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Recording Civic Action in China Chinese NGO web archiving project

Development of Chinese Grassroots NGOs

Given the rapid growth in the number and diversity of Chinese NGOs, this archive only focuses on well-known grassroots NGOs established voluntarily by private individuals that pursue certain social missions through independent efforts. In capturing a tiny segment of Chinese NGOs, our goal is to provide scholars, practioners, and the general public a glimpse of the colorful mélange that composes China’s young civil society.

This archive traced the development of Chinese grassroots NGOs back to the mid-1990s. New forms of civic organizations—such as professional associations, chambers of commerce, and learned societies—began to proliferate since the 1980s. But most of them had a close relationship with the Party-state. It was not until the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 when the concept of NGOs as a form of independent civic organizations was officially introduced to the Chinese audience. At that conference, the government approved approximately 3,340 NGO sessions including multitudes of panels, workshops, and cultural events. Even though it was motivated by the desire to bolster China’s international image, such effort had catalytic effects on the growth of Chinese grassroots NGOs.

The archive attends to four driving historical factors underpinning the evolution of the grassroots NGO population. First, grassroots NGOs emerge from the Chinese society itself, a product of the capacities, skills and values of the citizenry. Market reform and economic growth over the past three decades has brought rapid growth and ushered in the exploitative forces of the market, which generated emergent social problems and increasing inequalities. Economic reform has also brought education and affluence, necessary to cultivate individual awareness of and concern for collective problems and the skills to organize effectively. These two interweaving processes sparked vibrant forms of grassroots action in the 1990s, such as those of gender, education and environmental NGOs included in our archive.

Second, the expanding Chinese state is a locus of resources, opportunities and constraints that influence voluntary organizing as well as a key source of the identities, purposes and legitimations underlying civic life more general. To illustrate the importance of political structures and institutions, we dedicate one section to the evolution of significant government policies and regulations that motivate, limit, or channel NGO organizational forms and civic participation. On the one hand, the scale and scope of Chinese state governance and capacity has quickly expanded along with the growing range of national public undertakings by both central and local governments. Expanded laws, regulation, and state intervention put the issue squarely on the public agenda and generated issues of contention around which labor and development NGOs crystallized. The Chinese state also directly support and generate certain types of grassroots NGOs as it pursues increasingly complicated public agendas. For example, the government allocated more than 2 billion USD to finance service projects provided by NGOs in 2013. This size of such funding has been increasing since then.

On the other hand, the fluctuation in the openness and porousness of the Chinese political institutions shapes the organizational life of grassroots NGOs. To what extent citizens could influence a regime substantially affects incentives to form NGOs. The fact that the Chinese state is relatively insulated from pressure by societal actors tends to discourage NGO membership and volunteering. It also has a largely negative effect on grassroots NGOs devoted to social or political issues and reforms, which was reflected in the decline of advocacy NGOs since the 2008.

Thirdly, as China opens up to the outside world, this process facilitates the inflow of international forces, promoting NGO forms. The globally legitimated issues and causes such as public health and environment extend down into China, bringing with them collective purposes, resource flows, and organizational models that encourage and empower domestic organizing. This diffusion of civil society idea was combined with the domestic promotion of legal reform around the early 2000s when the central government was at the time trying to re-invent its governance model through legal reform enhancing the accountability of local governments. This reform had minimal effects on the behavior of local government, but it bolstered the diffusion of rights consciousness. The convergence of international and domestic discourses provides powerful cognitive frames for organizing and engaging in grassroots initiatives.

Last but not least, booming internet and social media fostered virtual ties and aggregate claims, which opened up a new arena of connections and conflict. Notably, China has the largest and fastest-growing number of internet users in the world, accounting for 22% of global participants. Using the Internet as a technological infrastructure, the proliferation of Chinese NGOs has activated a set of social and cultural dispositions that orient organizational actors towards building horizontal ties and connections among diverse and autonomous elements, involving self-directed networking and collaboration through decentralized coordination. In particular, the open sharing and circulation of information has been crucial for grassroots NGOs in the absence of access to traditional means of political power. However, in spite of the borderless nature of the digital world, digital civil society is still marked by strong divisions created by a variety of geographical, social, cultural and political barriers. It is particularly true for young civil society fields in formation—such as the one in China—where organizations tend to be more disparate with less connectivity and interactions.

Meanwhile, in addition to allowing information to travel freely through social ties, social media platforms such as Twitter and Weibo (Chinese Twitter) actively perform an algorithmic curation of information, i.e. they seek to optimize exposure to information that matches users’ interests, backgrounds, and social contexts. This algorithmic curation raises an important concern, often referred “filter bubbles,” where people are increasingly trapped in their own personalized information “bubble”—being exposed only to information that conforms to their existing beliefs and political positions, potentially creating information “islands” and potentially social polarization. As a result, China’s digital world is to a large degree segregated in spite of its promise to transcend such distinctions and in spite of the many areas in which interests, topics and preferences actually overlap.

To sum up, this archive seeks to record the landscape of Chinese grassroots NGOs in the broadest sense, its variation across different issue areas, and its transformations across time. We provide a lens to trace specific shifts in the landscape of NGOs arising from society, from the state, from international world, and from digital technology.

Essayed by Yan Long, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Global and International Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington