Since the 1990s an ongoing discourse on civil society and on the application of this concept has arisen among Chinese intellectuals. Whereas in the early 1990s many academics wanted to "learn" from this "Western concept", meanwhile the focus has shifted to whether the concept is applicable to China's conditions and if so how to implement it. Undoubtedly, the understanding and perception of the civil society concept differs significantly from Western notions. In China, civil society is perceived as a non-confronting model that should not pose a challenge to the state.
It is open to debate if under authoritarian conditions a gradual development of civil society structures is feasible and prone to facilitate the transition to a democratic system. I side with those authors who claim that key patterns of a civil society can also evolve under different political systems. Accordingly, I am specifically interested if some kinds of social actions are emerging in China which at first are not yet fully autonomous, but which are not congruent with the party-state, and finally may become nuclei of autonomous social fields beyond state control.
Accordingly, I will give evidence that the Chinese state plays a particular role in activating structures of a latent civil society top-down. Furthermore, I argue that under conditions of civilisational incompetence and the prevalence of traditional structures like danwei (the traditional work or social unit), clan and kinship, the state has to operate as an engineer of those structures. My presentation is organized around three main hypotheses. First, basic structures of a civil society are gradually evolving; secondly, those structures are top-down engineered by the party-state. Thirdly, an authoritarian (illiberal) type of civil society which the party-state attempts to control is emerging. It is illiberal in the sense that it is activated by the state and regulated by state interference and not yet by law and that a public space within which people may pursue their interests exists only in a restricted and limited way. The core argument is that a civil society requires structures and institutions, which in the case of China the party-state is activating, in order to solve major social and political problems. This does not automatically lead to a civil society worth its name but may facilitate a transition to democratic structures and thus the transition to a civil society in future.
Professor Dr Thomas Heberer is Chair of East Asian Politics at the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen. He received his PhD from Bremen University. He is the author of Doing Business in Rural China: Liangshan's New Entrepreneurs (University of Washington Press 2007), co-author of Rural China: Economic and Social Change in the Late Twentieth Century (Armonk/New York and London: M.E. Sharpe 2006) and co-editor of Regime Legitimacy in Contemporary China: Institutional Change and Stability (London, New York: Routledge 2008). His main research interests are political, institutional and social change, political cultures, participation and elections, agents of change and strategic groups (entrepreneurs, peasants, ethnic minorities, etc), and social deviation and corruption.