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  • State and Society Responses to Social Welfare Needs in China: Serving the People
  • Qingwen Xu (bio)
Jonathan Schwartz and Shawn Shieh, editors. State and Society Responses to Social Welfare Needs in China: Serving the People. New York: Routledge, 2009. xiv, 214 pp. Hardcover $130.00, ISBN 978-0-415-45224-3.

In the first comprehensive survey of China’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their role and activities in response to natural disasters, public health crisis, and social service needs, Jonathan Schwartz and Shawn Shieh offer a provocative conceptualization about the relationship between the state and NGOs and propose an alternative framework to understand the emerging civil society in [End Page 236] China. Grounded on a series of empirical and/or case studies, they indicate that state-NGO relationships have assumed different forms and a dynamic process in China; they innovatively categorize the relationships as regulation, negotiation, and societalization.

Westerners may assume that the Chinese are disengaged from civil and political participation and that NGOs in China are, by and large, quasi-governmental agencies as China’s political structure and system impede such organizations’ development and grassroots participation. While control or regulation is still prevailing in the context of China’s substantial economic reforms but limited political reforms, the increased internal interest in NGOs and participation is due to these organizations’ special position in the society, as well as their role in service programs that affect people’s daily life. China’s post-reform welfare system has adopted a pluralism approach that not only has opened up business opportunities for service provision, but has endorsed various approaches to mobilize social resources and promulgated several models in service delivery. Thus, NGOs that are to care for and serve vulnerable populations, such as at-risk children (chap. 3), have the decided advantages of being unusually autonomous due to the state’s needs in “socializing resources” that the state is neither willing nor able to provide. These social service organizations, including the ones with religious backgrounds (chap. 6), have gained more spaces and resources, worked with fewer constraints, and become influential at the local level, which they have achieved with less effort in negotiations.

For those NGOs whose working scopes are beyond welfare services and charity, their development and even survival are never easy. At the heart of the predicament is the competing priority between the state’s professed goal of social justice and equality and the national agenda to sustain efficiently and effectively its economic progress without unnecessary social uprisings. Thus, when an alternative way, complementary to state law, of promoting common goods and sustaining a communal spirit, such as labor’s rights (chap. 4) and environmental protection (chap. 5), is through self-governing and self-managing groups and/or institutions, the Chinese government practice is far from encouraging collective action. As has been stated, this type of NGOs can only operate and push their agenda forward under a limited and permissible legal framework (pp. 84, 107). From the reading of chapters 3 to 5, the state-NGO relationships — regulation, negotiation, and societalization as proposed by Schwartz and Shieh — accurately describe the dynamic political environment of NGOs in China. These relationships are not a collaborative arrangement that encourages a variety of parallel systems of norms and regulations to interact; rather, they construct a thoughtful structure concerning where citizens are able to organize and to what extent NGOs governed by multiple authorities at different levels can evolve into a polycentric system. [End Page 237]

The third part of this book unfolds a unique discussion about Chinese NGOs’ development in crisis situations. In the situations of nature disasters (e.g., an earthquake, chap. 6) and public health crises (e.g., SARS, chap. 7; HIV/AIDS, chap. 8), the local NGOs, by using local knowledge and expertise, undertake all immediate operations, as Chinese society and the government are not well prepared in terms of crisis response structure and strategies. Humanitarian NGOs are thus, in general, positively welcomed by the government, given that they reduce the burden on the state. Meanwhile, as the degree of political sensitivity of the work of humanitarian NGOs is low, experience in China suggests that NGOs have obtained opportunities for...