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Through Chinese eyes: Jia Xijin (part 2)

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COMMENTS

1 February 2012 11:49

Armed with your questions, Peter Martin and Nathan Beauchamp speak to Jia Xijin (pictured), an expert on Chinese civil society and citizen participation. Part 1 here.

Mitch Lowenthall: What is Chinese civil society doing to demand environmental protection?

Environmental protection, along with action by AIDS patients, is one of the most active areas in Chinese civil society. Environmental rights in China are more active because, first, the environment is an international topic so it has to be accepted by both citizens and government. The government cannot just say no to environmental issues, so this leaves more room for NGOs.

Secondly, it's an area where it's easier to involve normal citizens, even little things like planting trees or collecting garbage, things that aren't sensitive. The third reason relates to the Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry of the Environment is not so powerful inside the government system so it likes to cooperate with environmental NGOs to try to change policies together. A big case is the movement against the Nujiang dam in Yunnan. That case was successful because of cooperation between the Ministry of the Environment and NGOs. There are other cases like this. In general, the environment is an area with more space for social participation.

Peter and Nathan: in a previous interview, Pan Wei told The Interpreter that Chinese society doesn't have interest groups. What do you think of this argument?

If you look at civil society alone, maybe that's right. But, generally speaking, that's not right in two ways. Firstly, if we look at Chinese society as a whole, we can see many interest groups. They have become major obstacles to reform. This phenomenon has become more and more serious. We have so many interest groups such as state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including telecom companies, oil companies, and also many other industry areas. These interest groups are led by SOEs and supported by the state.

Second, if you define interest groups in a broader way, we can also find interest groups inside civil society. For example, trade promotion associations, especially in south China, are really strong. Sometimes they can capture the government and are so influential in showing their voice and influencing decision-making.

But I think a characteristic of Chinese interest groups is that they're very unbalanced. In Western countries, there are many kinds of interest groups, representing every area including companies, workers, women – every area. In China, you can only find interest groups which represent some kinds of people; there are no interest groups which represent disadvantaged people. Interest groups in China are organised in an unbalanced, un-natural way which is highly related to policy because the government tries to promote some kinds of organisations and to control others.

Julian Fu: How has the Arab Spring affected the tone of civil society in China?

I think it's an interesting thing that the first official reports tried to avoid this topic. If you look at CCTV or official reports, you'll see very little information. They tried to escape the topic. In that way, the Arab Spring was not so influential because for many people who got information from official channels, they knew what happened but it was hard to know the real meaning or to form clear opinions.

I think in China internet users are a huge group. That means many people can get information from the internet, and even to jump over the government's 'great firewall'. I think that, in that way, the Arab Spring may have some influence in people's minds, even if it didn't lead to action.

If you look at what people say on the internet, you may find that people fall into two groups. One group, with many young or well-educated people, think this is a democratic wave, looking at how other countries can be affected and wonder what might happen in China, but they're just saying that – they don't do anything.

Another group is represented by websites such as 'Utopia' (wuyouzhixiang). They think that this is a lesson for China. For them, the financial crisis in Western countries is a lesson to China, as is the Arab Spring. According to them, we should learn from these lessons and take action to stop this happening in China. I think this also represents the opinions of many in government. It has probably benefited the left in China because now they have a true reason, a very real reason to stress Party rule.

Julian Fu: Do you expect expect the Xi Jinping administration's attitude toward civil society (particularly online communities) to be different from the Hu administration's?

I think it's very hard to predict what Xi Jinping will do because in China, there's a rule that you won't really know the face of a leader until he's really in power. Sometimes people hide their true purpose but might want to do something quite worthwhile. His only purpose now is to secure his position.

But my own opinion is that I don't expect him to do much reform to push civil society forward. I think Xi may do something less radical, not involving a change of the current orientation. Whether or not he will depend on civil society depends on what people really want. If there is strong social demand, he will have to make some reform, but if he can find a more gentle way like the 'Chongqing model' to calm social tensions then he won't have a strong incentive to reform.

Peter and Nathan: What do you think of the Chongqing model?

I think the Chongqing model might benefit the people to a certain extent, but it won't be a good solution because of China's power structure. To me, I believe that if citizens give up their power, maybe they can expect a good leader to give them some benefits for a certain purpose, but they can't expect a leader always to do things for them. So as long as power is concentrated with the government or with one organisation, it's not good news for the common people. I don't trust the power structure in the Chongqing model, but to a certain extent, people have benefited from it.

Brian P Teubner: Do you believe Chinese NGOs will be politically capable of standing up to Communist Party policy decisions in the future?

That depends on what you mean by the future. If China develops in a stable way, in ten or twenty years, civil society in China will be quite influential and people can have their voice in public policy and even change the power structure. But I think now China's development model is a high-speed model with high risk so we can hardly expect sustainable development for 20 years.

I think it's quite possible in less than 20 years, even in 5 years, it will see some hard changes. Anything can happen and the civil society will not just go forward as rapidly as today. Civil society may even go backwards. It's hard to predict. At the current time, I think the voice of civil society is rather weak in China's power structure. It's stronger than five years ago, but still it's quite weak if we look at the whole society. It's still a society dominated by state power, by the Party and the government, with very little citizen power and very few self-governing actors.

Peter and Nathan: what do you think of the growth of mass incidents in China?

I think mass incidents are one of the greatest risks in China. If the power structure won't change, then social conflict will escalate. When social tensions become higher and conflict escalates, there will be more need for government control. When there is more government control and more power is given to the authorities, there will be more problems in society. Then, there will be more mass incidents.

I think many mass incidents arise because of no due procedure in the administration system. There is too much personal judgment and behaviour. This becomes a negative cycle. Mass incidents will become a greater risk unless there is political reform, but increasing mass incidents also make reform more difficult by making the Party concentrate power. This is really a problem for China.

How can we break this negative cycle? I think Guangdong has tried to explore a solution. They've tried to find a model. The Wukan case is a good example. Guandong's leaders have tried to use more open and reasonable attitudes to deal with these kinds of problems rather than just controlling the village with high power. The results were very good. When the government says that people's demands are reasonable, people's demands will become reasonable too. So Wukan is a very good case for solving the problem. But the Wukan case was highly dependent on the particular leadership there. In China's current political framework, this kind of leadership is very hard to develop. Except in a few places like Guangdong, these kind of things won't happen. So the Wukan place might not be applicable to other areas.

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