There used to be “old China hands” who spent a lifetime trying to figure out China. I’m beginning to conclude that it could take another lifetime to figure out who China is and where it is going today.
A conversation with Zhu Jiangang, director of The Institute for Civil Society, a non-government organization connected with Sun Yat-sen University’s anthropology department convinced me that words such as “democracy” and “civil society” are much more complex in this country than we think when we look at China from a U.S. perspective.
We tend to look at China as having a relatively entrepreneurial and open economic system and a totally repressive, totalitarian political system. According to Zhu, it is not as clear-cut as that.
He believes China is in transition moving towards a “third way” to solve problems, somewhere between one-party rule and democracy. The growing number of NGO’s are on the cutting edge of this gradual and hopeful change.
Chinese NGO’s developed in recent years as a result of international NGO's such as Oxfam and the Heifer project, he explained. His Institute for Civil Society is partly funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
What, I asked, is a Chinese NGO?
It includes everything from charitable organizations, which help orphans, to those who represent farmers, migrant workers, and gender issues—a similar wingspan as we see in the U.S. His NGO, for example, recruited hundred of volunteers to help with the earthquake tragedy and continues to console families and advocate for standards for reconstruction. Their mission is also to train NGO leaders and coordinate their efforts.
Then there are government NGO’s called GONGO’s, a new word for me. Exactly what is a GONGO? Is it simply a mouthpiece of the government? Not necessarily, according to Jennifer Adams from the Agency of International Development. Sometimes these government NGO’s enable the government to get input from the public because, as she told me “politicians here don’t get out among the people very much.”
Sometimes a GONGO may have some independence and be more radical than a non-government NGO, Zhu explained. One problem is that NGO’s must get registered, which is difficult. But it is easy to register an NGO website and function without being registered.
Wait a minute.
I asked about the Lions Club because the executive director of the NGO is also the executive director of the Goungzhou Lions Club. He explained that the Lions Club is divided into three parts: a GONGO, a grassroots organization, and an international organization.
I thought I would ask a more simple question.
How many NGO’s are there?
His answer was that it depends on which numbers you believe, anywhere from seven million, which is the same as the US, to 10–20,000 “true NGO’S.”
How much freedom do these organizations have?, I tried to find out. “You cannot go directly against the government, but gradually they are becoming a force. For example, after the earthquake, the government action was not enough. Then the Premier and later the President visited the earthquake site and praised the NGO’s, so the public felt it was safe to associate with them and the organizations themselves gained new legitimacy.
His purpose is to foster collective actions outside government and develop a quality called “civic virtue.” They are not anti-government; they still hope that government can solve their problems.
The challenge for him and other NGO’s is to figure out, day by day, where the government will draw the line, how much grass roots collective action they will accept and when and how they will clamp down.
To make matters more complex, not all levels of government agree on how much free rein to give them. Not even all the people within one level of government will agree. Some people in the national government want NGO's to flourish, others do not.
“It must be like reading tea leaves,” I noted.
He looked perplexed. The Chinese, despite being tea drinkers, do not know that expression, but he knew what I meant, when I added that he had to maneuver carefully through a difficult channel.
“We do not want to fight the government. We want to help people build a new life, and solve their problems.” He added that there are even “rights-defending lawyers,” something like our Legal Aid lawyers.
His vision is that people must change gradually. What he wants is for the NGO’s to have legitimacy.
The by-word for China used to be “stability,” which arose out of the fear of chaos. This was discussed when I was here in 1991. Today the by-word is “harmonious,” a state “that will be achieved through civil society.”
“We can disagree, but not fight. We want to have common values, that is my dream.” His role model is Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America.
“But we must be very careful. If we do it too quickly, things will explode.”
“Does outside pressure help, like from the United States?” I asked.
“We need some pressure from the outside and the inside, from the grass roots.” But he feared that the government would react badly to too much outside pressure.
“Do you consider yourself a pioneer?” I asked.
“Yes,” we are pioneers.
“Everything is new. Sometimes we do stupid things, we try to learn, and I don’t know what will happen in the future. But I am optimistic and patient. Let us become stronger. Our slogan is “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
We laughed when I told him that the motto of our Institute for Sustainable Communities is more modest and enigmatic. It simply says, “What is possible.”
Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton’s VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.