The obvious question about civil society in China is, “How free is it?” Are Chinese NGOs really able operate, organize, and tackle issues without political constraints or pressure. This—like so many other questions one might pose about China today—is a blind man and the elephant type of question. China’s NGOs work within the constraints of the system, but they are not creatures of it. They set their own agendas and design their own programs, but they also know where the limits are and are savvy about positioning themselves safely. When the head of a small labor advocacy group in southern China was attacked by thugs following his efforts to educate local workers about the newly passed labor contract law—an attack that many believed was ordered by factory owners with the complicity of local police—other labor advocates in the area began discussing “survival strategies” for their grass-roots outreach work. These strategies include talking to local officials and factory owners before reaching out directly to workers, and, most importantly, enlisting the support of local media to write feel-good stories about their work that make it hard for local officials to crack down on them. Other NGOs make it a point to involve universities in organizing conferences or workshops in order to make the programs appear more theoretical or academic. Still another tactic is to find sympathetic sponsors within the mass organizations or at the local government level who can provide cover for workshops and training seminars.
The government maintains an atmosphere of low-level harassment to keep NGOs in check. Security officials show up at NGO offices to question NGO leaders and their staff. For those who wear two hats with an official position and as the head of an NGO, they suspect that they hit glass ceilings in their official capacities as a result of their civil society work. And the heat can be turned up when needed.
Read more about the role of Chinese NGOs in earthquake relief, via CDT.