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The Fight for China’s Future throws light on the quintessence of 21st century Chinese politics through the prism of the struggle between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and China’s vibrant intelligentsia and civil society.
This book examines Xi Jinping’s 24-hour, multi-dimensional, AI-enabled police-state apparatus and explores the CCP’s policy towards civil society. Through exclusive interviews with activists from different provinces, it analyzes the experiences and aspirations of key stakeholders in Chinese society, especially intellectuals, human rights attorneys and Christian worshippers. Providing an examination of recent global trends in relation to CCP policies, including China’s relationship with the U.S., it also goes on to explore the possible trajectories of future change.
Featuring an assessment of Xi Jinping’s leadership style and the opportunities this has given certain groups to promote the rule of law, media freedom and other global norms, this book will be invaluable to students of Chinese politics, society and culture.
Willy Lam’s The Fight for China’s Future presents a sobering picture of China in the era of Xi Jinjing where the forces of enlightenment are locked in an existential struggle with the rule of fear. Its deep insights and analysis illuminate the dynamics animating Chinese politics today. — Minxin Pei, Claremont McKenna College
For Grace, Ching-Wen, Wen-Chung and James
|Chapter 1 ◊ Introduction: The civil society versus Xi Jinping’s police-state apparatus.................................. 1
|Chapter 2 ◊ Contributions of intellectuals: Emancipating the mind in the midst of ruthless suppression.... 20
|Chapter 3 ◊ Human rights lawyers’ struggle against Xi Jinping’s “socialist rule by law”................................ 39
|Chapter 4 ◊ A new awakening for China’s oppressed Christians....................................................................... 66
|Chapter 5 ◊ How the China-U.S. Cold War opens up opportunities for the civil society.................................. 86
History has its coincidences. No sooner had Xi Jinping amended the Chinese Constitution in March 2018 to enable him to rule for life than Donald Trump unleashed upon the People’s Republic of China multiple salvoes in areas including trade, technology and geopolitical contention. The years 2018 and 2019 would be remembered as the beginning of a ferocious “new Cold War” between the status quo superpower that largely supports global norms, and a quasi-superpower that thrives on hard authoritarianism, a party-controlled economy, and an unprecedentedly tight control over the civil society and such of its components as dissidents, intellectuals, rights attorneys, house church followers and labor activists.
History, however, also has ironclad rules that punish those who have refused to draw the proper lessons from past fiascos. China’s topsy-turvy history has been dramatized the past two years by a series of anniversaries. The year 2018 marked the 120th anniversary of the short-lived 100 Days Reform of the Qing Dynasty and the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s Era of Reform and the Open Door. The year 2019 marked the centenary of the May Fourth Movement, the 125th anniversary of the beginning of the First Sino-Japanese War, and, of course, the 70th birthday of the People’s Republic of China. While trying to fend off constant surveillance and harassment by Xi’s AI-enabled police state apparatus, intellectuals and NGO pioneers are wrestling with some overwhelming questions. For example, although CCP leaders ranging from Jiang Zemin to Xi Jinping have insisted that Western values such as rule of law and civil rights are not suitable for China’s guoqing (“national conditions”), Marxism not only hails from the West but is widely regarded as a failed creed by European and American intellectuals. (In May 2018, Xi lavishly celebrated Marx’s 200th birthday and even sent a five-meter statue of the thinker to his birthplace Trier. But most Germans were lukewarm toward the controversial founder of Marxism and Communism.) Many of the mistakes made by the CCP during the Mao era were partly due to the Great Helmsman’s self-serving misinterpretations of the teachings of Marx and Lenin; yet Mao disciple Xi seems destined to perpetuate blunders such as erecting a personality cult around himself, upholding the party’s monopoly on power, tightening the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and squashing the breathing space of intellectuals and other activists in the country’s fast-growing civil society. Despite the pranks that history seems to have played on China, civil society pacesetters are adamant that the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and related mistakes must never be allowed to recur.
While pondering such weighty issues, I have benefited from much-neededencouragement, expert advice and timely tips, tea and sympathy from the following friends and colleagues: Robert Barnett, Jean-Philippe Béja, Bo Zhiyue, Keith Bradsher, Anne-Marie Brady, Kerry Brown, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Anson Chan, Jane Chan, Chan Kin-man, Priscilla Chan, Gordon Chang, Nicholas V. Chen, Helen Cheng, Joseph Y.S. Cheng, Pearl Chih, Ching Cheong, Linda Choy, David Faure, Edward Friedman, Chloé Froissart, Brad Glosserman, Ryoichi Hamamoto, Harry Harding, Chiew-Siang Bryan Ho, Russell Hsiao, Bertel Heurlin, Hung Ching-tin, Peter Jennings, Jan Kiely, Amy King, Timmy Kwai, Patricia Kolb, Carol Lai, Jimmy Lai, Lai Ming Chiu, Diana Lary, Emily Lau, Franky F.L. Leung, Theresa Leung, Angela Li, Linda Li, Joe Lian Yi-Zheng, Lee Yee, Albert Lim, Delia Lin, Perry Link, Dimon Liu, Sonny Lo, Paul Loong, Bruce Lui, Michelle Ng, Mak Yin-ting, Norihito Mizuno, Jeanne Moore, Ng Ka Po, Joyce Nip, Minxin Pei, Eva Pils, David Shambaugh, Simon Shen, Victor Shih, Claude Smadja, Masaru Soma, Volker Stanzel, Robert Suettinger, Norihiko Suzuki, Carina Szeto, Akio Takahara, Marina Thorborg, Luigi Tomba, Kristof van den Troost, Steve Tsang, King Tsao, Jonathan Unger, Sebastian Veg, Arthur Waldron, Kan-Tai Wong, Pak Nung Wong, Alfred Wu, Guoguang Wu, Wu Lik-hon, Ray Yep, Chris Yeung, Yukiko Yokono, Fong-ying Yu, Maochun Yu, Ricky Yue and Zhang Baohui.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Smith Richardson Foundation, whose generous support has been crucial to the success of this project. Thanks are particularly due to the Foundation’s Senior Program Officer Allan Song for his advice and counsel. The Jamestown Foundation, of which I’ve been a nonresident Senior Fellow since the early 2000s, has been an unfailing source of encouragement and support. I salute, in particular, President Glen Howard for many years of unfailing help.
Special thanks are due to the editorial, production and marketing staff> of Routledge for taking very good care of this manuscript. I am particularly indebted to the generous help of Publisher, East Asia Stephanie Rogers and Senior Editorial Assistant Georgina Bishop. I would like to record my gratitude to the Notre Dame University Press for permission to reuse tidbits of my chapter on the Chinese intellectual in Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits? (2016). Two good friends, C.W. Li and Verna Yu, have helped me with research, particularly regarding Chapter 5.
Since 2007, I have been associated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) as an Adjunct Professor in its History Department, the Center for China Studies, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy. I am much indebted to my CUHK colleagues for their unfailing guidance and support. While researching this book, I have also benefitted from the help of the following institutions: the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (especially Albert Ho); the China Labor Bulletin (Geoffrey Crothall and Han Dongfang); and the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and its Director Professor Ying Fuk-tsang.
I must also salute my siblings for several decades of warm support and close camaraderie: my sisters Pansy, Kin-Hung, Miranda and Leslie, and brothers Wo Hei and Justin. Above all, I must express my gratitude for the spiritual and other support that my dear, sweet wife, Grace, has given me for so many years. We are very thankful to have two loving, smart, and kind-hearted children, Ching-Wen and Wen-Chung. I am somewhat optimistic that my grandson James will see a China that is more in tune with universal values such as rule of law, freedom of expression and democratic elections.
All-China Federation of Trade Unions
Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank
Association of Southeast Asian Nations
Belt and Road Initiative
Cyberspace Administration of China
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission
China Christian Council
Central Commission for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms
Central Commission for Discipline Inspection
Central Commission for Foreign Affairs
Central Commission for Finance and Economics
Chinese Communist Party
Central Commission for Propaganda and Ideology Work
China Central Television
China Democracy Party
China Gospel Fellowship
China Human Rights Lawyers Group
China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
China Labor Bulletin
Central Military Commission
Central National Security Commission
Central Organization Department
Central Political-Legal Commission
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
Central United Front Work Department
Communist Youth League
Communist Youth League Faction
Ethnic and Religious Affairs Office
Gross Domestic Product
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
Ministry of Civil Affairs
Ministry of Commerce
Ministry of Finance
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ministry of Public Security (police)
Ministry of State Security
New Citizens’ Movement
National Development and Reform Commission
National People’s Congress
One Belt One Road
People’s Armed Police
People’s Bank of China
Politburo Standing Committee
Protect the Harbor Seal Association
People’s Liberation Army
People’s Republic of China
Special Administration Region
State Administration of Religious Affairs
State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission
State Ethnic Affairs Commission
Supreme People’s Court
Tibet Autonomous Region
Three-Self Patriotic Movement [Protestant Churches]
Virtual Private Network
World Trade Organization
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
“security protection” which covers police and national-security work
“becoming masters of their own affairs”
“rule of law”
“citizen consciousness” or “public consciousness under modern rule of law”
“overall national security”
“residence permit system”
“imperial government examination”
“decay and collapse of society”
“two associations” [TSPM & CCC]
“people’s or “people-level”
“non-official or “people’s organizations”
“ethnic and religious affairs offices; ERAOs”
“restoration of reputation”
“aristocratic” socialism or “crony capitalism”
“human rights lawyers”
“human nature” or “humanity”
“learned mandarins at the service of the monarch”
“leitmotifs of the times”
“a dragnet that stretches from heaven to earth”
“make groundless criticism of”
“picking quarrels and provoking troubles”
“SOE conglomerates” Sometimes called China’s chaebol
“rule by law”
“putting people first”
“secretary in charge of law and order”
“self-sufficiency and independence”
“initiative” and “innate self-sufficiency”
Willy Wo-Lap Lam (born 1952; Chinese: 林和立; Cantonese Yale: Làhm Wòh-lahp) is a Hong Kong journalist, political scientist, and commentator on Chinese politics. He is currently a Jamestown Foundation fellow and an adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He holds a BA from University of Hong Kong obtained in 1974, an MA from University of Minnesota obtained in 1978 and a PhD in Political Economy from Wuhan University obtained in 2002.
Lam worked for the South China Morning Post until 2000. He was the paper's Beijing correspondent until the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and was China editor during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. In 1995, he was described as the "quintessential China watcher"; CNN called him "one of the most plugged-in observers of Chinese politics in the world" in 1999. Lam was critical of Jiang Zemin at the time, saying that Jiang had "successfully consolidated his power" but "hasn't used that power to accomplish anything significant". He left the paper in December 2000 complaining of editorial censorship.
Lam has described the direction of Chinese society under Xi Jinping as "the closing of the Chinese mind".
Lam, Willy Wo-Lap (1989). The Era of Zhao Ziyang: Power Struggle in China, 1986–88. Hong Kong: A.B. Books & Stationery. ISBN 9627374016.
———— (1995). China After Deng Xiaoping. New York: John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0471131148.
———— (1999). The Era of Jiang Zemin. Singapore: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0130837016.
———— (2006). Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. Armonk and London: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 0765617730.
———— (2015). Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-0765642097.
———— (2019). The Fight for China's Future: Civil Society vs. the Chinese Communist Party. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-0367188665.
- Date information sourced from Library of Congress Authorities data, via corresponding WorldCat Identities linked authority file (LAF).
- "Willy Wo-Lap Lam". Jamestown Foundation.
- "Willy Lam". Speakers Connect | Asia's Leading Speakers Bureau for Virtual and Live Events.
- "Willy LAM Wo Lap". www.ccs.cuhk.edu.hk.
- "Willy Lam". Geostrategy-Direct.
- Shambaugh, David (1995). "Review of China After Deng Xiaoping". The China Quarterly (142): 607–609: 608. doi:10.1017/S0305741000035244. JSTOR 655447.
- Healy, Tom (1999). "Rise of the nowhere man: Profiling a risk-allergic Jiang presidency". CNN. Archived from the original.
- Pan, Philip P. (1 May 2002). "Hong Kong Paper Fires Critical Journalist". The Washington Post. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a columnist known for his insider tales of Communist Party intrigue, complained he was being muzzled and quit in December 2000.
- Johnson, Ian (1 June 2015). "Q. and A.: Willy Wo-Lap Lam on 'Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping'". The New York Times.
The Fight for China's Future
Civil Society vs. the Chinese Communist Party
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In its late 2017 report on the global development of the public sphere in more than 100 countries, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) downgraded China’s rating from “repressed” to “closed.” CIVICUS deplored the “continued escalation of the assault on basic civil freedoms under Xi Jinping.” The Johannesburg-based watchdog noted that “China has since 2015 relentlessly pursued its critics through mass arrests of lawyers and activists, the shutdown of websites promoting peaceful dialogue and the deployment of security forces [against dissidents and NGO groups].” It suggested that the already besieged civil society in China would be further circumscribed by new laws on NGOs and on state security.1
Although the CCP administration’s suppression of intellectuals, rights attorneys, house church worshippers and other civil-society participants has been widely commented upon, this chapter attempts to elucidate the peculiarly Chinese characteristics of the battle between hard authoritarianism on the one hand and civil-society crusaders on the other. Up until the early 2010s, the leadership under ex-President Hu and President Xi had won plaudits for its economic success from opinion makers, even in democracies such as the United States. Yet economic problems including massive debt, poor industrial performance, lackluster consumer spending and over-dependence on government input to stimulate growth have come to the fore. Hong Kong-based labor NGOs reckon that the number of reported strikes—probably just a portion of the total figure—surged from fewer than 200 in 2011 to 1,256 in 2017. The estimated annual cases of “mass incidents,” or protests and demonstrations, were 180,000 in 2010, the last year when figures were available.2 In an apparent effort to preempt disturbances that could come in the wake of an economic downturn, the party-state apparatus has put together a high-tech police-state apparatus that has left little room for maneuver for intellectuals and other civil-society affiliates.
However, the unexpected events of 2018 have not only further exposed weak links in Xi Jinping’s bid to attain the proverbial “long reign and perennial stability” for the party and for himself, they have also given an opening to intellectuals, human rights attorneys, house church campaigners and the NGO community in general. Xi, who has changed the Constitution to enable himself to rule for life, has failed to tackle the challenges posed by President Donald Trump on both the economic and geopolitical fronts. While the Xi leadership has repeatedly succumbed to American pressure on the trade front—such as agreeing to buy more American products while curtailing tariffs on U.S.-made autos—it has failed to prevent the bilateral fracas from deteriorating into a full-fledged Cold War. More significantly, the fervent disciple of Chairman Mao has refused to pick up on the threads of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms despite strong support for liberalization coming from the great majority of Chinese who are beneficiaries of Deng’s dispensations. Moreover, the bulk of Trump’s complaints about Beijing’s economic policy are precisely targeted at the Xi leadership’s insistence on the Maoist credo of strict party control over the economy.
The paramount leader is in no danger of losing his power. However, his perceived failure to rectify the economy—and in particular his inability to avert a head-on collision with the U.S.—has resulted in criticisms emanating from different sectors of the party and the populace. They include princelings (kin of party elders) close to the Deng Xiaoping clan; pro-market cadres, particularly in the central government; private entrepreneurs; and members of China’s estimated 400 million middle class who are nervous about a decline in their standard of living.3 Members of the civil society, particularly intellectuals, journalists, professors, jurists and rights attorneys, have piggybacked on these anti-Xi sentiments to press their case for universal values such as rule of law and respect for human rights (see Chapter 5).
Increasingly bold calls for reform in the public sphere, however, are being ruthlessly crushed by the CCP regime. The chapter argues that an integral goal—and signature policy—of the party since the days of Mao Zedong has been to emasculate the freedom of individuals and to crush non-party-affiliated social groupings. Explanations will be given as to why it is second nature for party leaders to nip potentially destabilizing forces in the bud. As “core leader” Xi gets ready to mark the centenary of the founding of the CCP in 2021, he is following time-honored tradition by denying anti-establishment forces any platform to operate anywhere in China. Both Mao and Xi consider society—especially arenas having to do with ideology and thought—as a front or combat zone over which the party must have total control.4 Despite the fact that, after 70 years, the rule of the People’s Republic seems well entrenched, the party leadership is obsessed with taking out perceived rebels, saboteurs and myriad enemies through never-ending skirmishes on the Chinese battlefield.
Herein lies perhaps the biggest paradox of Xi’s China. On the one hand, the Xi administration waxes eloquent about the fact that party members and citizens alike boast a “fourfold self-confidence”—self-confidence in the path, theory, system and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Xi exudes confidence that the CCP will remain China’s “perennial ruling party.”5 At the same time, Xi, who became what his critics call “Emperor for Life” at the 19th Party Congress of 2017, is paranoid about the most infinitesimal challenge to CCP authority. As the Chinese proverb goes, the supreme leader seems to see “an enemy soldier behind every tree and every stalk of grass.” The most convincing explanation seems to be that the party—which portrays itself as always “great, brilliant and correct”—has too many things to hide. Intellectuals, as well as NGO activists, have laid bare the core causes behind party-initiated disasters ranging from the Great Leap Forward to the Tiananmen Square massacre: the top leadership’s total refusal to share power with disparate sectors of society. Also exposed to all Chinese are the glaring imperfections of the “China model,” or what Xi called at the 19th Party Congress “Chinese wisdom and the Chinese blueprint.” Moreover, the CCP is paranoid about the possibility that social or religious groupings could metamorphose into alternate centers of power that are comparable to the Solidarity Movement and the Catholic Church in Poland.
The sections below delineate the CCP’s multidimensional measures geared toward subjugating the individual and compressing the breathing space of the civil society and public sphere. The brutal and despotic policies of zuigaotongshuai (“Supreme Commander”) Xi will be compared with the relatively tolerant approaches of ex-Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The party’s post-Orwellian, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled police-state apparatus will be examined. This chapter ends by looking at how civil-society groupings are fighting back. An assessment will be made as to whether NGO pace-setters are poised to make contributions toward political liberalization despite Beijing’s relentlessly escalating repression.
1 Cited in “People power under attack: Findings from the CIVICUS Monitor,” World Alliance for Citizen Participation, October 4, 2017,
2a For a discussion of growing labor unrest, see, for example, Harvey Thomlinson, “China’s Communist Party Is Abandoning Workers,” New York Times, April 2, 2018,
2b The last estimate of the number of annual “mass incidents” was given by veteran sociology professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University. He reckoned that there were 180,000 such incidents in the year 2010. Another reference was provided by labor NGO activist Lu Yuyu, who estimated that there were 30,000 mass incidents such as rallies, assemblies and protests in 2015. It must be noted, however, that the Tsinghua Sociology Department has a long record of studying social disturbances. Lu and his partner compiled the number of mass incidents mainly based on media accounts and information from their sources within the labor and other NGO spheres.
2c See Yang Yang, “Mass incidents have exceeded 180,000; social disturbances have been exacerbated,”Deutsche Welle, September 29, 2011,
2d See also “A volunteer called ‘Non-news” and his girl friend proclaim that there were 30,000 mass incidents last year,” Radio Free Asia, June 21, 2016,
3a For a discussion of the increasing criticism that Xi faces within the party, see, for example, Willy Lam, “Who are Xi Jinping’s enemies,” China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, December 4, 2018,
3b See also “Top Chinese officials forced to carry out self-criticisms,” AFP, December 27, 2018,
4 For a discussion of Xi Jinping’s “concept of the battleground,” see, for example, Cao Zhenghai, “We must boost our awareness of the battleground,” People’s Daily, November 19, 2013,
5 For a discussion of the rationales and manifestations of the “fourfold self-confidence,” see, for example, “The internal rationale and major significance of upholding ‘fourfold self-confidence’,” Hebei Daily, October 27, 2016,
A widely circulated 2015 article entitled “How many people with conscience has God left in China?” has summed up the plight of Chinese who don’t want to become a cog in the machinery of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Not since the late Qing Dynasty when Chinese intellectuals started their “self-strengthening movement” as well as a quixotic quest toward democracy—have the Chinese been so disappointed by their dictatorial rulers. The anonymous article, which is a collection of quotations from famous personages, cited intellectuals as telling how the party-state machinery had tried to reduce them to minions and serfs of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”6 For Zhou Ruijin, a prominent member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the social contract between officials and ordinary folks has been sundered. “Officials think their mission is to rule and manage people—and there is no concept of service,” he noted. “They think that if you are disobedient and do not follow instructions, they can lock you up.”7
Well-known novelist Zhang Kangkang went further regarding the party-state apparatus’s determination to brainwash citizens into submission. Zhang argued that the party “could, if need be, transform everybody into the same type [of people]. They are a highly efficient machinery and they have for the past few decades been churning out a product called slave.”8 Zi Zhongyun, a ranking expert on America studies who was once Mao Zedong’s interpreter, agrees. Zi was convinced that the mission of China’s most prestigious institutes of learning was to “to recruit the most talented students and then to destroy them […] This is a heinous crime against heaven and earth.” Zi expressed fears about the “degeneration of the [qualities] of the Chinese race.”9
For several years before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Deng Xiaoping and such of his liberal disciples as former Party Secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang tried to liberate the minds of not only officials and intellectuals, but also ordinary Chinese from the yoke of stultifying Maoism. The very notion of “thought liberation,” which was the rallying call of then-General Secretary Hu Yaobang (1915-1989) and such of his colleagues as President Xi’s father, party elder Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), presupposed that all citizens were entitled to their own way of thinking—and that they should be free to absorb whatever is best in both the Eastern and the Western traditions.10 Hu and Deng—at least before the latter turned conservative by the mid-1980s—supported the slogan of liberal intellectuals: “Practice is the sole criteria of truth.” Hu, who was sacked from his position of general secretary after the first wave of the student movement in December 1986, even went so far as to say that “Marxism cannot solve all the problems of today.”11 For President Xi, however, truth is what the zhongyang, or the central party leadership symbolized by himself, says. And party members, and by extension well-educated professors and professionals, cannot wangyi (“make groundless criticism of”) the zhongyang.12
6 Cited in “How many people of conscience has God left China,” Bannedbook.org, December 8, 2015,
8 For a discussion of Zhang Kangkang’s ideas about the Chinese system, see, for example, “Zhang Kangkang: do not become a person who knows the most but who has the least [inclination for] thinking and reflection,” Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Novels Monthly), October 31, 2016,
9a “How many people of conscience has God left China,” Bannedbook.org.
9b For a discussion of Zi’s idea on the decline of Chinese culture, see also Zi Zhongyun, “I feel that we have the tendency of going toward savagery,” Culture Sohu Net, January 11, 2016,
10 For a discussion of the “thought liberation” under Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, see, for example, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, The Era of Zhao Ziyang, Hong Kong: A.B. Books & Stationery, 1989, pp. 19-44.
11a For a discussion on the controversy surrounding Hu’s statement on Marxism, see, for example, “China corrects a slip in ideology,” Reuters, December 11, 1984,
11b See also Pico Iyer, “The Second Revolution,” Time, June 24, 2001,
12 For a definition of wangyi zhongyan (“make groundless criticism of the central party authorities”), see, for example, “The Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection explains ‘wangyi zhongyan,’” People’s Daily Online, November 2, 2015,
Much of the CCP’s dogma about the relationship between intellectuals and ordinary citizens on the one hand and the party-state apparatus on the other is encapsulated in Mao Zedong’s idea that individuals are no more than humble servants and serfs of the party machinery. Following Marx and Lenin, Mao indicated that every person has a “class nature” and a dangxing (“party nature”). The goal of the party-state authorities is to ensure that citizens—particularly those who belong to “black categories,” such as capitalists and bourgeois-liberal intellectuals—should undergo self-transformation and thought reform until they have totally subsumed their individuality under a bona fide “proletariat class nature.” Mao also noted that not only CCP members, but all Chinese, should acquire the requisite dangxing (“party nature”), meaning that their thoughts, goals and aspirations should all dovetail with the party’s requirements.13
In his “Talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” of May 1942, the Great Helmsman argued that the triumph of dangxing would “curtail [the phenomena of] ‘individualism,’ ‘heroism’ or ‘anarchy’ among less committed party members.” The corollary of this insistence on “pure upon pure dangxing” is that every party cadre and member should be transmuted—through brainwashing and other means—into a figure like Lei Feng, the altruistic proletariat hero lionized by Mao in the 1950s.14
Moreover, Mao’s interpretation of Marxism-Leninism not only consigns every Chinese to the role of a slave of the party machinery, but also insists that all knowledge must be politically correct and at the service of the regime. Thus, the Great Helmsman underscored the fact that the dangxing theory applied to all kinds of knowledge. He admonished proletariat writers and artists to “take the stand of the party, take the stand of dangxing and the party’s policies.”15 According to Mao, art—together with other forms of knowledge and expertise—has no innate self-sufficiency of its own: it must subserve the higher cause of the revolution. “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, or art that is detached from or independent of politics,” Mao said. “Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause.” Citing Lenin, Mao argued that intellectuals and citizens were but “cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.”16 As knowledge—and what goes through people’s minds—must totally dovetail with dangxing, it is not surprising that Mao devised all sorts of thought control techniques to help CCP members and even ordinary citizens get rid of politically suspect ideas. As Mao put it in another speech during the Yan’an era, there are many fully registered CCP members “who in their thoughts have not fully joined the party—or who have not joined the party at all.” He pointed out that the brains of these unqualified members were full of zangdongxi (“dirty things”) like those of the exploitative classes.17
Mao’s fans included President Xi, who has endorsed many of the tyrant’s most insidious proclivities. The fifth-generation leader gave a strong reaffirmation of the dangxing theory in his August 19, 2013 talk to cadres in charge of ideology and propaganda, when Xi pointed out unequivocally that,
dangxing and renminxing [“the nature of the people”] have always been uniform and unified […] Upholding dangxing means upholding the nature of the people … There is no dangxing that is alienated from the nature of the people, and similarly there is no nature of the people that has forsaken dangxing.18
In other words, ideas and aspirations of the people that are prejudicial to the party’s interests must be banished (see Chapter 2). Marxist theorist Yang Faxiang even claimed that dangxing is the amelioration and sublimation of renxing (“human nature”). “Dangxing serves as guidance to social development and is acquired and followed by advanced members of society,” Yang claimed. “People with high-quality renxing may not qualify to be a superior party member, yet those with high-quality dangxing must necessarily evince renxing.”19
Despite Xi’s claims that he is a disciple of Great Architect of Reform Deng Xiaoping, there is a fundamental difference between the epistemology and world-view of the two leaders. It is true that Deng was adamant about party members heeding the “Four Cardinal Principles” of socialism and CCP leadership. Yet, at least before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Deng adopted an open-minded—and near-heretical—approach to orthodox theories and doctrines, including ways and means of running the economy and society. Unlike Xi, who stresses that everything must be conceived and executed using dangxing as a yardstick, Deng advocated the famous “doctrine of the non-insistence of surnames.”20 This variation of the “two cats theory” meant that, when the party evaluates goals and policies, it should not be bogged down by arguments as to whether they are “surnamed socialist or surnamed capitalist.” All that matters is whether the goals and policies in question are capable of producing beneficial results. Using Deng’s figure of speech, Xi would have serious objections to economic and social theories and policies that are “surnamed capitalist.”21
13 For a discussion of Mao’s views on dangxing, see “Mao Zedong talks about party construction: on individual characteristics and party characteristics,” Research on Party Construction (Beijing), November 20, 2004,
14 See Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (1942) in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung Online,
15 For a discussion of Lenin’s concept of proletariats and party members being the “cogs and wheels of the revolution,” see, for example, Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1992, pp. xxv-xxvi.
16 Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art.”
17 See “Mao Zedong on the qualifications and criteria of members of the Communist Party,” People’s Daily Online, June 12, 2016,
18 Cited in “Xi Jinping: ideological and propaganda work is an extremely important work of the party,” Xinhua News Agency, August 20, 2013,
19 See Yang Faxiang, “Party nature is the amelioration, sublimation and crystallization of human nature,” Study Times (Beijing), August 19, 2013,
20 For a discussion of the “controversy over the surnames,” see “Deng Xiaoping’s talk in southern China has cut the dead knot about ‘surnamed socialist’ vs. ‘surnamed capitalist,’” Xinhua News Agency, November 18, 2011,
21a Xi has on many occasions warned against the party making “subversive mistakes,” that is, political or economic policies that could subvert the socialist system and threaten party rule. He even said, irrespective of how brilliant and effective a policy was, it should not be adopted if it could jeopardize the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” status. In other words, only polices “surnamed socialist” should be considered.
21b See Xi Jinping, “Subversive mistakes must not be made over fundamental issues,” China News Service, October 8, 2013,
President Xi has revived theories about literature and the arts that are a throwback to the strictures of Maoism, which militate against not only global norms, but also former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s ethos about the open-door policy. In October 2014, Xi presided over a seminar on literature and the arts for several dozen exemplary “engineers of the soul,” or writers, artists, musicians and performers who had received official plaudits for singing the praises of orthodox values. The unusual conclave was modeled upon Chairman Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks on Arts and Literature, held in the Shaanxi revolutionary base in 1942.22
The CCP general secretary admonished these top intellectuals to “take patriotism as the leitmotif for artistic creation […] We must provide guidance for people to establish and uphold correct views about history and the state … so that their integrity and backbone as [model] Chinese will be enhanced,” said the party boss. At first, Xi went through the motions of reiterating the Maoist ideals of “letting a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.” It was clear, however, that Mao—and Xi—was using these nice-sounding words to, in his words, “coax the snakes to come out of their pits.”23
“We must develop academic democracy, cultural democracy … and advocate the full discussion of different viewpoints and schools of thought,” Xi said at the meeting. Yet the speech was a stern embodiment of Maoist orthodoxy, beginning with the late chairman’s innocuous-sounding slogan of “serving the masses.” “Literature and the arts should reflect well the people’s voices,” the supreme leader said, and added:
They must uphold the fundamental direction of serving the people and serving socialism […] This is a fundamental demand that the party has made … and whether [the serve-the-people credo] can be fulfilled will determine the future and fate of our literature and the arts.
Reverting to the crass rhetoric of the commissars, the general secretary urged cultural workers to “use light to dissipate darkness, use beauty and goodness to win over ugliness … and let the people see that goodness, hope and dreams lie right in front of them.”24 The obvious corollary is that works that cast doubt on the greatness of Chinese-style socialism and the glorious achievements of the party should be eliminated.
Although Xi cited the importance of “the fusion of Chinese and Western [traditions],” he repeated Mao’s dictum that “things from abroad should subserve Chinese needs.”25 Xi saluted the works of ultra-nationalist blogger Zhou Xiaoping as an example of lofty patriotism. The 33-year-old writer is famous for articles that eulogize the “Chinese Dream” and that criticize the U.S. government for trying to subvert China’s socialist regime. “China’s oriental culture will ultimately defeat Western hegemony,” Zhou wrote in a recent article. He outlined in another article the nine strategies with which “the United States is waging a cultural Cold War against China.” “We must uphold our own cultural values,” he told the People’s Daily. Xi’s decision to heap praise on Zhou, combined with earlier People’s Daily commentaries, seems to indicate that the general secretary is asking artists and men of letters to emulate party sycophants.26
22a Cited in “Xi Jinping’s speech at the seminar for literature and artistic work,” Xinhua News Agency, October 15, 2015,
22b It is significant that Xi, who fancies himself a “21st century Mao,” likes to duplicate major meetings initiated by Chairman Mao. Another example took place in 2014, when Xi organized a meeting on political work in the military in Gutian, a village in Fujian Province that is famous for being the venue where Mao spoke in 1929 on army discipline and strategy.
22c See “Xi Jinping makes major speech at seminar on military work for the army held in Gutian,” Xinhua News Agency, November 1, 2014,
23a Like Mao, Xi has raised the crypto-liberal slogan of “let a hundred flowers bloom” on various occasions, but his suppression of artistic freedom recalls the harsh measures of the late chairman. See, for example, Xi’s speech at a meeting of the China Federation of Literary and Artistic Circles.
23b Cited in “Xi Jinping: raise high the spiritual torch of the people and blow loudly the horn of the advancement of the times,” Xinhua News Agency, November 30, 2016,
24 “Xi Jinping’s speech at the seminar for literature and artistic work.”
25 Cited in “Xi Jinping chairs over senior on literature and artistic work; he emphasizes that the arts should not be tainted by commercial interests,” China News Service, October 15, 2014,
26a Cited in Zhang He and Xu Lei, “An interview with post-1980 Net author Zhou Xiaoping: we must uphold our own cultural values,” People’s Daily, October 24, 2014,
26b See also Cary Huang, “Xi Jinping handshake has bloggers thrust into mainstream,” South China Morning Post, November 2, 2014,
The year 2016 being the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, many commentators have wondered whether the hard-line Xi administration would start a mini cultural revolution. What is indisputable, however, is that the CCP has made it clear that people belonging to the xinheiwulei, or “five new black categories,” would be subject to the dictatorship of the proletariat. These five sectors of the population deemed destabilizing by the regime are: human rights lawyers, underground religious practitioners, dissidents, opinion-leaders on the Internet, and disadvantaged social groupings. Even before the Cultural Revolution, Mao had fingered “landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, evil elements and ‘rightists’” as the enemies of the people who should be done away with.27
The logic of targeting these “black categories” was cogently explained by Yuan Peng, a senior researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The veteran America expert claimed in an article titled “Where do China’s real challenges lie?” that the U.S. was trying to turn members of these five categories into “core groups through which they will infiltrate different strata of China in ‘bottom up’ fashion, so as to create conditions for the ‘transformation’ of China [into a capitalistic country].”28
As we shall see in the following sections, police and state security departments and networks have put together a labyrinthine, all-weather, 24-hour quasi-police-state apparatus to keep even ordinary citizens under control. The anxiety to control the minds and actions of citizens is second nature to the CCP leadership—and not necessarily tied to particular national or international conditions. For example, spying on the people and trying to thwart “collusion” between destabilizing elements and “anti-China Western forces” are as ferociously pursued today as they were in the days of Mao. This is despite the fact that Maoist China was poor and despised by Western countries, whereas China under Xi has become a quasi-superpower that is diligently projecting its hard and soft power around the world.29
One of the secrets of the longevity of CCP rule is its ability to control and tame people, especially intellectuals and NGO organizers who could pose a threat to the regime. Many of the CCP’s cruelest political campaigns, such as the Anti-Right Movement (1957-1959) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) were designed to emasculate intellectuals. Indeed guanren, which can be translated as “controlling people” or “keeping people on a tight leash,” is a central tenet of the CCP’s human-resources strategy. Even relatively liberal leaders such as the late state president Liu Shaoqi, who was hounded to death by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, contributed to the party tradition of nurturing robot-like cadres who unthinkingly toe the party line. Liu’s most famous work, On the Cultivation of a Communist Party Member, is a primer on how to turn cadres into model proletariats who profess undying loyalty to the party.30 For Xi Jinping, ideological and political work must be geared toward changing the worldview of people. “Political work consists of doing work regarding the people,” Xi liked to say. “We must pay close attention to individuals when we do [people-oriented] work. We must never look at things and concepts alone while forgetting [that we are dealing with] people.”31
Whereas the Chinese were forced to recite Mao’s Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s recipe for building up “people’s beliefs” seemed at first sight less doctrinaire and more rounded. In 2014, Xi put forward an array of “socialist core values” to which all party members and citizens should subscribe. The authorities have laid down a 24-character definition of “core values.” At the national level, these norms consist of “prosperity and strength, democracy, civilization and harmony.” At the social level, emphasis is put on “freedom, equality, justice and rule by law.” And at the level of individuals, the relevant values are “patriotism, respect for work, honesty and friendliness.”32 These benchmarks, however, are geared toward the ideological mission of boosting “self-confidence in the path, theory, system and culture” of socialism with Chinese characteristics. As Xi put it repeatedly, the whole party and society must “lift high the leitmotif [of patriotism and socialism] and sing the song of righteousness. […] Only if the people have [the right set of] beliefs can there be hope for the Chinese people and strength for the nation,” he warned.33 Socialist core values and the shidai zhuxuanlv (“leitmotifs of the times”) are taught in schools and universities as well as propagated in factories and workplaces. As Xi reiterated,
we must pay attention to rendering the core values of socialism a matter of routine, tangible, easy to visualize and close to life so that everybody can feel and understand the values and internalize them as spiritual pursuit and externalize them as practical action.34
The corollary of this stringent instruction seems to be that party members and citizens who do not agree with these values will be ostracized and heavily penalized. At the very least, intellectuals and NGO pathfinders who want to propagate other values would be denied any platforms.
Xi’s views on the control of the vehicles of news dissemination—including the Internet and social media (see the following section)—do not depart from the classic CCP notion that information is a weapon that must be wielded by the state.35 Xi has repeatedly called on party and government units handling the media to “deeply push forward propaganda and education on socialism with Chinese characteristics, so that people of all nationalities can unify themselves under the great flag of Chinese-style socialism.” “We must strengthen [public education] on socialist core values,” he noted in late 2013. “We must inculcate a superior atmosphere of positive values that sets store by devotion [to the party] and fostering harmony.”36 Seeking Truth, a well-known CCP mouthpiece, was even more straightforward. It said in a commentary at about the same time that, “at this stage, China cannot sustain the consequence of the loss of control of public opinion.”37
27a Cited in “Beijing’s delineation of the ‘new five black categories’ has been criticized as [reminiscent of] Nazism,” Apple Daily (Hong Kong), August 5, 2012,
27b See also Chang Ping, “How the ‘new five black categories’ are changing China,”Deutsche Welle Chinese, August 2, 2012,
28 Cited in Yuan Peng, “Where does the real challenge to China lie?” People’s Daily, July 31, 2012,
29a For a discussion of China’s overarching plans to project its values and “soft power,” see, for example, Eleanor Albert, “China’s big bet on soft power,” Council on Foreign Affairs, New York, February 9, 2018,
29b See also “China soft power Part I: Beijing finds projecting soft power harder than it appears,” Radio Free Asia commentary, May 15, 2017,
30a See Liu Shaoqi, “On the cultivation of a Communist Party member,” People’s Daily, May 26, 2004,
30b See also Li Zengfu, “Liu Shaoqi and his ‘On the cultivation of a Communist Party member,’” People’s Daily Online, October 21, 2015,
31 Cited in Chen Fang, “What kinds of demands has Xi Jinping made to thirty-six mass groups on fulfilling core values?” Phoenix Television, July 21, 2015,
32 For an elaboration of Xi’s concept of socialist values, see “Xi Jinping’s views on core socialist values,” Xinhua News Agency, December 8, 2016,
34 Cited in “Xi Jinping: render the core socialist values a matter of routine, [easy to] visualize, and a part of life,” People’s Daily, April 12, 2017,
35 For a discussion of the party’s views on the manipulation of public opinion and information, see, for example, “The biggest politics lies in the people’s heart; public opinion is a strong and powerful weapon,” Anhui News Online, February 24, 2016,
36 Cited in “Xi Jinping: we must do a better job in propaganda and ideological work,” Gov.cn, August 20, 2013,
37 Cited in “At this stage, China cannot sustain the consequence of the loss of control over public opinion,” Seeking Truth, August 16, 2013,
From numbers alone, it would seem that the growth of the civil society is relatively fast in China. The concept and practice of civil society or the public sphere did not gain currency even among men and women of letters until several years after Deng Xiaoping kicked off the Era of Reform and Open Door in the late 1970s. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), the number of legally registered NGOs had reached 460,000 in 2012—the year when Xi came to power—up from 354,000 in 2007.38
A big gap, however, exists between the definitions of NGOs given by party and government cadres on the one hand, and liberal professors and civil-society pioneers on the other. Whereas official English media such as China Daily or the English editions of Xinhua and People’s Daily usually use NGOs (or, less frequently, NPOs) to denote civil society organizations, the Chinese versions vary significantly.39 Peking University political scientist and one-time government adviser Yu Keping has identified more than ten types of civil society organizations (CSOs). They include NGOs, NPOs, minjian (people’s or “people-level”) organizations, gongmin tuanti or citizens’ groups, “intermediary organizations,” qunzhong tuanti or groups of the masses, renmin tuanti or people’s groups, shehui zuzhi or social organizations, “Third-Department organizations,” and volunteer groups. “Generally speaking, these different names do not point to substantial differences,” Yu wrote. “Yet a strict examination of their connotations shows that unmistakable differences exist among [these concepts].”40 The major difference seems to be the degree to which the party-state exercises control over these units. Most cadres do not approve of the existence of organizations that are outside the control or purview of the party-state apparatus. What they support are rightly called government--controlled organized NGOs (GONGOs). President Hu Jintao would only recognize government shehui tuanti (“social groups”) and shehui zuzhi (“social organizations”) that are geared toward providing charity and other social services. Xi has followed a similar tack except that he has put significantly more pressure on pretty much all social groupings; the conservative leader has also tried to boost the “decision-making” powers of party cells within these shehui zuzhi.41
Beijing’s basic attitude toward nongovernmental units is a lot more understandable if we examine Deng Xiaoping’s paranoia about civil-society groups wreaking havoc on authoritarian regimes. During the first wave of the student movement in China in December 1986, Deng was immediately alerted to the dangers of Chinese intellectuals taking a leaf out of the book of the anti-communist movement in Poland, which had flourished partly owing to the growth of the civil society. From the early 1980s, non-party and nongovernment groups—mainly the Catholic Church and the independent Solidarity labor movement, as well as disparate organizations of intellectuals and students—were delivering death knells to the Polish Communist Party. In an internal speech in late 1986, Deng told party cadres that “we must beware the Polish disease.” Part of the late patriarch’s meaning was that civil society organizations must never be allowed to sprout in China.42
Then came the student democracy movement of 1989—which led to the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4 the same year. Although the pro-democracy movement of 1989 was mostly spearheaded by academics and students, there was for the first time sizeable participation by private businessmen as well as labor groups not affiliated with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (a party-run organization that is the only legal labor association in China). After the Tiananmen Square movement was crushed, then-Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin warned that “he would bankrupt all the private entrepreneurs.”43 This harsh statement—which was never carried out—was motivated partly by non-state-sector business-people’s overall sympathy with and support for the students. The Tiananmen Square incident served to delay the development of the Chinese civil society by almost a decade.
38 Cited in “Number of NGOs in China grows to nearly 500,000,” China Daily, March 20, 2012,
39a For a discussion of different categories of NGOs in China, as well as their potentials for changing sociopolitical norms, see, for example, Baogang He, The Democratic Implications of Civil Society in China, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1997.
39b Qiusha Ma, Non-Governmental Organizations in Contemporary China: Paving the way to Civil Society? New York: Routledge, 2006.
39c Li Fan, Silent Revolution: Becoming Civil Society in China, Toronto: Mirror Books, 1998.
39d Fengshi Wu and Kin-Man Chan, “Graduated control and beyond: the evolving government-NGO relations,” Chinese Perspectives, Issue 3, 2012, pp. 9-17.
39e Deng Zhenglai, ed., State and Civil Society: The Chinese Perspective, Singapore: World Scientific, 2011.
39f Yu Keping, Democracy is a Good Thing: Essays on Politics, Society and Culture in Contemporary China, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009.
40a For a discussion of different categories of NGOs in China, see Yu Keping, “Chinese civil society: concepts, categorization and institutional environment,” Aisixiang.com, June 9, 2006,
40b See also Jianyu He, “Mapping the Chinese NGO sector,” Booksandideas.net, November 19, 2012,
41a For a study of Hu Jintao’s and Xi Jinping’s policies toward social organizations, see, for example, Diana Fu and Greg Distelhorst, “Grassroots participation and repression under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping,” The China Journal, Vol 79, January 2018,
41b See also Jessica C. Teets, “The future of civil society under Xi Jinping,” China Policy Institute, Nottingham University, April 8, 2015,
41c Chloe Froissart, “Changing patterns of Chinese civil society: comparing the Hu-Wen and the Xi Jinping era,” in Willy WoLap Lam, ed., Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018, pp. 352-371.
42 For a discussion of Deng Xiaoping’s paranoia about Polish democratic ideas spreading into China in the mid-1980s, see, for example, Willy Lam, “The politics of Liu Xiaobo’s trial,” in Jean-Philippe Beja, Fu Hualing and Eva Pils, eds., Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08, and the Challenges of Political Reform in China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012, p. 253.
43 Cited in editorial, “The lucky Jiang Zemin and the out-of-luck China,” Radio Free Asia, September 3, 2002,
Wang Ming, vice-director of Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy, hit the nail on the head when he said that “those who think that the civil society will negate party leadership have not only misunderstood what a civil society is, they have also manifested a lack of political confidence and confidence in the system and institutions [of Chinese-style socialism].”44 Wang was, of course, poking fun at one of President Xi’s most often quoted axioms, that cadres and ordinary citizens must have “self-confidence in the path, theory, system and culture” of socialism with Chinese characteristics. As Professor Wang pointed out in a paper in People’s Forum in 2013, the idea of a civil society presupposes the recognition of certain civil liberties and norms. “The values of civil societies consist of commonly accepted social values expressed in the course of citizens taking their own initiatives in participating in different social activities,” he wrote. “They include a civil spirit based on [the ideas of] freedom, independence and sense of entitlement … as well as social equality and justice.”45
For a political party that is so determined about eliminating real and potential threats, the CCP’s objections to NGOs consists of one word: organization. The party-state apparatus cannot tolerate a well-organized sociopolitical or religious organization that is beyond its control and is capable of at least potentially mounting a challenge to its authority owing to its intricate networking. Li Fan, the well-known head of The World and China Institute, which is an NGO involved with grassroots election issues, pointed out that the most salient feature of Chinese NGOs was their determination to form a network. In a speech given in Beijing in 2014, Li noted that the first goal of NGOs is “to get organized”: “As the CCP often puts it, we must get organized first before we can do anything,” Li said. “When elements in society put together organizations, their major goal is to defend the rights [of disparate sectors].”46 Professor Xia Ming of New York City University argued that it would not be possible for the Xi administration to allow civil-society groups to develop further. “The further development of the civil society will result in the formation of political parties,” he wrote. “That’s why I feel that Xi Jinping is wary of the maturation of the civil society.”47
Most scholars of the civil society envisage inevitable conflict between NGOs and the party-state apparatus. Li Fan noted that, at least in the initial phase of the development of the public sphere, conflict between individual groups and regional governments—especially grassroots administrations at the level of counties, townships and rural townships—would be most vehement. “The relations between NGOs and provincial-level governments are better, and [the former] do not have direct contradictions with the central leadership,” Li said. “While it is true that regional policies often come from the top, conflicts between the civil society and government mostly take place at the grassroots level.”48 Since Xi ascended the pinnacle of power, however, he has taken initiatives to snuff out even mild, apparently non-politicized, units of the public sphere.
From the perspective of Xi Jinping—and social sciences specialists aligned with the party—NGOs as a whole constitute a direct threat to national security. This is particularly so given the apparently close association between a good number of social- and political-oriented NGOs and their counterparts in Western countries. According to deputy director of the government-funded China Charity Information Centre, Liu Youping, the 1,000-odd American NGOs active in China have donated some 20 billion yuan to the country in the past three decades. The bulk of this funding has gone into colleges, think thanks and government organs. Yet, even though only an estimated 17 percent of the funds has been donated to Chinese NGOs, Liu asserted that financing from American NGOs “has had an impact [on China’s sociopolitical development] that is bigger than the 2 trillion yuan invested by American companies in the PRC.” Liu cited institutions such as the Carnegie Foundation, the Open Society Fund, the Asia Foundation and the Ford Foundation as having a significant impact on “the research and dissemination of [ideas related to] political reform, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”49
Beijing’s fear of collusion between politically active domestic NGOs and their foreign patrons is the reason behind the promulgation of a stringent law applied to overseas NGOs in 2016 (see the following section). It is significant that the CCP administration is also nervous about the activities of Hong Kong-based foreign NGOs, which range from missionary organizations to democracy-fostering American foundations, spreading their influence into the mainland. However, with the imminent promulgation in Hong Kong of the so-called Article 23 National Security Legislation, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities might secure the legal basis for banning or strictly constricting the activities of foreign NGOs and even foreign human rights watchdogs based in the special administration region.50
44 Cited in Wang Ming, “Analyzing civil society from different levels,” People’s Forum, No. 28, 2013,
46 Cited in “Li Fan: the current state of the Chinese civil society,” Aisixiang.com, December 13, 2014,
47 Cited in Ji Dahe, The Orientations of Xi Jinping, Taipei, Leaders’ Press, 2015, pp. 156-162.
48 “Li Fan: the current state of the Chinese civil society.”
49 For a discussion of Beijing’s fears about foreign NGOs interfering in domestic politics, see Liu Youping, “The situation and influence of the charitable activities of American NGOs in China,” Aisixiang.com, August 15, 2015,
50 For a study of the impact on the enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law in Hong Kong, see, for example, Elson Tong, “Reviving Article 23 (Part II): old wine in new bottles for Hong Kong’s national security debate,” February 18, 2018,
One year after Hu Jintao came to power at the 16th Party Congress of late 2002, there were 142,000 social, unofficial and non-party-affiliated organizations in China, up 6.8 percent from the year before. However, only 1,736 of such units had national or cross-provincial networks, and most of these organizations were GONGOs. All of them needed to be registered by—and to accept the supervision of—the. It should also be noted that the MCA and other party cadres usually use the terms minjian zuzhi (non-official or “people’s organizations”) or shehui zuzhi (social organizations)—and not NGOs—to denote these unofficial outfits.51
Two of the enduring slogans of the Hu Jintao era (2002-2012) were “putting people first” and “creating a harmonious society.” Both teachings would seem to predispose the Hu administration toward showing more tolerance to the fledgling civil society. Being an innately conservative politician, however, Hu was hardly a supporter of non-party-controlled social organizations. In fact, he shared the paranoia of Russian president Vladimir Putin that civil society groupings in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan—which had reportedly secured financial and other kinds of support from the U.S.—were behind the “color revolutions” in these countries. Not long after the change of regime in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, Hu issued internal instructions to counter the fast growth of NGOs in China.52
Hu adopted a largely two-pronged approach toward minjian zuzhi and social organizations. Those which defy party and government leadership—and which are deemed to be potentially destabilizing—should be tightly controlled by police departments, if not abolished outright. However, Hu also realized that nonpolitical units, especially shehui zuzhi or social organizations that provide gongyi or “public welfare” services, should be encouraged, particularly if they accept close government supervision. In a number of cases, however, these shehui zuzhi were more akin to privately run and financed, government-approved, charity and social-service providers rather than “Western-style” NGOs that are geared toward promoting social justice.53
In a speech on “social management and its innovation” given to senior cadres in March 2011, Hu noted that the party and government should “provide guidance to different social organizations to strengthen their self-construction and to boost their ability to provide services.” The fourth-generation potentate also highlighted the need to “push forward the healthy and orderly development of social organizations.”54 It is clear, however, that Hu and his colleagues had no intention of propagating NGOs that might boost public consciousness of civil rights. A June 2004 report in the Chinese-controlled Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong quoted Beijing think-tank members as saying that the CCP should boost efforts in “guiding and leading” minjian zuzhi. It was even suggested that party cells be established within such unofficial associations.55
Hu’s views notwithstanding, liberal cadres and scholars within Hu’s Communist Youth League Faction demonstrated considerable tolerance toward NGOs. One of them was “Young Marshal” Wang Yang, who was a Politburo member and party secretary of Guangdong from 2007 to 2012. Under the rallying call of “improving social management,” Wang argued that more leeway and authority should be given to shehui zuzhi. “We should enhance [the extent of] transferring the functions of government [to society],” Wang said in a meeting of Guangdong officials in 2011. “We should not be stingy in ‘delegating powers’ to social organizations, and allowing social organizations to ‘take over the baton’ [from the government].” Wang said the Guangdong administration should gradually farm out more work to shehui zuzhi, “if social organizations are up to the task of taking over jobs [handed over to them by official units] and if they can manage them well.” Guangdong also liberalized registration procedures for NGOs: they no longer needed to be a subsidiary of a body recognized by the party-state apparatus.56 Unfortunately, Wang’s open-mindedness about social organizations not directly controlled by the CCP was not shared by too many other regional party secretaries, governors or mayors. His successor for the period 2012-2017, Hu Chunhua, rolled back a significant number of liberalization measures introduced by Wang, including the lenient treatment of NGOs. For example, several labor-oriented NGOs were disbanded—and their office-bearers arrested—in late 2015 and early 2016.57
51 Cited in Yu Keping, “The emergence of Chinese civil society and its significance to governance,” Cccpe.com, Winter 2002,
52 For a discussion of Hu’s reaction to the “color revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, see, for example, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006, pp. 173-174.
53 For a discussion of Hu Jintao’s policy toward NGOs, see “Policy Brief No. 10: The 18th Party Congress and China’s Civil Society,” China Development Brief (Beijing), December 3, 2012,
54 Cited in “Hu Jintao makes important speech at start of seminar for major provincial leaders on social management and its innovation,” Xinhua News Agency, March 20, 2011,
55 Cited in Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era, pp. 243-44.
56a Cited in Chen Zhengxin, “Wang Yang: we will delegate to social organizations whatever they ‘are capable to handle and manage well,’” Guangzhou Daily, November 24, 2011,
56b See also “Guangdong social organizations need not have a sponsoring supervision unit when they are registered,” Xinhua News Agency, November 24, 2011,
57a Cited in Yaxue Cao, “Chinese authorities orchestrate surprise raid of labor NGOs in Guangdong, arresting leaders,” China Change, December 10, 2015,
57b See also “Guangdong labour activists to face trial by end of September,” China Labor Bulletin, September 13, 2016,
Indeed, the atmosphere for the enlargement of the public sphere could not be characterized as negative through the 2000s. Prominent scholars and social planners who were close to the party-state apparatus were giving relatively positive assessments of NGOs and the civil society. This was despite the fact that many academics’ definition of NGOs presupposed at least some degree of party-state control, if not acquiescence over such outfits.
Despite his official status, Director of the Institute of International Strategy at the Central Party School Zhou Tianyong was an avid supporter of the civil society, which he called minjian organizations. “In countries with a developed market economy, minjian organizations, in tandem with a modern government and the system of market economy, constitute the basic structure of modern governance,” he wrote in People’s Daily in 2008. Zhou argued that the function of such minjian units was to “act as a bridge among the party, government and society” in addition to “pushing forward the self-regulation and self-government of society and cutting the administrative costs of running a society.” Although Zhou underscored the imperative of minjian organizations obeying party leadership and government coordination, he at the same time noted that these units “serve to safeguard citizens’ rights to form associations and to promote citizens’ participation in public affairs.”58
Many observers considered 2008—the year of the horrendous earthquake in Sichuan province—as the Year of the Birth of the NGO. As Xu Yongguang, a pioneer in establishing charitable and gongyi (public interest) groups in China, put it, the natural disaster precipitated the large-scale flowering of gongmin yishi (“citizen consciousness”) or “public consciousness under modern rule of law” among ordinary citizens. On the one hand, he said, “citizen consciousness represents people’s sense of responsibility to the country and society.” At the same time, gongmin yishi incorporated ideals such as “democracy and the rule of law, liberty and equality as well as fairness and righteousness.” “During the earthquake,” Xu concluded, “citizens’ rights to know, to participate [in society] and to supervise [the government] received unprecedented respect, and their sense of responsibility as citizens enjoyed tremendous expression.” NGOs and allied groups raised more than 30 billion yuan in funds for the reconstruction of devastated northern Sichuan.59
Among “establishment intellectuals” or government-affiliated scholars who often serve in the informal think tanks of Politburo members, Yu Keping (born 1959) was the most eloquent supporter of the civil society. Yu defined NGOs as “social and people’s organizations that are not run by the government, that are non-profit making, and that manifest voluntarism and are geared toward economic and social service.” Yu argued that NGOs could contribute to “social renovation,” a term that first gained currency during the Hu regime. “There are similarities and differences between social renovation and government renovation,” Yu said in 2010. “Social innovation is innovation in the [minjian] field; it is innovation that is being spearheaded by citizens themselves.” He argued that citizens’ social participation through working in NGOs “can not only lower the government’s administrative costs but also materialize the zhutixing [‘initiative and self-sufficiency’] of citizens by encouraging them to express the popular will and to boost their enthusiasm for [social] participation.” The scholar suggested that, in tandem with the development and improvement of the social management system, the government could fenliu (“farm out”) some of its administrative powers to civil organizations, so that the latter can help the government shoulder part of its administrative and management functions. “This tallies well with the spirit of democracy,” Yu concluded.60
The early 2000s witnessed the beginning of party-state units funding at least partially government-controlled social organizations to provide public services. In 2010, for example, the Beijing municipal government earmarked 100 million yuan for the “purchase” of 300 items of charitable and social services provided by some 250 shehui zuzhi. Each variety of service was eligible to receive 30,000-300,000 yuan. In 2014, the municipal government of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province doled out an unspecified amount of funds to buy social services from five private-sector social-service providers to furnish old-age services to 3,000 local citizens.61
58 Cited in Zhou Tianyong and Wu Hui, “Develop the positive functions of people’s organizations and religion,” People’s Daily, May 4, 2008,
59 See Xu Yongguang, “2008: the first year of the Chinese civil society,” People’s Daily, June 3, 2008,
60 See Yu Keping, “China must implement social renovation via nurturing a civil society,” People’s Daily, May 26, 2010,
61a Cited in “The Beijing municipal government is spending 100 million yuan to purchase 300 counts of livelihood services,” China Securities News, July 30, 2010,
61b “The government is buying welfare services from five social organizations,” Suzhou News Net, July 19, 2014,
From the outset, the Xi Jinping administration has made it clear that it does not recognize NGOs or NPOs as they are universally defined. At most, Xi only tolerates so-called shehui zuzhi or social organizations that provide supplementary social and public services to Chinese residents. As in other socio-economic arenas, Xi has placed the utmost emphasis on party leadership of such shehui zuzhi, which can be interpreted as GONGOs that are under enhanced control by the party-state apparatus. The imperative of the establishment of party cells in social organizations and similar outfits was spelled out in the “Draft Regulation on the Work of Chinese Communist Party organizations,” which was passed in May 2015. The draft regulation empowered “party organizations to be set up within the leadership organs of state departments, mass organizations, economic organizations, cultural organizations, social organizations and other organizations.” It was the first time that a party regulation unequivocally stipulated that party cells must be established in civil-society units. According to Professor Zhang Xixian of the Central Party School, this new rule was geared toward “boosting the party’s leadership over social organizations at a time when social organizations are going through the stage of vigorous development.”62
Xi’s approach to taming the civil society was further revealed by the dissemination of Opinion on reforming the management system of social organizations and promoting the healthy and orderly development of social organizations (hereafter “Opinion”), which was largely drafted by the, the “mother-in-law” unit that regulates civil-society organizations. Opinion, which was released in 2016, said that the central authorities were committed to “clarifying the relationship between the government, the market and society” and to “improving the ways in which public services are provided [so as to] strengthen and make innovations regarding shehui zhili [‘social governance’].” The MCA indicated that Beijing was positive about social organizations providing services that the government or the market could not provide—and it noted that the government would continue to provide funds for qualified shehui zuzhi to offer public services. However, echoing the imperative that Xi has underscored about party leadership, Opin