More Third Sector, Less Civil Society

Civil Society Repression, Sometime Third-Sector Robustness, and the Moulding of the Nonprofit Sector in China

In the two articles that follow, we have quite different perspectives on civil society and the third sector in China. Professor Salmenkari provides one perspective:

A boom in the nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) sector was evident in post-Covid China during my fieldwork in April–June 2023. After the Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted and the leadership change was completed in late 2022, there was an upsurge of NGO events, collaborations, and transnational networking.

Salmenkari recognises that ‘[r]epressive measures, such as NGO closures, continue to this day’:

Based on my observations, most Chinese advocacy NGOs had revived their activities with optimism and enthusiasm by the spring of 2023 when I did my fieldwork. I found the advocacy NGOs I had been following throughout my two decades of research relatively intact and teeming with new energy. Environmentalists, women’s rights activists, sexual minorities, disability rights groups, HIV-focused organisations, and migrant NGOs all organised public events, participated in NGO cooperation, networked with businesses and officials, and gave voice to new political demands. Some Chinese advocacy NGOs have consolidated their presence on global platforms. This active presence, the acquisition of new political skills, and the expansion of NGO networks form what I refer to as a boom among advocacy NGOs.

Contrast Salmenkari’s optimistic view—which I consider an overly optimistic view, though Salmenkari also recognises the repression of some advocacy NGOs—with that of Snape and Wang. They emphasise, in a more academic way than I do here, the controls and restrictions that are dominant in the Chinese strategy on civil society and the third sector:

[T]he CCP is seeking, with the help of its state, to expunge the ‘illegitimate’ realm of social organising; to change the rules for determining passage into the ‘legitimate’ realm; and to plan and manage the ‘legitimate’ realm dynamically through tangible and intangible means. We roughly conceptualise this as the Party’s pursuit of a ‘command civil society’ …


This pursuit is not only about tearing down and suppressing; it is also about building a civil society that works reliably in the service of the preferences of the CCP, on the assumption that it knows what is best for society.

What are we to make of this seeming contradiction? For Salmenkari, we are witnessing a flourishing of NGO activity coming out of Covid, even in an environment that she acknowledges has been repressive. For Snape and Wang, it is an increasingly constrained environment in which party controls now stack on top of state controls to produce an even more restrictive framework.

In fact, there is no contradiction here. Snape and Wang and Salmenkari are describing a strategy that has different elements. We have an effective Party-State at work, moulding and controlling Chinese civil society to its own design, and seeking a particular set of outcomes. Those outcomes include, particularly in the Xi Jinping era:

A set of overall controls and restrictions on the sector that enable the Party-State to restrict or stop any organisation anywhere throughout China, at any level, and working in any field. Snape and Wang give us some of the latest developments in that restrictive strategy, with an emphasis on the Party’s increasing role.

A differentiated framework in which some fundamentally non-threatening groups are allowed to work, and sometimes allowed to work robustly. Salmenkari’s paper emphasises this bounded robustness that is permitted to some groups, for some purposes, at some times (and in my view, she overestimates the robustness that has been permitted and has resulted).

Why does China mould the civil society/third sector in this way? Because it wants to completely control the political threats posed by civil society, while permitting and often encouraging third-sector organisations to help the state in the provision of social services, volunteering, and other work that the Party-State wants to encourage.

That moulding of civil society and the third sector by the Party-State towards a particular political, institutional, and operational design is the key feature of policy on the sector in the Xi era.

Virtually everything that occurs—repression, encouragement of provision of social services, state contracting with third-sector organisations for the provision of services, encouragement of local nonprofit services during Covid, the reactivation of some robust activities after Covid—is tied to that overall strategy.

So, as readers of the Made in China Journal absorb the two articles that follow, I suggest they try to keep in mind that the Snape and Wang article discusses recent developments in the overall strategy of control and constraint—the dominant factor in China’s policy on civil society in the Xi era—while the Salmenkari article discusses a certain robustness that is sometimes permitted to certain groups, at certain times, for certain activities for the Party-State’s purposes in the midst of a framework of control and restrictions.

Let me also point out that when I read these two articles, I am struck by how the contradiction they express has always affected philanthropic and aid practice in Chinese civil society and the third sector.

In the philanthropic and aid community, we have always had to negotiate this seeming contradiction: clear repression and increasing controls on civil society on the one hand (here, the Snape/Wang perspective), and a robust set of activities sometimes, for certain purposes, at certain times, on the other (the Salmenkari perspective).

The philanthropic and aid community has tried to take advantage of the narrow robustness sometimes allowed to some Chinese organisations to encourage more independent social service provision and, in earlier times, some advocacy activity in China.

But this programmatic emphasis on working with and funding clearly bounded robustness should not prevent either the philanthropic and aid community or the academic community from recognising that the overall strategy of the Chinese Party-State is one of control and constraint, of firmly moulding the Chinese civil society and third sector to its political ends. Any robust activity coming out of Covid is an element in the strategy, an aspect of the moulding of the Chinese third sector that the Chinese Party-State is engaged in each day.

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Mark Sidel

Mark Sidel is Doyle-Bascom Professor of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has worked on issues of civil society, nonprofits, philanthropy, and their regulation in China and elsewhere in Asia for more than three decades, with the Ford Foundation in Beijing, Hanoi, Bangkok, and New Delhi, and as an academic and consultant.

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