The past two years have been a turbulent time for China’s rapidly developing and diversifying civil society. Chinese social organizations (the term the Chinese government uses to describe the more than 670,000 NGOs operating in China) that are involved in labor rights protection, library services, and gender and other anti-discrimination work have been shuttered. Meanwhile, rights-defending lawyers and their staffs and families have been rounded up and, in some cases, convicted of subverting state power. Spaces for expression, association, and media reporting have also narrowed in the lead-up to a restrictive law that takes effect January 1, 2017, placing the public security authorities in charge of overseas NGOs operating in China. And yet, during the same period, restrictions on charities and other types of social organizations have relaxed thanks to China’s first Charity Law and proposed revisions to State Council regulations. How do we make sense of these seemingly contradictory actions and trends, and what do they mean for the state of Chinese civil society today?
On December 6, the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion exploring the trajectory of China’s civil society development and Taiwan’s comparative experience. Jamie Horsley, a visiting fellow at Brookings, gave an overview of the evolving legal and policy framework for civil society development in China. Carolyn Hsu, Rachel Stern, and Fang-Yu Chen presented on how Chinese NGOs have survived and even flourished in an authoritarian environment over the past 25 years, the roles of Chinese lawyers as key actors in civil society, and the development of Taiwan’s dynamic civil society in a democratic context, respectively. Horsley then moderated a discussion with the other panelists before taking questions from the audience.
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