The Catholic University of America



CUA Law Professor Karla Simon, at podium, organized and moderated the 90-minute symposium.

Experts Assess the Progress of Civil Society in China


Through Western eyes at least, one important measure of a nation’s progress is its support of a civil society, loosely defined as one that permits significant opportunities for citizen participation, as well as the unfettered presence of not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

By that standard, how is China doing? It’s a complex question. The answer depends in part on what one chooses to measure.
“Opening Space for Civil Society in China: Can the “Soft” Power of the United States Help?” was a 90-minute program held on Feb. 8, 2011 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. It assembled a panel of five experts in the field to produce an informal report card on the state of civil society in China today. The group also discussed what, if anything, the United States can do to encourage the flourishing of civil society initiatives in one of the oldest nations on earth.
Catholic University law school Professor Karla Simon, who organized and moderated the program and whose scholarship has focused on civil society in China in recent years, set the tone during her opening remarks, finding both promise and concern in the state of things at the moment.
“It is extremely difficult for a nonprofit organization to be officially registered in China because the government fears a vibrant civil society,” said Simon. “Things are getting better. Things are loosening up, but there’s still a long way go.”
There are unmistakable signs in China of the emergence of new organizations and the willingness of government to work with them. The process gained momentum in 2010 after a visit to Beijing by billionaire philanthropists Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who hosted a dinner to urge their Chinese counterparts to greatly increase their financial support of civil society initiatives.
Civil society has gained a foothold in China, but its grip is tenuous and could be threatened by the perception that America sees an opportunity to interfere.
“We need to be clear in good times and bad that we are on the side of the Chinese people. That should be the goal of our ‘soft’ power,” said Mark Palmer (below, left) former United States ambassador to Hungary and a co-founder of the National Endowment for Democracy. 
Dr. Lester Salamon (above, middle) director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, said it is vital that NPOs and NGOs operating within China’s borders today be able to raise money, or accept charitable contributions, without government interference.
“It’s extremely important to have an enabling legal environment,” he said.
Dr. Anna Brettell (above,right) senior adviser to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (but speaking as a private citizen) appeared less optimistic about how civil society initiatives will ultimately fare in China. While noting the “incredible dynamism” within Chinese NGOs, she cited numerous barriers at work. In some instances, NGOs have faced government harassment such as being evicted from their offices or having their power shut off.
Wan Yanhai (left) knows from personal experience about the heavy hand of government. Now living in America, Wan was the best-known AIDS activist in China. His frank and aggressive approach toward AIDS led to frequent run-ins with authorities and landed him in detention three times in the past 12 years. Wan said the progress of civil society in China will depend partly on the willingness of others to step up and support it.
“Who are the groups and individuals advocating for civil rights? We need to find these groups,” said Dr. Wan.
Although the panelists differed in their assessments of the state of civil society in China, they agreed that the Chinese government is mistaken to consider the existence of such groups a destabilizing force in the country.
“Civil society really serves a function to let off steam,” said Dr. Salamon. “The communist party will eventually realize that supporting nonprofits is a way to maintain stability.”
The symposium was the third in a series of four sponsored by The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in 2010-2011. The series is titled “Critical Insights in the Law and Law Practice: Ethical and Moral Responsibility.”