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  • State and Society Responses to Social Welfare Needs in China: Serving the People ed. by Jonathan Schwartz and Shawn Shieh
  • 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. 210 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 crises, 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 for understanding the emerging civil society in China. Grounded on a series of empirical and/or case studies, their work indicates 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 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 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 pluralistic approach, which not only has opened up business opportunities for service provision but also 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 (chapter 3), have the decided advantage of being unusually autonomous, due to the state’s [End Page 395] needs in “socializing resources” that the state is neither willing to nor able to provide. These social service organizations, including ones with religious backgrounds (chapter 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 negotiation.

For those NGOs whose working scopes are beyond welfare services and charity, development and even survival are, nonetheless, 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 a common good and sustaining a communal spirit, such as labor rights (chapter 4) and environmental protection (chapter 5), is through self-governing and self-managing groups and/or institutions, the Chinese government practice is far from encouraging collective action. As stated, this type of NGO can operate and push forward its agenda only 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 about which citizens are able to organize and to what extent NGOs governed by multiple authorities at different levels can evolve into a polycentric system.

The third part of this book unfolds a unique discussion about the development of Chinese NGOs in crisis situations. In the situations of natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes in chapter 6) and public health crises (e.g., SARS in chapter 7; HIV/AIDS in chapter 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...


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