China is undergoing a period of immense change, with the once-in-a-decade leadership transition, calls for a shift in the economy to emphasize domestic consumption and growing environmental challenges. These developments promise another generation of massive change in the country.
The role of civil society in China is changing as well. In some ways, this mirrors developments in other parts of the world. In China, as elsewhere, social media are creating new forms of connections and community; companies are working more closely with civil society organizations to improve social and environmental outcomes, and individuals are expecting more accountability from civil society.
But there are also unique dimensions of civil society in China that bear watching. Civil society there is evolving to address the issues of greatest importance to the Chinese people. Food safety continues to be paramount, and there is growing sensitivity to environmental quality and spontaneous outpourings of support in response to natural disasters.
There is also a shift in terms of the kinds of organizations that are active across China. Government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) have begun to rely less heavily on state support and funding, and independent organizations are taking up some of the slack. More Chinese, for example, contributed funds to earthquake damage relief through Jet Li’s One Foundation (a private foundation), than they did to the Chinese Red Cross (a GONGO).
Indeed, the rise of NGOs created by private entrepreneurs is one of the defining features of China’s civil society, bringing to mind some of the foundations that developed in the United States at the turn of the last century. In addition, the broader Chinese public has increased its contributions to disaster relief – a development that underscores how a social model that was exclusively government-led not that long ago now includes government as well as private NGOs and individual action.
A great deal of attention is given to short-term fluctuations in China, as outsiders look to discern changes that arise from often obscure debates and decisions. In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of new limits on civil society and social media. While these stories are important, we have not yet seen a reversal of the long-term trend that has seen civil society in China grow. As noted in the Financial Times this past July by Gao Bingzhong, Director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at Peking University, “Civil society has already become very firm and deep-rooted in China.”
The massive changes reshaping civil society globally will also continue to influence the evolution of civil society in China. But China’s ongoing changes present an additional dimension of change. Civil society organizations in China, to a greater degree than in much of the rest of the world, can expect to be both agents and objects of great change.
Author: Aron Cramer is President and CEO of BSR (Business for Social Responsibility). He is taking part in the session Strategic Shifts in the Consumer Ecosystem at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013 in Dalian, China.
Image: Businessmen are seen walking near the financial district of Shanghai REUTERS/Aly Song.