By Bhavna Singh
The response from the Chinese blogosphere on the Indian social movement against corruption spearheaded by Anna Hazare was remarkable. Praising his dedication and commitment to social justice, the prominent magazine Caijing through Sina Weibo described him as the “new Gandhi.” This admiration can be seen as a result of the empathy generated by frustration on wide-spread corruption in China resulting as a flipside of the 30 years of reform and opening up of the economy. In the backdrop of renewed interest amongst Chinese citizens on the need for eliminating corruption and other social evils, this article conjectures whether a movement similar to the Anna Hazare episode in India can unfold in China or not?
The answer alas is no; it is highly unlikely given the present state of affairs. Despite the creation of public forums the civil society movement in China has been limited to elite sections and to certain geographical domains which correspond with economically flourishing regions. China currently possesses a total of around 4, 00,000 registered non-government organizations (NGOs) of which most are concentrated in developed cities. For instance, Shanghai alone has 1, 00,000 NGOs given the relatively free atmosphere of the city. In addition, there are innumerable unregistered NGOs all over China as well.
As far as individual personalities are concerned, there is no space provided to social activists who do not subscribe to the basic guidelines of the government. Popular dissidents such as Ai Wei Wei, who investigated government corruption and cover-ups in 2008 and frequently critiques the state on its adverse policies, do not find adequate space for voicing their concerns and are most often snubbed by the state. He was held for over two months allegedly for tax evasions in 2011. While popular bloggers like Han Han who manage to woo the crowds and become iconic figures among the Chinese youth do not necessarily rally similar support on political issues.
If the restrictions in China are so high, then how does one read China’s appreciation of India’s “Anna”? Probably as a limited admiration from certain sections in China. The Chinese government continues to influence the popular discourse by assuring admonishment of the guilty. This is precedent in the sacking of several government officials after evidence related to their involvement was found. Such efforts have a soothing effect on the citizens who feel empowered and contributors in the enforcement of law and order. Since the Anna hazare movement in India was largely a youth movement, the above-cited phenomenon explains how the Chinese government is able to manage its youth. Also, the leverage of the Indian media which played a significant role in the movement is unparalleled in the Chinese media. The government closed down 6600 websites which applauded Anna Hazare’s efforts as it continues to be under threat from anti-establishment upheavals generated by social activists.
Yet, all is not gloom and doom for China’s civil society movements. China is today becoming an exemplar of controlled democracy, which by the Chinese standards means controlled decentralization. There are growing instances of the Chinese version of NGOs, that is, GONGOs – Government-operated NGOs. Most of these organizations, in principle, have at least one party organ and one person reporting directly to the Party. This restricts the functioning of these organizations as non-government entities as understood conventionally. Interactions with various NGO employees reveal that most of the activities are directed by the government and in fact the NGOs serve as an extended hand of the government to help implement its strategies.
Moreover, Anna’s movement has led to a growing awareness on the issue, not necessarily transpiring into self-reflection for initiating reforms in the wake of the interest generated by this movement. There has been a gradual move towards democratization of Chinese public spaces especially given the massive outreach of internet blogging and other media, which the government realizes will be difficult to handle without granting certain leeway.
The latest initiative in this regard is the Party working conference held in November in China’s Guangdong Province. A new policy has been devised during this conference which makes provision for loosening of entry barriers for civil society organizations into the overall structure of China’s polity. The significance of the move derives from the fact that this is the first formal attempt where members from top-level provincial and central governments are involved and hence an acknowledgement of the necessity for partnered development and change. But it does not guarantee the annihilation of longstanding antipathy towards independent entities as the registration procedure allows only ‘public welfare type organizations’ and not politically active organizations to mushroom.
The level-playing field provided by democratization of political and administrative structures and the media in China is still too tenuous to envisage an Anna Hazare phenomenon in the country. The circulation of the news and related appreciation is more a matter of nonchalance and unguarded diffusion rather than admired support. There is still some time to see a less-sensitive and more accommodative China.
Research Officer, China Research Programme
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