Issue 2, June 2008
Civil Society is generally comprised of the umbrella of organizations and associations – social, religious, issue-oriented, charitable – individuals can voluntarily join to further their interests, make connections with others, and improve society. In China, the state controls these entities largely to ensure that their appeal does not diminish Party loyalty.
Officially, China is an atheist state. However, freedom to practice religion is tolerated to a degree. Religious groups must register with the state and are then subject to regulations. Those unwilling to submit to government regulation have formed house churches, and these have often been the targets of CCP harassment and intimidation when they grow in size. The CCP has been known to look the other way for smaller gatherings. Chinese sources put the number of practicing Taoists at 250 million, Buddhists at 100 million (concentrated in and around the Semiautonomous Region of Tibet), and Muslims at 20 million (concentrated primarily of the Uighur population in and around the Semiautonomous Region of Xinjiang). Reports on the number of citizens practicing a Protestant religion vary widely between the Western and Chinese-reported statistics. While Chinese sources account for 18 million Protestants, Western sources put that figure at 60 million. Both put the number of Catholics at between 12 and 15 million. The CCP requires that Catholics in China swear an oath of allegiance to the Chinese state over allegiance to the Pope. Folk religions based on animism and ancestor worship also exist. The tenets of Confucianism, once the fundamental philosophy of the Chinese Empire, are still widely practiced alongside other religions and as a part of the Communist platform today. Despite government attempts at regulation, 31% of Chinese 16 or older have reported that they consider themselves religious, four times the official estimate ten years ago (National Geographic Magazine, May 2008).
An example of the CCP’s limit for tolerance of religion can be found in the widely-publicized Falun Gong protests of the 1990s. A blend of various Eastern religions, Falun Gong has come under intense scrutiny by the CCP and has been officially labeled a cult and outlawed. There are a myriad of different opinions as to why the CCP has singled out Falun Gong, but most believe it has to do with the charisma of its leaders and the secrecy of its members (although secrecy itself is a result of decades of attacks and fear of attacks on practitioners by the CCP). Whatever the reason, the CCP sees adherents’ loyalty to Falun Gong to be incompatible with and even threatening to Communist teachings and loyalty. Any gatherings detected by CCP officials are forcibly disbanded by security forces.
When Falun Gong practitioners carried out a series of peaceful sit-ins in Tiananmen Square in 1999, the CCP and PLA scrambled to disband them. Each time protestors were disbanded, they persistently reappeared. A decade after the student riots in Tiananmen Square, this weeks-long phenomenon appeared to some to be a crack in the façade of the CCP, and there were those who wondered if this was the beginning of the end of Party control. However, the protests were eventually stopped, and the Propaganda Department still today goes to great lengths to censor any mention of Falun Gong in the media. Internet monitors are put on high alert for any activity that appears to be online organizing of the movement.
Experts generally expect to see a continued rise in religious activity as people try to fill the ideological void left by the discrediting of true Marxist-Leninist Communism. Much has been written about the effects of Chinese spiritual confusion and sense of dislocation as traditional family structures break down and society experiences the full weight of rapid growth. Both Peter Hessler and Rob Gifford, noted journalist-observers of Chinese society who have spent time interviewing Chinese citizens throughout the country, report on this considerable sense of being set adrift. Both cite the advent of talk radio as a new form of religion and family all rolled into one; call-in advice and talk shows are enormously popular among young adults, especially those who have migrated to the cities. They offer a blend of spirituality, comfort, practical advice and self-help rhetoric similar to Western self-help media and resources.
Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs consist of the array of organized civil society groups that serve a variety of functions: research, education, advocacy, activism, provision of services. In China, NGOs are regulated and monitored by the CCP; they must register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and have a CCP sponsor. Currently there are close to 30,000 registered NGOs and some suspect up to 3 million unregistered NGOs of some form.
Sinologist Namju Lee has said that NGOs in China often serve as a bridge between the state and society, and function to fill “holes in the disintegrating social welfare safety net.” Unlike protest movements, NGO efforts to encourage the CCP to reform have been moderately effective in arenas where their activities do not threaten the legitimacy of the government. This has been especially true in the area of environmental protection, where numerous groups have, through research and activism, helped to mitigate environmental damage and aid victims displaced by environmental degradation.
The health of the NGO sector is often an indicator of the democratic health of a country. There are many that hope an expansive movement can be nurtured from the range of NGOs working in China to become an agent of change, even beyond the environmental movement. NGOs and individuals operating outside the state apparatus were able to mobilize a tremendous relief, rescue and recovery efforts following the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008. Reporting for National Public Radio, Rob Gifford surmised that such groups were able to take advantage of the Party’s distraction with the disaster and the impending Olympics to make important inroads that they hope will endure. He said that volunteers of NGOs (even some religious-based charities) were given unprecedented latitude to help the government effort, and, as a result, “tasted empowerment and the freedom to organize.” Gifford joins many experts in wondering if this can effectively now be taken away by the CCP.