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Civil Society in China: A Dynamic Field of Study

From: China Review International
Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2002
pp. 1-16 | 10.1353/cri.2003.0057

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Civil Society in China: A Dynamic Field of Study
Deborah S. Davis, Richard Kraus, Barry Naughton, and Elizabeth Perry, editors. Urban Spaces in Contemporary China: The Potential for Autonomy and Community in Post-Mao China. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ix, 449 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0521474108. Paperback, ISBN 0521479436.
Deborah S. Davis, editor. The Consumer Revolution in Urban China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. xiii, 366 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0520216393. Paperback, ISBN 0520216407.
Randy Kluver and John H. Powers, editors. Civic Discourse, Civil Society, and Chinese Communities. Stamford, Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1999. xii, 296 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 1567504426. Paperback, ISBN 1567504434.
Timothy Brook and B. Michael Frolic, editors. Civil Society in China. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. xii, 244 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0765600919. Paperback, ISBN 0765600927.
Richard Madsen. China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xiii, 183 pp. Paperback, ISBN 0520213262.
Gordon White, Jude Howell, and Shang Xiaoyuan. In Search of Civil] Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. x, 241 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0198289561.
Elizabeth J. Perry and Mark Selden, editors. Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance. London: Routledge, 2000. xii, 249 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 0415204909. Paperback, ISBN 0415223342.

The seven books under review here were not chosen in any well-planned way to reflect all the major recent achievements in research on civil society in China. Some of them happened to be sent by the publishers for review; a few came at my request. While this short list is far from complete, it provides an adequate starting [End Page 1] point for a general review of the field. Much of my discussion will refer to these books but will not be limited to them. My main goal is to delineate the achievements and challenges of this new field. I will start with a brief discussion of the initial academic interest, followed by a survey of the first major debate in this area. I will then devote three separate sections to the four central components of civil society: public sphere, social organizations, individual autonomy, and popular resistance. The classification of civil society into these four components is based on my understanding of how the concept is defined and used in the current literature. Some scholars may focus more on associational life than on individuals. Others may be more interested in the public sphere than in popular protest. But it is helpful, if only to structure the analysis that follows, to think of these as interrelated elements of a civil society, a more or less organized public realm for the protection of the rights of citizens and the construction of civic values, sometimes through collective protest.

In the concluding part of this essay, I will make several general observations about the state of the field and describe some future research areas. My general conclusion is that the study of civil society in China has been a dynamic field and will remain so because many new research questions invite explorations and answers.

Initial Interest

Academic interest in civil society in China arose in response to the world-historical events of 1989: the student protests in China and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe. Xin Gu provides a useful review of the initial interest.1 He credits the Danish scholar Clemens Strubbe Ostergaard as the first to introduce the concept of "civil society" into this academic discourse and the American scholar Craig Calhoun as the first to use the related concept of "public sphere." In both cases these concepts were used to analyze the 1989 student movement. Ostergaard argues that the significant changes in Chinese society before 1989 had created a "nascent civil society" of citizen groups and thus provided a social basis for the movement.2 While Calhoun's analysis focuses on how the movement itself transformed Tiananmen Square from an official ceremonial space into a public sphere of critical discourse, he suggests that the cultural debates and mass media discourse (especially that surrounding the TV series River Elegy [Heshang]) before the movement had an impact...