Karla Simon is one of the first scholars who broke ground in the field of civil society law. She is the co-founder and chair of the International Center for Civil Society, which has offices in New York and Beijing. She is also an Affiliated Scholar with New York University’s US-Asia Law Institute. Professor Simon blogs at Alliance.
CDT’s Anne Henochowicz talked to Professor Simon about her latest book, Civil Society in China: The Legal Framework from Ancient Times to the “New Reform Era”. Published in March, the book encompasses civil society in practically all of Chinese recorded history, from the Confucian attitude towards charity to NGOs today.
China Digital Times: One of the goals of your book is to refute the theory that charity is not a traditional Chinese value. Do you think Westerners, especially missionaries, in imperial China simply didn’t understand how charity and associations in China worked, or that Westerners deliberately (if subconsciously) suppressed this knowledge? In other words, is the Western perception of a lack of a tradition of civil society and charity in China due to misunderstanding, or misrepresentation?
Karla Simon: I think it was due to one of the things we China-watchers perceive even today–a cultural or racial bias against the Chinese. Thinking of them as barbarians meant completely disregarding their religious and philosophical traditions, such as Confucianism and Buddhism.
CDT: You discuss continuity with traditional associations from the imperial era to the 20th century. Could you compare civil society organizations (CSOs) in mainland China to other parts of the Chinese cultural world, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the diaspora?
KS: It’s very easy to register a CSO in Hong Kong because of commonwealth law. Hong Kong is also revising its rules on charities. Taiwan’s legal environment is also very friendly. Although the dual management [which requires registration with the government] is on the books in Taiwan, it’s not really enforced.
The diaspora is giving more to organizations in China now. In particular, Chinese-Americans like Angela Chao have been getting more involved in Chinese CSOs.
CDT: In your book, you talk about the difficulty a CSO faces when its objective is not favored by the CCP. Such organizations may be unable to register with the government, staying operable instead by registering as commercial entities, or simply by remaining unregistered. You talk about how Xu Zhiyong’s organization Gongmeng was only able to register as a commercial entity and was eventually shut down by the authorities. Given the current environment in which CSOs operate, which types of CSOs are the most successful in China? Which have the most difficulty?
KS: The current crackdown on dissidents is definitely having effect, and is causing a cooling-down of CSO activities. Many people are being asked to drink tea. Some unregistered organizations have been spared because the government likes what they’re doing. Disability rights groups, environmental organizations, and even HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations are all okay with the government.
Organizations will still register with the government for two reasons. First, that is how they get grants. Large amounts of money will put unregistered organizations on the government radar, as happened to Gongmeng. Second, wealthy donors cannot make tax-deductible gifts to unregistered organizations.
CDT: Have Chinese charities, especially the Chinese Red Cross, survived Guo Meimei? Judging from this spring’s earthquake in Sichuan and Guo’s reappearance online at that time, it seems public mistrust is ongoing.
KS: Yes, the Red Cross has not been able to raise money. Funding has shifted to more independent organizations, like the One Foundation and away from the Red Cross.
CDT: What can, and should, non-Chinese do to support Chinese CSOs?
KS: Give your skills: go and work with grassroots CSOs in the field. Get on the ground and train donors to be good philanthropists, and train CSOs to be good recipients. If you want to give, Give2Asia is a U.S. organization that aggregates and gifts onward to Chinese CSOs. It’s very effective way to get money to good NGOs [in China.]
CDT: What’s next after the publication of your book?
KS: The reason for me moving to China now is to be on the ground when new regulations are out–to be not just in the big cities, but also in the hinterlands, talking to government officials and organizations–and to reflect on the practice of CSOs. I’ll also be consulting with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Asia Foundation.
The book was outdated four days after its publication. Oxford University Press is speeding publication date for the second edition to June 2014. I also plan to work on a new book of stories about people who are involved with civil society.