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Through Chinese eyes: Jia Xijin (part 1)

25 January 2012 11:46

Armed with your questions, Peter Martin and Nathan Beauchamp speak to Jia Xijin (pictured), an expert on Chinese civil society and citizen participation. Previous instalments in this series here and here.

Lei Gong: What is the current state of development of Chinese civil society? How is the development of civil society oriented in terms of its independence, integration, or lack thereof from the state?

There are two ways of looking at civil society in China. I would personally use civil society in a Western sense of a self-governing society which develops from the bottom up. In this sense, China's civil society is not very developed, but has grown little-by-little since 1978, especially since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. After that, awareness of citizen participation really increased. Each year has seen new developments, including the development of the 'grassroots', 'microblogs', and 'micro-social movements'.

But that is only one way to look at civil society in China. It's not only developed in a bottom-up way. Some scholars use civil society to describe all the areas outside government and business. That's much broader because in China you can find many social organisations which represent the Party or the Government but are not part of the Party or Government: we call them GONGOs, or Government-organised non-Government organisations. They may register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs or directly with the Party. Examples include the Women's Federation, the Youth League, and labor unions. They are also part of what China calls civil society, but they aren't civil society according to my definition because they're not self-governing, and they're not bottom-up. 

Sebastian Haymann: How do you interpret the Government's move to solicit public opinion on certain issues (public hearings, online surveys etc)?

I think the Government increasingly says it wants to hear from citizens. They are trying to explore more ways to reach citizens. It happens in many areas like public policy, city planning, and even some courts. But the efficiency of these kinds of citizen participation is doubtful because there are not many formal channels to confirm the effects of this participation. The results of these solicitations depend on whether or not the Government wants to listen. If leaders want to ignore these consultations, they can do so.

Public opinion in general though is increasingly important. When something happens, and public opinion spreads across the whole of society, then it can create real pressure. This kind of pressure means that the Government has to take public opinion into account. We can even find some examples of the Government changing its opinion, even in the wrong direction, but following public opinion. For example, lawyers might look at a case in a very professional way, but public opinion can be extremely emotional and the final decision of a judge might be influenced by this kind of emotion. In these kinds of cases, it's hard to say whether it's good or not.

Weh Yeoh: With the rise of the power of the netizen in China, do you see the increased resistance and criticism of the Government on the web as being able to translate into real action and change in the way China is governed?

That's a good question because websites have become so powerful in China. People may say the internet, especially micro-blogs, have become the first influential social force in China. I would say as long as there is a high social voice on the internet, there must be an influence on public policy or decision-making process, but the Government has also learned to deal with such opinions and has tried to 'guide' them.

In some other cases, if people use the internet with the strong intention of doing something specific, it can be effective. For example, the Xiamen PX project. This was one of the first cases where people came together and went to demonstrate. They were connected by the internet. It's hard to identify the leader because there was no leader. People just delivered their messages online. People went to the same place at the same time and demonstrated, even though we don't call them demonstrations because demonstrations are not legal in China. We just call it 'taking a walk together'. This has also happened in Shanghai and other cities. In these kinds of cases, public opinion can be most efficient because people have a very strong interest in doing something.

Enrico Fardella: Can we imagine a future where the internet takes the place of the parliament as a filter between the masses and the leadership?

I think I wouldn't say the internet could play the role of a parliament because parliament is organised and has formal power in the decision-making process. The internet is much more loosely organised and it doesn't have formal power. It doesn't have voting procedures; it cannot make decisions. People can just show their opinions.

The internet plays a role more like a 'public space'. People can learn to express themselves. This is a very important ability, where people have very little experience or ability in China. We don't have this training in school or university, but the internet is a good way for people to learn to express themselves, and then to listen to others, to discuss with others and be tolerant of others' opinions.

Peter and Nathan: Do you think the internet in China is tolerant?

Not so tolerant, but the internet itself has some characteristics of tolerance. Unless you are the forum manager, you can't delete others' posts. You have to see other people's opinions there and you need to learn that there are many voices in the world, not just one voice like you're told in school. In school, you're told there's one answer, the right answer. On the internet, people can learn that there is sometimes no right answer, just noise, and you try to persuade others of your opinion even if you can't be successful.