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China, the paradox of a state-led civil society

Intercultural study of the notion of civil society in the chinese political discourse

Autor : Thimothy Brook and B. Michael Frolic

Por Martin Vielajus

mayo 2001


Thimothy Brook and B. Michael Frolic

Dr. Brook’s is a China historian. His teaching career has taken him from the University of Alberta (1984-86) to the University of Toronto (1986-1997), Stanford University (1997-99), and the University of British Columbia, where he holds the Republic of China Chair in Chinese History at the Institute of Asian Research.

The late eighties have experienced fundamental events that brought the civil society discourse to the centre of political analysis. The end of communism in Eastern Europe as well as the Tiananmen events both illustrated a movement of civil opposition to an authoritarian state. However, in the first case, the setting of an alternative society, a “parallel polis” triumphed, whereas in the other case, the opposition of an embryo of “civil society” led to a reaffirmation of the Chinese’s state. These two majors events and their opposed consequences actually point out the fundamental difference between Western and Asian conceptions of civil society and its role towards the State.

The western conception of “civil society” is the product of a political development based the rise of a capitalist economy and the emergence of a modern bureaucratic state. This transformation resulted in the creation of a fundamental antagonism between state and society, public and private, opposing civil society to the government

Eastern Europe events have illustrated this conception of civil society as an alternative structure that exists outside the state and parallel to it, in a situation where the State is perceived as no longer able to enforce its control over society.

However, the Asian perspective has barely experienced this separation of state and society and differs from the European view on several point.

“In Neo-Confucian societies where the public sphere has been created by and from the state and not from the private sphere there remain few limits to the state and there are few opportunities for individual to play multiple roles (such as the ‘role’ of independent citizen).” (Australian-Asian Perception Project. 1993. Perceiving citizenship. Academy of the Social Sciences in China and the Asian-Australia Institute, University of New South Wales).

The conception of an alternative political force advocating the advancement of the rights of autonomous groups and limitations of the state power is poorly developed compared to the importance of a second form of civil society, that Michael Frolic calls “state-led civil society”. The creation by the state of hundred of thousands of organizations aims to coordinate state activity in specific sector of the economy or the society. These associations can paradoxically be set as NGO’s that are meant to direct private funding in areas of urgent economic need, as it is the case for the association ‘Project Hope’, in the sector of education. Urban social associations are also often largely directed by the state and function as intermediaries between the state and the local population. The state thus has a role of legitimating these organisations, demanding in return a disciplined partnership. Such a system can be seen as a form of “state corporatism”, that is most commonly associated with fascist forms of government, in the Western conception of democracy.

The root of this form of corporatism, lies in a fundamentally different conception of the individual and the State. Tocqueville’s theory of the civil society, who influenced post-Hegelian thinkers as H.Arendt and J. Habermas is characteristic of a western conception of civil society based on the free will of the individual and the form of voluntary association. This conception illustrates the influence of capitalism and the rise of a bourgeois society that stands in creative tension between the society and the state. Asian political culture, who is more determined by a “communautarian” conception of citizenship (Australian-Asian Perception Project.) inherited from the Confucian philosophy, interprets the notion of “social contracts” in a specific way. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau have in common the ideal of a Social Contract that takes the human out of an uncivilized “State of Nature”. This notion of contract has been analysed through Chinese perceptions as an affirmation of the importance of the State that appears as a bulwark of civilization against barbarism. Any alternative force to the State can be considered as an attempt to weaken its power and its civilizing role.



In analysing the nature of civil society in China, we tend to look for democratic governance according to western political chronology, forgetting that China is an emerging authoritarian system, still negotiating a form of autonomous participatory citizenship. As David C. Schak notices in his book Civil society in Asia (Ed. Ashgate, 2003): “ European models of civil society were often produced after civil society had emerged, but in Asia we are seeing civil societies in the process of development”.

But more importantly, the very idea that civil society has to be made up of autonomous non-state voluntary organizations also needs to be challenged in the Asian context. The principle of a dichotomy between state and society is historically rooted in the Western tradition of the Nation-State and does not take into account forms of neo-patrimonial system that find an illustration through State-led associations in China.


Civil society in China

Thimothy Brook and B. Michael Frolic

Ed. Studies on Contemporary China – 1997

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