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MERICS Workshop

November 10, 2015

China’s civil society is currently shaped by two contradictory trends. On the one hand, the Chinese government is increasing restrictions, visible in the arrests of human rights activists or in the new law on national security. On the other hand, state actors actively encourage some parts of civil society, especially the ones that provide social services or contribute to economic growth.

Against this backdrop, MERICS held a workshop to identify and discuss informal spaces in which societal actors are able to pursue collective goals. Under the headline of 'social self-organisation', presenters provided three perspectives on collective action. Sabine Mokry introduced Simon Lang’s work on labor protestors, Chang Zheng examined platforms for start-up entrepreneurs and Phil Entwistle presented insights into urban Protestant communities.  While these groups differ significantly from each other, all of them have seen rapid growth.

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In order to make the three cases comparable, the presenters developed a framework connecting the space available to a group for social self-organisation, specifically their internal factors and goals, with the impact they have on the party-state, the economy and society, and the party-state and society’s response towards them. The presenters concluded by analyzing factors which expand or shrink spaces for social self organisation, an economic slowdown and pressure by local governments for protesting laborers, policy support and better job opportunities elsewhere for start-up platforms and loosened religious restrictions and politicization of church for urban protestant communities.

The workshop brought together scholars, policy-makers, and representatives from civil society organizations. Many participants appreciated the presenters’ comparative approach and emphasized that usually people working on such different forms of collective action rarely speak to each other. Important issues that came up during the discussion were the definition of key terms such as formal and informal and the question of to what extent concepts such as the state/society dichotomy were applicable to the Chinese context. Participants discussed also what implications broader societal trends, such as widespread usage of social media and an increasing social and geographical mobility are having on social self-organization. In addition, they pointed out that the cases presented were largely drawn from first-tier cities, and argued that the situation might be different for groups operating further away from Beijing. 

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