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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 35-45

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Democratization and Civil Society in East Asia Environmental GONGO Autonomy:
Unintended Consequences of State Strategies in China

Fengshi Wu


State-society relations are on the move in China. In recent years, many new voluntary societal movements, networks, and organizations have been formed. This is a dramatic development for China's political system. This article examines whether the changes in state-society relations have been at the initiative of the state or are really a grassroots phenomenon. One hypothesis is that the state is creating and co-opting these kinds of groups because they can help the state fulfill its goals. Another hypothesis is that such groups and movements embody grassroots forces and represent a strengthening of the role of society in Chinese politics.

This article challenges state-led models as being too simplistic. Even when the state does create societal groups, there can be unintended consequences related to those actions that result in a strengthening of the power of society. At the same time, the article challenges arguments that only emphasize the growth of genuine public participation in China. These arguments underestimate the continued and embedded power of the state in Chinese society.

The article explores these issues by looking at a group of newly established government organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) that resemble something in between a governmental agency and a non-governmental organization (NGO). It begins by reviewing theories and empirical research addressing state-society relations in China. It then introduces the concept of a GONGO and discusses the state's rationale in fostering the GONGO sector. Furthermore, it analyzes the role played by GONGOs in China's environmental politics, and provides several detailed case studies. Most of the GONGOs that are considered were established in the late 1990s. The conclusion stresses that GONGOs with access to international resources and the means to strengthen self-capacity will be the most sympathetic towards the formation of a stronger green civil society in China.

Understanding China's Emerging Civil Society

As a result of domestic economic liberalization and China's integration into world affairs, both the governing body and society in China are undergoing dramatic changes. There is an active debate among scholars of China as to whether the growth civil society in China is a grassroots, bottom-up process or is led by the state. 1

The bottom-up model has its origins in the Western idea of "civil society." Following Georg Hegel and Karl Marx's contentious approach to thinking about civil society, many scholars interested in China have started to examine the power and interests of societal groups vis-à-vis the state. 2 Elizabeth Perry and Mark Selden, for example, suggest that mass protests and grassroots resistance show that social forces have been growing in the latter half of the 1990s. 3 They found that urban workers who were laid off, environmental victims, and farmers spontaneously organized protests and complaint activities when their interests came under threat from government reform policies, ineffective regulations, or corruption. They sought compensation and fair treatment from the government with their actions. Similarly, Tony Saich challenges the idea that the state can simply control groups. He claims there is a nascent pattern of negotiation emerging between civil society and the state that minimizes the state's ability to penetrate social groups. 4 His work is based on three case studies of social organizations in the areas of family planning, environment and women's rights. The basic argument he makes is that a particular group of societal organizations have been able to reconfigure the relationship between themselves and the state. Such organizations provide innovative problem solutions to the state and as a result at times can convince the state to allow them some policy input or greater rights to pursue members' interests and organizational goals.

A word of caution is in order. The concept of civil society has deep roots in Western political and philosophical ideas, and thus, its extension to China must be done with care. In Western democracies importance is...


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