- Civil Society Networks in China and Vietnam: Informal Pathbreakers in Health and the Environment by Andrew Wells-Dang
This well-researched book attempts to examine the formation and operation of civil society networks in China and Vietnam, their strategies of interaction with state actors, and the effectiveness of their advocacy “in terms of policy impacts, sustainability and opening of political space.” Chapter 1 discusses the dynamics of the Chinese and Vietnamese societies. Based on an extensive review of secondary literature, Chapter 2 attempts to reconceptualize civil society. The next four chapters present case studies of civil society networks. The author argues that in both countries, networks are built on personal connections and develop into informal structures that engage into “pathbreaking” advocacy, through new forms of organizing and strategies.
Globally, civil society organizations are defined as groupings of individuals and associations, formal and informal, that belong neither to government nor to the profit-making private sector. If we identify civil society as independent, voluntary, and autonomous organizations from the state, then one could conclude that no civil society exits in either of the two countries. The author, however, argues that even though China and Vietnam are not multiparty, democratic societies, they are undergoing major economic and social transformations with new opportunities for citizen engagement, among others, through intersectoral networks. The networks are not antigovernment dissidents, but do express critical views on local issues. Wells-Dang identifies three advocacy strategies of the networks: “embedded” advocacy entails “working within the system” using personal and institutional ties and informal direct contact with parts of the machinery of the state; Media strategies work through state-owned newspapers, online media, blogs, and international media to undertake advocacy functions; Networks can reach leaders and inform public opinion through such information technology mechanisms as print and online newspapers and magazines, email listservs, chat groups, and [End Page 153] texting. Community advocacy aims to involve more people and building links between local residents and the elites.
Wells-Dang presents case studies of four networks. The Bright Futures Group (BFG) was established in Hanoi in the mid-1980s as a personal network of people with disabilities (PWD) looking to find work. It was transformed in 1995 to a civil society network to advocate for disability rights. Its mission is to remove barriers against PWD, and create opportunities for vocational training for them and promoting social awareness. The advocacy tactics of the members include lobbying officials, writing letters and petitions, and organizing groups of PWD. The group has been supported by international NGOs in its advocacy efforts. It has attempted to influence policy through an “embedded strategy.” In 2005, the group established the Hanoi Association of PWD, with the approval of the Hanoi People’s Committee. While the network has increased public awareness and space for PWD, the author argues that it cannot challenge the core of the state policy because “they rarely speak of their work as political.”
The China Women’s Network Against AIDS was established in 2009 with its 21 organizational members from 11 Chinese provinces. Each organizational member represents between 50 and 200 participants. The network has now been transformed into a more formal national organization with the support of UNAIDS. Its member organizations are groups of women with HIV. Its current strategy is aimed at establishing “mechanisms for women’s leadership and organizational capacity,” implementing cooperative projects for HIV-affected women and advocating gender-sensitive AIDS policies. The network had “little or no contact with government,” which has reduced the activities of the network to “advocating through intermediaries.” Because of its dependence on donor funding, the author argues that the network is unlikely to be sustainable. It has, however, been able to undertake campaigns to increase public awareness and mobilize media.
Preserving Hanoi’s Reunification Park is another example of the engagement of and advocacy by citizen networks. The advocacy by civil society networks in Hanoi to preserve green public spaces emerged from the attempts by the public authorities to...