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Civil society in China: recent developments and challenges

The concept of civil society has four basic elements: (1) autonomous individuals and (2) civic
associations in relation to the state, (3) engaged in more or less organized activities in a (4) public
sphere outside the immediate control of the state but not entirely contained within the private sphere
of the family. The four elements are interrelated. Individual and organizational autonomy are the basic
conditions of public sphere; social organizations function to protect or extend the interests of individual citizens,
often in the form of organized protest or social movements; public sphere functions with a critical public willing
and able to hold government accountable for its actions.

Despite achievements, Chinese civil society faces major challenges at the turn of the new century.
First, as a civil society institution, the public sphere remains incipient and weak. Articulation of social issues
and sharing of information are limited by the lack of institutionalized means of communication and public
forums. Second, despite the proliferation of social organizations, these are mostly organizations refers to as a
state-led civil society.

While these appear to have more independence from the state, for the very reason that they are
unrecognized, they lack the necessary political legitimacy to function effectively. Finally, organized protest in
contemporary China is under strict state control, which means that routinized social movement organizations
that systematically fight social injustices and political power still do not have a legitimate existence. Large-scale
social movements have erupted in the past two decades in China. Yet, because of state repression and
organizational weakness, these movements cannot develop long-term political goals and strategies.

Public Participation of Civil Society in China

When Wangs conviction took on April 20 is the latest in a broad crackdown on advocates and activists
across China. In September 2014, Liren, an NGO that ran two dozen rural libraries across China, closed down
because of local government pressure. In March last year, five feminists were detained for over a month after
they planned a demonstration against sexual harassment on public transport. In January, Chinese police
arrested four labor activists on the charge of disturbing social order. That same month, a Swedish legal
activist was deported after three weeks in detention after making a staged confession on TV.

According to Charlie Campbell, compounding matters, China is poised to enact a new law effectively
codifying regressive policies against foreign NGOs and advocacy workers. Currently in its third legislative
reading, the legislation would expand the already expansive discretionary powers of the police and
make it significantly harder for foreign NGOs to operate. Until now, there has been no specific legislation
governing foreign NGOs in China; they have all operated in a legal gray area. Typically, they register as
commercial companies in order to be able to have employees, but their advocacy work is off the books and
has been tolerated by the authorities. However, civil society groups in China has grown quickly and their
activities have intensified for hthe past years.