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‘China seeks social governance through NGO partnership’

Scholar says China’s society should be understood based on China’s unique historical experiences

This is the second installment in a series of interviews with renowned scholars and experts on China as a resurgent Asian power triggering shifts in the regional order. This installment looks into China’s social problems and policy efforts to address them. -- Ed.

Over the last several years, the Chinese government has been paying notable policy attention to “social governance” in tandem with nongovernmental organizations to address an array of social issues including the public welfare, a sociology scholar said.

Baek Seung-wook, professor at Chung-Ang University, told The Korea Herald that the Chinese authorities’ growing interest in social governance reflects their recognition that its growth-centric policy would not be sustainable without due attention to those social issues.

Professor Baek Seung-wook (Song Sang-ho/The Korea Herald)
Professor Baek Seung-wook (Song Sang-ho/The Korea Herald)

“Social governance involves the Chinese authorities’ partnership with NGOs, meaning that China is now seeking to address social problems by activating the roles of NGOs. This, indeed, marks a turning point,” he said in a recent interview.

“For example, the government has been trying to build some sort of a social welfare system by financing various projects that will be undertaken by nonpolitical NGOs through a bidding process. Those NGOs specialize in health care for senior citizens or other welfare services.”

While utilizing the roles of the NGOs entitled to state funding, the Chinese authorities have also reinforced their control over the NGOs through various means such as their audit of the organizations’ finances and personnel, he added.

Touching on the issue of Chinese people’s basic rights, the professor said that the Chinese have fairly strong “collective rights” -- albeit not legally guaranteed -- due to their unique socialist experiences that have made people highly sensitive about their collective rights.

“It would be a mistake to say that the Chinese have no rights at all,” he pointed out.

Regarding the possibility of a challenger to the Communist Party of China, Baek stressed the need to understand the long-standing stature of China’s ruling party as the one that founded the nation in 1949.

“It is not easy (for Chinese) to envision a situation without the existence of the party that formed the state, even though Westerners may easily imagine such a situation,” he said.

Following is the interview with professor Baek.

Korea Herald: What does the Chinese dream mean in the social context?

Baek Seung-wook
: I want to pay particular attention to China’s resurgent interest in its society, which is a notable development considering that China has concentrated its policy attention on economic growth. I believe the Chinese dream has a societal dimension as one central pillar. In other words, there has been a growing recognition in China that it should attend simultaneously and equally to its society, rather than focusing wholly on the economy, so as to address an array of societal issues including the one surrounding China’s rural migrant workers.

One of the issues highlighted at the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee (of the Communist Party held in November 2013) was that of “social construction.” Over the last decade, China has used society-related expressions oftentimes. The expression, social construction, has been used as a comprehensive term that includes “social management,” a term that bears some negative connotation as it is usually associated with police clampdowns or social security control. But from 2013 onward, China started to use a new term, “social governance,” which has supplanted the previous term, social management.

Social governance involves the Chinese authorities’ partnership with nongovernmental organizations, meaning that China is now seeking to address social problems by activating the roles of NGOs. This, indeed, marks a turning point. This trend has emerged since 2008. I don’t think China has a well-organized picture or plan (about its handling of society), but it is noteworthy that they are doing something new. There could be some inertia in the process of pushing for a new policy initiative, and there are also doubts over how China will overcome that inertia.

KH: You said the Chinese authorities are trying to bolster the roles of NGOs. Wouldn’t they be seen as a potential threat to China’s one-party political system?

: That is quite interesting. Before talking about it, let me touch on one of China’s socialist traditions -- the “danwei” system (a core socialist urban unit that combined industrial production and workers’ living space, thereby promoting the country’s urbanization and industrialization). Through the danwei, the Chinese government has not only managed the areas under its control, but also embraced and addressed some of the social issues such as social welfare within the danwei. In China, people often refer to the areas outside the danwei system as society, and up until now, there has existed such a dichotomy between the danwei system and society.

The social sphere outside the danwei had long been left largely unattended. But the Chinese government has begun paying earnest attention to the area. It is not to say that it is trying to control that area. It has rather started looking at it as the one that needs its policy attention -- rather than viewing it only as something subject to its police control and security management as it did in the past.

There are two policy approaches for social governance. The first one is to establish a social welfare system by financing various projects that will be undertaken by nonpolitical NGOs specializing in welfare services such as those providing health care for senior citizens. Through this method, the Chinese authorities are able to manage the social area that had not been given the state’s policy attention. Capitalizing on the digital Internet technology, they also seek to establish a big-data program concerning the grassroots of the society, which will be used for the comprehensive, organized management of the society. The other approach is expanding party organs to cover what we call civil society. This is a new, important and ambitious project for the party to expand the reach of the party’s influence into the society, embrace the society and bolster interactions between the party and the society.

KH: If NGOs engage in government-financed projects, it would be difficult to view them as purely nongovernmental. And with the rise of NGO activities, the Chinese authorities may also step up their control over them.

: Like the Seoul Metropolitan Government that has commissioned NGOs to conduct various social projects, there are many NGOs in China that receive government funding through a bidding process. Those NGOs include ones that offer counseling on industrial accidents. And of course, the authorities respond sensitively to the activities of the NGOs such as rights advocacy groups and those politically supporting strikes.

In the process of utilizing NGO activities, the government has, of course, tightened its control over the social organizations as their number increases. If one wants to get state funding, it should register with the government as a legitimate NGO. Once registered, it is subject to the government’s regular audit over its personnel makeup, financial accounting, etc. But, the number of NGOs has increased a lot in recent years as some provinces have loosened the rules on NGO registration, and the increase itself is a noteworthy shift that indicates the authorities pay substantial attention to the roles of NGOs.

KH: You talked about the danwei system. Hasn’t it collapsed in the process of restructuring state corporations?

: On the surface, yes, it has collapsed. What is crucial about it is job security and the welfare program that it offered. Although employees, hired by state-owned companies, account for less than 20 percent of the total Chinese workers, the largest companies in China are still state-owned ones. The employees of state firms continue to enjoy the high level of job security that the danwei offered in the past. During the restructuring of state firms from 1998-2002, the authorities tried to dismantle the entire system. But as it stands now, part of the system continues to live on. I call the current structure a post-danwei system.

KH: What are the biggest social problems facing the Asian power?

: Let me touch on the issue of democratization and people’s rights. When people conduct research on China, there are two major mistakes that arise from their failures to fully grasp China’s unique characteristics and historical experiences. The first problem is that people look at Chinese issues from Western perspectives or standards too much. Secondly, they tend to look at the present-day China without delving into its formative historical experiences such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) that are different from those of other socialist countries.

They would say that civil rights in China have not been institutionalized yet. Yes, from the Western standpoint, they are not legally guaranteed. They would also say that there should be individual rights, and then social rights involving the social welfare in some sort of stepwise progression. In this respect, they would say that there are no human rights or civil rights in China, and that China is therefore a totalitarian state or something to that effect. But we should first look at the legacy of the Cultural Revolution or Chinese people’s unique experiences from the socialist era, which has made the Chinese sensitive about the protection of their collective rights.

In fact, the Chinese’s collective rights, albeit not legally institutionalized, are fairly strong. For instance, workers have staged strikes in the Guangdong region although there are no legal procedures for settling labor disputes. But the strikes have become entrenched as a practice allowed under some sort of unwritten law. Due to the political legacy that was formed during the socialist era, Chinese have become sensitized to their collective rights, meaning that if they should raise their voices collectively, they could achieve something such as a dispute settlement. But a Chinese as an individual cannot achieve anything alone.

Having said that, it would be a mistake to say that the Chinese have no rights at all. People usually say individual rights come before collective rights emerge. But in the case of China, it is in a reverse order. Collective rights emerged before their individual rights. Instead of saying Chinese have no rights whatsoever, we can say that the Chinese individual rights have not been protected as their collective rights have been crumbling.

Chinese authorities feel much burden on the issue of institutionalizing both individual and collective rights. Thus, they tend to politically address the issue of collective rights while still shunning the issue of individual rights. What I mean is that when a dispute flares up, the Chinese authorities try to localize the issue and politically settle it while trying to prevent the issue from spilling over into other regions or becoming a national-level one. So there is some kind of manipulation by the government to settle these issues to prevent its escalation.

KH: When we talk about China’s democratization, we cannot help but touch on the possibility of a new political force emerging to challenge the Communist Party or create a multiple-party system that many democracies have. What is your take on this?

: In my class here, I stress that China’s historical experiences are different from those of other socialist nations, as I mentioned. Take Russia’s case as an example. In that case, there was a state already before the revolution occurred to replace the existing ruling group. In other words, the party was established as the state had continued to exist. So the ruling party could change from one to another. But when it comes to China, it is different. Two parties -- the Communist Party of China and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) -- were competing in the state-building process and they ended up building two separate nations -- People’s Republic of China and Republic of China, or Taiwan, respectively. So the order of the state building and the party’s foundation is different if you compare the two cases. In China’s case, it was the party that built the state, not the opposite way. Thus, the Chinese have traditionally put the utmost priority on the authority of the party.

Another difference between China and Russia is that the Soviet Union’s party was often viewed as “monolithic,” as there was a robust unity within the party. To achieve the unity, dissenters in the party were purged, and that is what we have called Stalinism. But in China’s ruling party, there have always been two different party lines as witnessed during the Cultural Revolution and the Yan’an Rectification Movement. So, the party has the tradition of having two divergent lines.

Back to the issue of the party having built the state, it is not easy to envision a situation without the existence of the party that formed the state, even though Westerners may easily imagine such a situation. In a nutshell, the stature of China’s Communist Party is different from that of other countries’ parties. Some have talked of a multiple-party system, but it would be difficult to see the emergence of a party to challenge the ruling party in the near future.

The challenge for the Communist Party could come from within, not from outside, and this is what the party has been cautious about. There have always been possibilities of cracks within the party. To forestall the potential cracks, it is crucial to infuse and stably manage divergent voices in the party’s collective leadership mechanism.

KH: The issue of some 120 million rural migrant workers is one of the most serious social problems in China. They garnered legal recognition only in 2008. Can you talk more about the issue?

: Well, one problem with regard to the migrant workers is that the rural areas, which have served as a “buffer” may not be able to play that role in the future anymore. When problems occur in the city areas, rural migrant workers can return to their hometowns to find farming jobs and address issues that they couldn’t resolve in urban areas. In this sense, rural areas have served as some sort of a buffer.

But the problem is associated with the children of the migrant workers. Their children, who stay illegally in cities, cannot return to rural areas, as they were born and raised in the cities, and have never experienced or are not accustomed to the rural life. Therefore, rural areas would no longer offer a buffer to absorb these the second-generation migrant workers.

KH: Is China a socialist country? How should we define China?

Baek: China’s case is called state capitalism, bureaucratic capitalism or bureaucratic state capitalism. China calls itself a socialist state based on the fact that the Communist Party stays in power, and the fact that state-owned firms are the backbone of its economy. But such political and economic factors are not enough to define China as a socialist country. I would like to call China a capitalist country bearing socialist legacies.

By Song Sang-ho (

Baek Seung-wook

Baek, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University, is noted for his extensive research on social changes in contemporary Chinese society. He also specializes in critical social theory and Marxist theories.

He has authored a number of books in Korean including “Chinese Workers and Chinese Labor Politics,” “Lectures on Capitalist History,” “China on the Boundary of Globalization,” and “Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Aporia of Politics.”

He has translated a series of books on the world-system analysis into Korean including Giovanni Arrighi’s “The Long Twenties Century,” Immanual Wallerstein’s “The End of the World As We Know It,” and Beverly Silver’s “Forces of Labor.” 

He served as visiting research associate at Fernand Braudel center, visiting senior research fellow at the Center for Global Political Economy of Sussex University and former editor of New Left Review Korean Edition. 

He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology from Seoul National University.