the boundaries of the permissible while protecting themselves against possible retributions. It is a delicate balancing act not without risks. Trans-establishment reformers need to master considerable rhetorical skills and manage their personal networks in order to avoid conservative backlashes. Trans-establishment reformers are the vanguard of China’s emerging middle class, which has an interest in a healthier environment, safer food, and the development of the rule of law. An outcome of more than 30 years of economic reforms, members of China’s emerging middle class have not only become richer but also have more leisure time at their disposal to participate in public affairs. Reformers like Yu, Yang, Huang, Zhu, and Li actively support the establishment of mostly urban citizen groups, carving out a niche between China’s bureaucracy and private sector.

Resembling social democrats in Europe, such trans-establishment reformers also lend a voice to marginalized groups such as migrant workers, rural women, disabled people, and youth. By putting social justice at the heart of their reform efforts, they build up a constituency for social and political change in China. Arguably, China’s nascent civil society sector on its own is unlikely to bring about Democratic change in the form of constitutional governance and free and fair elections. At the same time, the growth of civil society structures facilitates democracy. In the context of China, democracy can be understood as an expanded space for associational activities, a greater plurality of voices in public discourse, and a better dialogue between Chinese society and its political leadership.

Building Western Support for Trans-establishment Reformers

Given the complexity of the trans-establishment reformers tasks, international support is crucial to their success. International funding could be geared towards supporting multi-sectoral policy networks in China, rather than the reformers themselves. More than 30 years of market transformation and state modernization in China now allow for the inclusion of civil society stakeholders in bi- and multilateral development initiatives. A good example for this multi-stakeholder approach is the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme, supported by the European Commission and implemented by the University of Nottingham and its six consortium partners in Europe and China. This dialogue program has enabled both Chinese civil society practitioners and government officials to engage in a critical and constructive dialogue in the eight policy fields of climate change, environmental health, labor relations, child welfare, social entrepreneurship, information disclosure, government procurement of CSO services, and disability rights. Trans-establishment reformers operating in these policy fields have leveraged project resources to strengthen public participation in policy making. Such indirect international support avoids the perception of trans-establishment reformers acting as foreign agents, a charge that has recently been made by the Russian government against western-funded NGOs.

The end of bilateral development assistance to China has not yet affected multilateral aid provided by the European Union. In order to ensure a greater inclusion of trans-establishment reformers and their civic associations, the European Commission should make it mandatory for funding applicants to include at least one Chinese non-state actor in all multilateral cooperation projects as a precondition for eligibility of funding in compulsory and competitive tendering processes. This technical provision would create a major incentive for European engagement with China’s nascent civil society sector and help to meet the EU’s policy goal of promoting China’s transition to an open society.

Western media and NGOs have traditionally turned to outspoken libertarian activists like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei to present an alternative political future for China. Their battles against authoritarian rule offer a compelling narrative for the West. As a country in transition, however, China requires us to go beyond tried and tested black and white narratives. By learning to understand how best to support the emerging trans-establishment and the development of Chinese civil society, the West may have more success in bringing about peaceful social and political development in China.

Andreas Fulda is Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham . He is Program Manager of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-13). This article originally appeared in IP Journal (Germany’s national foreign policy network) on April 19 2013.

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