Friend or foe? : The diminishing space of China's civil society

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Journal article

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China Perspectives

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Francais sur la Chine Contemporaine China


China’s civil society is under immense pressure. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, Chinese authorities have cracked down on a score of civil society organisations, while hundreds of activists and dissidents have been detained, arrested, and sentenced to prison. Control over cyberspace has been further tightened, and a new commission has been established to oversee national security across a wide spectrum of issues. A campaign against “Western values” has been launched, and even the term “civil society” is becoming increasingly sensitive in public or classroom discussion. As the crackdown continues, one might wonder whether the fang/shou cycle, the alternating pattern of relaxation and control that unleashed China’s “reform and opening up” in the 1980s and 1990s, is still applicable under Xi’s China, where control (shou) has now become the norm and relaxation (fang) the exception. Previously, moderate or “issue-based” groups and activists, although under constant state surveillance, remained intact as long as they steered clear of a political agenda. An Economist article in April 2014 even argued that “a flourishing civil society is taking hold.” A year later, however, it has become questionable whether such an observation is still valid.

What are the implications for the development of China’s civil society? This paper reviews recent crackdown efforts and new restrictions on civil society, and argues that these measures are diminishing the space for moderate and reformist NGOs and activists to negotiate their survival. It also shows that ad-hoc repression of civil society groups and activists is now moving towards a more systematic restriction of both foreign and domestic NGOs. While civil society is unlikely to disappear due to its resilience and its ability to adapt to barriers, there is little cause for optimism in the coming years.

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Recommended Citation

Yuen, S. (2015). Friend or foe?: The diminishing space of China's civil society. China Perspectives, 2015(3), 51-56. Retrieved from http://www.cefc.com.hk/download.php?file=f839777e441a531ec2f024cace540709&id=100060232