NGOs, the State, and Legitimacy in Contemporary China

One of the most puzzling phenomena in China is the explosive growth of NGOs in recent decades. According to some sources, the number of registered NGOs has increased from less than 50 in 1990 to 0.6 million in 2016.1

My dissertation addresses three interrelated questions regarding the proliferation of NGOs in China during the recent decades. (1) Why has the party-state created political space for NGOs? (2) what explains the variation in the success of bureaucratic streamlining that used NGOs to downsize the bureaucracy in the early 2000s? (3) how is the party-state promoting the growth of service-oriented NGOs in the post-2011 period, and what is the effect of these services on citizens’ perception of the state?

I argue that China’s approach to NGOs should be understood in the context of devolution and adaptiveness. In China, the origins of NGOs are broad, consisting of prior governmental agencies, civilian-established groups, and semi-civilian groups incubated by incubators run by government agencies. This landscape has emerged due to different policy goals of the party-state towards NGOs since the late 80s: during the 90s, NGOs were primarily viewed as vehicles to streamline the bureaucracy. During the mid-2000s, the party-state turned towards ideas akin to neoliberal public sector reforms focused on devolving welfare to the private and third sector, opening up institutional space for third sector organizations. From 2011 and onward, NGOs have become the focal point of grassroots governance – NGOs, now renamed as social service organizations, are assigned the task of coordinating grassroots demands and alleviating potential tensions. The review of the institutional environment for NGOs reflects both party-state focus on devolution, but also adaptiveness and corporatism.

Drawing on theories of public sector reform, authoritarian politics, and non-state service provision, and evidence from fieldwork, text analyses, statistical data and an original survey conducted in the field, my essays comprehensively demonstrate how an authoritarian state such as China can utilize non-governmental organization and civil society to serve its interests.

  1. “Beneath the Glacier.” Economist. April 12, 2014; Hsu, C. Chen, F. and Jamie P. Horsley. “The State of NGOs in China Today.” Brookings. December 15, 2016.