Issue: 2021: Vol. 20, No. 1

Pursuing Mutual Benefit and Win-Win Cooperation: Sino-U.S. Civil Society Engagement

Article Author(s)

Jessica C. Teets, PhD

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Jessica C. Teets is an Associate Professor at Middlebury College, and has researched and written extensively on governance in authoritarian regimes, especially state relations with civil society in Civil Society Under Authoritarianism: The China Model (Cambridge University Press, 2014). 
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This essay is a response to the The Carter Center’s Report, “Finding Firmer Ground.”

The Carter Center recently released a report, entitled Finding Firmer Ground: The Role of Civil Society and NGOs in U.S.-China Relations, that highlights the issues of domestic and international concern requiring American and Chinese cooperation, and asks how can the U.S. and China reverse the current trend toward decoupling. Authors from both the U.S. and China examine how Chinese and American civil society, including nongovernmental organizations, might improve cooperation, dialogue, and management of security risks between the U.S. and China. They contend that issues such as climate change and global health should be established as pillars of critical cooperation where both countries could create high-level frameworks to identify shared goals and lay out long-term visions for climate change and global health. They point out that for civil society to be effective in these two areas, key obstacles to engagement must be addressed, including revising China’s Foreign NGO Law, mitigating fears of arbitrary detention, preventing the weaponization of visa policies, educating NGOs on the risks of cooperation, and countering xenophobia in both countries.

After spending two decades researching how civil society improves Chinese governance, I appreciate the goals expressed in the report, specifically how greater civil society engagement might improve cooperation and dialogue between the U.S. and China. However, the current time is more similar to the early 1990s than the early 2000s, with high and persistent levels of distrust prevalent in the relationship. As noted in the report, “Chinese and American government actions have made cooperation more challenging than in the past, and security pressures have increased risk aversion for participants on both sides.”

In the U.S., even though the Biden administration has signaled they want more proactive engagement with China, they also have not changed the Trump administration’s wariness and competitive strategy toward China. This is expressed by many government officials who argue that we can engage China, including Chinese scholars and civil society, as an important way of learning, but that we must be careful in assuming that they are independent (meaning, of course, that they should be understood as agents of the state). Although this stance casts doubt on the ability of non-state actors to meaningfully change the bilateral relationship, there might be a more limited role in helping state actors identify non-obvious areas of potential cooperation.

In China, this distrust can easily be seen in the new five-year plan highlighting the danger of “hegemonism” from the United States. For civil society, distrust manifests in the form of challenges for foreign NGOs to work in China, especially in partnering with or funding Chinese NGOs. Restrictions and the general distrust of Western civil society again casts doubt on any strategy to encourage U.S. NGOs and government agencies to directly fund or influence project choices in that it might unintentionally endanger domestic NGOs.

Relying on civil society groups in China to help achieve policy goals might create unrealistic expectations, and even more worryingly, place these groups in harm’s way for state monitoring or action. As in the 1990s, civil society engagement offers ways to improve the Sino-U.S. relationship, and more importantly governance outcomes for Chinese citizens; however, this must be done carefully, with realistic expectations about what civil society can do, and always with a “do no harm” principle.

I contend that we must leverage the lessons from civil society engagement from that time to inform current decisions. Although distrust on both sides makes engagement complicated, the lessons of the 1990s offer some pragmatic ways forward. In the 1990s, we learned that it is important to do two things: create policy access for civil society and develop civil society capacity. Below I first outline the ways these two goals were accomplished, and then apply these lessons to the current situation.

I. Create Policy Access

  1. Elevate concerns raised domestically by civil society to a bilateral level during talks and meetings without directly identifying the groups.
  2. Mandate the participation of civil society in all bilateral or multilateral platforms.

As the 1995 U.N. conference for women’s rights hosted by China, and as the Global Fund did with its health projects, we have observed that mandating the participation of civil society creates space for the growth of civil society groups and enhances their voice in certain policy areas. The Global Fund projects on HIV/AIDS, for example, created a number of civil society groups that then participated in creating anonymous testing sites as well as education for many hard-to-reach groups in China such as sex workers, drug users, and its gay population (e.g., the “men sleeping with men” groups). These policy interventions were then further supported through the GF platforms and inserted into Chinese law. Without policy access, it is challenging for civil society to have this sort of impact in China.

II. Develop Civil Society Capacity

  1. Invest in creating strong civil society technical capacity.
  2. Share resources with domestic groups, such as policy research, lessons from demonstration sites in other countries, access to experts, tax policies to allow for donations and philanthropy, etc.

Investing in improving the governance capacity of NGOs is even more important now because directly funding group projects is challenging under the new FNGO law. However, improving technical capabilities so that groups can better contract (服务购买) from the government is still encouraged. These government contracts are becoming a larger part of domestic NGO budgets, along with domestic fundraising allowed under the 2016 Charities Law; however, it is challenging for groups to cover salaries and professional development costs with these funds given strict fraud regulations. Often these funds may only cover direct project costs. This is a gap into which foreign funders may step, and improving the technical capacity of these groups means that they are more likely to contract and consult with local governments, creating access points in a closed policymaking structure that often lacks societal information about policy preferences and impact.

Many local officials cite a lack of group capacity for not working with local civil society, followed by a fear that the groups are puppets or trojan horses for Western interests. Increasing civil society access to policymaking by elevating issues, mandating participation in international platforms, investing in capacity, and sharing policy resources will help domestic groups play a more active role in China, and avoid the negative repercussions of close association with foreigners.

Applying These Lessons to the Current Situation

Given the likely persistence of distrust between China and the U.S., both the ability of Chinese civil society to achieve policy goals and the desirability of overtly partnering with these groups is in question. However, I do see a role for civil society collaboration, but perhaps in a looser sense, and where U.S. NGOs and foundations follow the lead of Chinese NGOs in determining what would help them versus what might unintentionally hurt them.

As outlined above, this role would focus on allowing for the process of interest aggregation and advocacy, where at the least NGOs might serve as a voice for their communities and help the U.S. identify areas of potential collaboration. The report identified some obvious areas of collaboration such as climate change and health; however, civil society groups often work in areas where collaboration might be possible but not obvious, such as municipal waste policies, poverty alleviation, and income inequality. As one potential example, China and the U.S. share large domestic coal sectors located in poor areas, and policies devoted to transitioning coal miners and their communities to other sectors is an important challenge.

The potential of closer collaboration will likely depend on issue area and group type. For example, certain types of civil society groups, such as arts organizations, might be good bridges in that they are not issue-driven, which allows complex and otherwise sensitive conversations. This impact has been seen in the past with “ping-pong diplomacy” and during the Olympics and other sporting events.

In short, I believe engagement with Chinese civil society is a good strategy, but it must be carefully balanced to avoid or mitigate the distrust in both countries. The policy suggestions in the report focus on ways to decrease distrust, but unfortunately this is being driven by powerful geopolitical concerns so it is unclear how actionable these recommendations are. Additionally, recommendations such as persuading China to revise the Foreign NGO Law is also unlikely given the persistence of the domestic politics concerns that caused the creation of this law in the first place. None of these larger challenges is likely to change in the foreseeable future, so although I support all of these long-term suggestions made by the report authors, I would also propose focusing on increasing policy access and capacity of Chinese NGOs as a dual-track strategy.