International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civil Society and Social Capital in China

  • Kin-man ChanEmail author
  • Vitrierat Ng
Living reference work entry


Though a relatively autonomous social sphere existed in China for centuries, the term civil society as commonly understood in western discourse is new. Guanxi or instrumental-personal ties in China could also be understood as social capital but rarely did scholars relate it to the networks and resources brought by civic groups. The number of civic groups and service-providing nongovernmental organizations has grown over time, despite the rather and increasingly unfriendly legal and political environment in which they develop. Two of the many pressing challenges facing civil society in China today are securing sustainable resources and maintaining financial, operational, and political autonomy.


The concept of civil society is somewhat foreign to most Chinese people, although a relatively autonomous societal space, minjian shehui, existed in traditional China until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. During Mao’s rule, independent social groups were either banned or absorbed into the party-state structure. The idea of civil society was introduced into China after the launch of reforms in the late 1970s, as the Chinese state gradually withdrew from the economic and social arenas. There has been phenomenal growth in the number of civic groups in China, especially business, professional, and academic associations, although Unger and Chan (1995) query whether these groups constitute a system of corporatism rather than civil society. Recent studies of grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, reveal that many of these groups are devoted to providing services to the underprivileged, poverty alleviation, rural education, public health, and environmental protection. They are relatively autonomous and are paving the way toward civil society (Chan 2005; Chan et al. 2005; Ma 2006).

Social capital is understood as the resources embedded in social networks, and the Chinese are famous for making use of guanxi or instrumental-personal ties (Walder 1986), to acquire the resources that they need. The discussion of social capital in China in this entry, however, focuses on the production of these recourses through civic groups rather than personal networks. It discusses the shift from a vertically concentrated network of groups to a hybrid mix of both vertical and horizontal networks and whether civic groups can provide an institutional basis for social integration in China.

Civil Society

Civil society is often defined as a societal structure composed of autonomous civic organizations located between the state and the family (Frentzel-Zagorska 1990; Cohen and Arato 1995). This concept of civil society is rooted in a liberal tradition that pits society against the state. Huang (1993) argues that in traditional Chinese society, the public arena was understood as the “third realm” where state and social groups such as kinship organizations met and cooperated, and hence should not be mistaken for civil society or the public sphere in the Western sense of these terms.

The idea of civil society was not directly transplanted into Chinese soil, given the notion’s cultural and political baggage. Chinese scholars are exceedingly cautious about constructing a discourse of civil society. According to Ma (1994), the first Chinese publication related to the subject appeared in 1986 with an article by Shen Yue who unearthed the concept of “townspeople’s rights” (shimin quanli) from the classical writings of Marx (Shen 1986). It means the right to equal exchange of commodities available to all that implies the universality of civil rights for different classes, and is a concept that is remarkably similar to “civil society.” Deng (Deng and Jing 1992), who is fully aware of this concept, has adopted “townspeople’s society” in advocating for the construction of civil society in China. Chinese scholars have borrowed the concept of civil society to construct modern citizenry that are law-abiding and civil members of society, without excluding active involvement of the state (Ma 1994).

Since the 1990s, however, the translation of the term “civic groups” has evolved, from “social organizations” (shehui tuanti) and “intermediate organizations” (zhongjian tuanti) (Wang et al. 1993) to “people’s organizations” (minjian zuzhi). In 1995, many Chinese learned for the first time the term “nongovernmental organization” (NGO) because of the prominent presence of NGOs at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. The first research institute in China in this field, the NGO Research Center of Tsinghua University, was established in 1998. However, Peking University was the pioneer in using the term “civil society” (gongmin shehui) in setting up a similar institute, the Center for Civil Society Studies, in 2005. In 2006, the Institute for Civil Society was established at Sun Yat-sen University, signifying the growing acceptance of the idea of civil society in the Chinese academic world. Nevertheless, the term has been officially banned since 2013 due to Chinese government’s paranoia that it is an ideology that would incite subversion of its power as was the case in countries with Color Revolutions.

Civil society has acquired a wide range of meanings in China. In the broader sense, it can mean a society constituted by people in their role as citizens. This notion of civil society, or “civilized society,” emphasizes the citizenry and civic virtue of people, and is appealing to Chinese because in the past they were defined as “people” (renmin) in the political sense without due legal protection of their rights. The Cultural Revolution further demoralized a generation of Chinese who had once been committed to “serve the people” but was finally traumatized by a series of political struggles. The idea of citizenship speaks to many Chinese who now demand proper protection of civil rights and value the genuine expression of social obligations, such as volunteering. In a narrower conceptualization, scholars have conceived civil society as autonomous social groups composed of NGOs or nonprofit organizations (NPOs) that provide services to alleviate social problems, promote participation, and social change but implicitly or explicitly disengaged with democratic values (Spires 2011; Teets 2013). With the wide spread of Internet access in China, online networks and cyberspaces have also become means of civic action.

Social Capital

The idea of social capital has begun to take root in China although Chinese have a long tradition of cultivating social relationships. The concept of social capital was introduced by Bourdieu (1977), who defines it as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” Coleman (1990) defines social capital as a productive structure of social relationships. The concept calls for analysis at the individual and the collective level. Scholars investigating the individual level of social capital such as Lin (1999) and Burt (1992) focus on the social resources that one can assess in social networks and the instrumental utility of such resources (Lin 1999). In contrast, those examining the collective level of social capital focus on how groups or associations develop and maintain social capital in terms of trust and norms of reciprocity. According to Putnam, social capital of this kind is crucial for maintaining effective democracy and capitalism (Putnam 1993).

The importance of social capital was recognized in China before the concept gained popularity in the West. However, the emphasis has mainly been on the individual rather than the collective aspect of social capital. Guanxi or instrumental-personal ties (Walder 1986) is perceived to be important in Chinese society in terms of the social resources within social networks that one can access and utilize. Little attention has been paid to social capital at the collective level until recently. The influence of participation in social groups on the overall social and economic development in China is unclear as yet.

Empirical Data

A special issue of Modern China (April, 1993) was devoted to a debate on whether civil society existed in traditional China. It was agreed that a relatively autonomous social sphere existed in the past because of the limited capacity of the state to penetrate into the vastness of rural China. Huang (1993), however, argues that this “third realm” should not be seen as a liberal sphere aiming at taming state power. Madsen (2002) argues that even the word “society” was transplanted from the West into China through Japan in the nineteenth century. Madsen (1986) found that by translating a public domain such as a village into a private domain, that is, family, traditional society could motivate people to contribute to the public good through Confucian (family) ethics.

However, a number of studies show that a nascent civil society emerged in the late Qing and early Republican periods, that is, during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century (Rankin 1986; Strand 1989). Chambers of Commerce, guilds, kinship organizations, charity groups, and intellectual associations were established for fostering not only economic and cultural activities but also social and political participation. Intellectual salons, teahouses, and temples became part of a public sphere in which people could discuss public matters. This surge in associations and the development of a public sphere was partly due to rapid commercialization and the rise of urban centers in this period. It was also caused by the waning of the imperial state, which led to a relaxation of political control and an increasing need for local self-governance (White et al. 1996). These associations continued to participate in social and political affairs in the Republican period, but after the Nationalist government was set up in Nanjing in 1927, the party changed its strategy. It no longer sought to develop strong civic associations (to support its bid for national power) but rather to consolidate its rule by empowering the state through a combination of repression and incorporation. Radical organizations suspected of having a Communist background were suppressed or disbanded.

After the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, associational life was further curtailed as spontaneous social forces were seen as a threat to the new regime. Society was organized by the party-state based on a principle of vertical rule. People were incorporated into hierarchically organized institutional systems through danwei (work units). The horizontal links of individuals and organizations across these danwei were restricted, and people’s lives were encapsulated within these systems. During this period, civic organizations were either banned or incorporated into official organizations such as the Women’s Federation and Federation of Industry and Commerce.

The reforms that began in the late 1970s have brought dramatic changes to China. The gradual withdrawal of the Chinese state from the economic sector has resulted in the development of a strong market economy over the past three decades, but the promotion of “small government, big society” since the 1990s has yet to make a comparable impact. Immediately following the democracy movement of 1989, the Regulation on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations was enacted. After a screening period, the number of social groups was cut down to 107,304 in 1991. By the third quarter of 2018, however, the number had grown exponentially to 796,819, including 362,000 social organizations (shehui tuanti or associations with membership), 428,000 “nongovernmental nonenterprise danwei” (minban feiqiye danwei or social services NPOs), and 6819 foundations. Moreover, the sector has hired more than 13.5 million people by the end of 2017 (according to official website of the Ministry of Civil Affairs:

By the end of 2017, according to official statistics, 16.6% of social organizations were business organizations, such as trade associations or guilds, 13.5% were social service groups, 22.5% were professional and developmental groups, such as accountant associations, and 7% were academic associations. The rest were sports and recreational, cultural, religious, and other groups. They were established to enhance market transition, provide services to the needy, and enrich people’s cultural lives. Religious, environmental, and public health groups were relatively few in number, not to mention advocacy or human rights groups. Looking at their governance structure, many of these groups were far from nongovernmental. A study in the late 1990s in Guangzhou found that in only 20% of these groups was the board of directors made up of everyday citizens. The board of directors of the majority was partly or completely made up of officials (Chan 2005). Hence, most of these social organizations are called GONGOs (government-organized nongovernmental organizations) in China. Scholars such as Unger and Chan (1995) argue that these groups constitute a system of corporatism – interest representation in which a limited number of constituent units are created and recognized by the state as monopolizing representatives of respective sectors.

After the 2000s and before Xi’s era, there was a dramatic increase in the number of truly nongovernmental civic groups flourishing in every corner of Chinese society outside the state registration system. While Wang and He (2004) estimated that these civic groups may number as many as 30,000–50,000 nationwide and that the number of unregistered NPOs may be as high as 200,000–300,000, Keping Yu – the director of Peking University Research Center for Chinese Politics – offered in 2010 the latest estimation which was possibly tenfold the previous estimation – three million (Xia 2010). Unable to fulfill the legal requirements for registration, many of these groups are forced to operate without legal protection. While it might be risky, some have chosen to become “patronized groups” (guakao organizations) sheltered by government units, state or private enterprises, mass organizations, or registered social organizations, others had registered as commercial entities to acquire quasi-legal status to continue their operation (Chan 2005; Chan et al. 2005). They are skillful in tapping into high levels of human resources – volunteers, boards of directors, and informal government ties – even without official government approval for their activities (Spires et al. 2014). When working in sensitive areas such as labor, NGOs needed to be careful not to overstep the tacit boundaries (e.g., try not to organize trade unions) that have been laid down by the government.

Moreover, since the reform era, there has been a transition in the social sector structure in China – from government arrangement to social innovation models, such as outsourcing where governments contract out public services to civil society groups (Teets 2012) and nonprofit incubator which is a new form of intermediary organizations that mediates the relationship between governments and grassroots civic groups (Han 2016). The transition has supported civic groups to obtain funding from the government to provide services. Another source of funding is overseas organizations. These practices were allowed because NGO regulations were vague and ambiguous. Though it is problematic for civic groups to operate in such “gray” legal zone, the keys to lowering the risks were to provide services to address social problems and grievances against the state while refraining from making democratic claims (Spires 2011), and avoid causing harm to state security and social stability (Deng 2010). In addition to digital and Internet revolution, many groups exist as virtual organizations by setting up websites and communicating through email and discussion forums. The extensive use of the Internet not only cuts organizational costs but is also a way to avoid political risk. Not only have these conditions allowed civil society to emerge and develop, but also empowered civic groups in becoming policy entrepreneurs (Chan and Lai 2018) or taking part in the policy making process to the least (Han 2016) that are operationally autonomous (Teets 2013).

As concluded in the Civicus Civil Society Index Report (NGO Research Center of Tsinghua University 2006), a nascent civil society has developed in China. The environment for this development is not particularly friendly given the legal and political restrictions. The structure of this civil society is rather fragile given the limited participation of citizens (37% of the population are members of at least one civic group; 57% of the population are volunteers in loose sense, meaning giving hand to others without pay) and lack of sustainable resources. Chinese civil society, however, exhibits a good degree of commitment to universal values such as equity, nonviolence, and tolerance. Such conditions are conducive to the positive development of Chinese civil society. Moreover, it has had a remarkable impact on poverty eradication and environmental causes.

In the midst of an emerging civil society in China, Xi’s governance has tightened its grip on civil society. There have been more crackdown incidents of human rights groups and detained lawyer and activists since the beginning of the Xi era. In addition, the drafting of the “Overseas NGO Management Law” (jingwai feizhengfu zuzhi guanlifa) by the Public Security Bureau in 2015 has caught much attention from local and abroad. With the number of occurrences of civil society crackdowns by the Chinese government, Yu (2016) reported the NGOs’ fear about the bill, citing that the enacted law would force many foreign NGOs to leave while hurting domestic NGOs that rely on overseas funding and support. Hsu and Teets (2016) perceive otherwise, arguing that the NGO sector in China “is not a passive victim, but a dynamic actor that pushes back to serve its own interests.” The law was officially implemented in January 2017 (National People’s Congress: Equally worthy of attention (though less known when it was first drafted) to the Overseas NGO Management Law but seemingly less ominous to civil society in China is the “Charity Law” (cishan fa) passed and implemented in 2016 (National People’s Congress: Unlike the “Overseas NGO Management Law” that regulates overseas NGOs, the “Charity Law” deals with domestic NGOs. Whether new NGO laws are de facto a hindrance or support to the development of civil society in China remains an empirical question to be further studied.

Can the civic groups discussed above create social capital in China? In fact, quite a number of studies have investigated the individual level of social capital in China, and most of them relate social networks with social mobility and social stratification (Lin 1999; Bian 1997). Of those examining the collective level, Chan and Qiu (1999) are among the first to apply Putnam’s theory to the context of China. Their study showed that many registered social organizations lack autonomy and demonstrate over-reliance on government. The vertical control of government over associations has also hindered them from developing horizontal connections with peer associations, and such connections are regarded as a key component to fostering trust and norms of reciprocity within a society. This finding, however, is far from conclusive. Wang and He (2004) argued that associations with good connections with the state may be more resourceful and still capable of producing social capital. In addition, the shift in social sector has changed the relationship between social groups and the government. While the government’s vertical control remains inevitable, horizontal connections with peer associations are emerging rapidly with the official endorsement and establishment of nonprofit incubators across the nation (Han 2016).

Another important study is that of Tsai (2007), which addresses the question of how social capital can have an impact on governmental performance in countries such as China where strong democratic and bureaucratic institutions are absent. Her research in rural China reveals that Chinese officials still organize and provide public goods when there are local encompassing and embedding solidary groups. Solidary groups refer to groups based on shared moral obligations and shared interests; an encompassing structure means that the group is open to everyone under the local government’s jurisdiction; and an embedding structure means that the group has local officials as members. The magic of solidary groups, such as temples and lineage groups, lies in the informal rules and norms embedded in the groups that can award local officials moral standing if they provide public goods. Because of solidary groups, local officials have stronger incentives to provide public goods. Thus, Tsai’s (2007) research demonstrates the importance of social capital in holding local governments responsible, even when the general accountability of formal institutions is absent.

Other research attempts to study the relationship between social capital and political participation. Sun et al. (2007) find that only political trust (perception of local government) has a significant impact on participation in elections, and that social capital (people’s participation in informal organizations and interpersonal relationships among village people) does not have a significant influence on political participation. Hu (2006) also finds that the correlation between social trust and political participation is insignificant but that participation in societal organizations and a sense of belonging to the local community do have a significant impact on people’s participation in village elections. In sum, community embedded with strong social capital is found to be able to exert an influence on local governance but not necessarily in the form of formal political participation such as voting in elections.


In the 2006, Civicus Civil Society Index Report for China, China received a score of 1 for civil society structure and 1.2 for the environment (out of 3). The value dimension received a score of 1.8 and the impact of Chinese civil society, 1.6. The overall level of development was low, and China’s environment was deemed unfriendly and its structure fragile. Among the many civil society issues that China faces, two are particularly pressing.


At present, the Chinese government – the Ministry of Civil Affairs – has become more transparent in its statistics: the total amount of donation (including individuals and social groups) society had contributed by the end of 2017 was 75.42 billion Chinese yuan. NGOs that are considered as problematic or threatening to the state are facing problems with resource attainment. Civic groups relying on state resources face the problem of maintaining autonomy, whereas NGOs receiving funds from foreign foundations shoulder political risk. Many grassroots NGOs are unable to solicit resources or obtain funding from either source, which greatly constrains their development. The difficulty of developing philanthropy in China has to do with the problem of trust. Hsu (2008) argues that China has no history of organizations such as Western donation-style charities. How one can trust strangers (general trust) beyond the circle of familiar people (specific trust) is a cultural or social capital issue that needs to be addressed in China, especially as rampant corruption in the government and its affiliated structures means that people are naturally suspicious of where their donations to official charity organizations will go.

Project Hope, a charitable organization that supports rural education, was the pioneer in breaking through these cultural and institutional barriers to soliciting donations from the public. In recent years, NGOs and foundations established by successful entrepreneurs, including SEE (Society Entrepreneur Ecology), the Narada Foundation, and the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation, have not only made significant contributions to environmental protection, education and poverty eradication but also become important local funding sources for many grassroots NGOs. Another important advance in the development of local philanthropy is the case of Jet Li’s One Foundation, which was established with the support of the Red Cross Society of China and now registered in Shenzhen as a foundation with a right to solicit public donation. It not only devoted its resources to disaster relief but also helped foster a stronger charity sector. In recent years, the foundation has built an alliance for relief NGOs in different regions to work together so as to react more speedily to disasters.

In order to reduce the reliance on overseas foundations, the Chinese government encourages the development of local foundations. In 1987, the number of these foundations was only 70; by 2003, it surged to 650 and skyrocketed to 4871 in 2015 (Chan and Lai 2018). Though most of these foundations are government-founded and operational in nature, the number of private foundations established by enterprises and individuals has been growing dramatically. Together with the funds provided by the government through contracts, Chinese NGOs will be more exposed to the influence of domestic funding. The vetting and coaching of NGOs by state agents and business enterprises during the funding processes will gradually shape the institutional logic of the sector.

The expansion in the amount of resources from the governments at all levels dedicated to selected civic groups, usually small service providers at community level, though ostensibly positive for their development, is likely to deteriorate their autonomy. Also, as the result of the implementation of the “Overseas NGO Management Law,” obtaining funding from overseas organizations has become a more complicated and hectic process that may obstruct the operations of some NGOs, particularly advocacy groups, and eventually lead to their demise. The lack of diversified sources of funding will not only render NGOs less autonomous but also threaten their sustainability. Without alternative sources of funding, NGOs are likely to perish in contingencies when the state can no longer fund them.

Political Control

The Regulation on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations that was promulgated in 1989 and amended in 1998 stipulates that only one association of the same kind is allowed to register within an administrative region, which has resulted in the creation of a monopoly by some GONGOs in their respective areas. In addition, the Regulation stipulates the practice of “dual supervision” over civic groups. Each organization needs to find a related state unit (government department or official social organization) to be its “business supervisory unit” (yewu zhuguan danwei) and must register with civil affairs departments at different levels. These supervisory units have political responsibility for inspecting the activities and finances of civic groups, and thus government units have little incentive to sponsor such applications except when there are material interests or personal connections involved. This is the most common reason that NGOs fail to register with the authorities. The Regulation also stipulates the number of members, the amount of funding, and the availability of premises as conditions for registration, which have become registration hurdles for many grassroots NGOs.

The main reason for setting up such stringent laws is political in nature. The Chinese state is ambivalent toward the rise of civil society. On the one hand, the state needs the third sector to supplement the provision of public services. On the other hand, it is worried that civil society may turn into an independent political force that threatens communist rule. The state established a system of state corporatism with GONGOs as monopoly representatives of societal interests but has realized that a nascent civil society has emerged.

With the promulgation of two new NGO laws that have changed the original status quo in which social groups had already establish a set of strategies to remain in operation, there will be less or no informal and tacit cooperation between the government and social groups. Now that there are clear cuts in the regulations, social groups that are not formally registered with or reported to (bei an) governments are strictly considered illegal. Under such circumstances, social groups without legal status will be directly shut down and suppressed. Together, the existing diversity of civil society in China is likely to become more homogenous when social groups are becoming more reliant on the authorities and are overtly or covertly forced to tackle social problems defined by the state rather than the society.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Innovation Studies, HKIAPSThe Chinese University of Hong KongHong KongHong Kong
  2. 2.School of General Education and LanguagesTechnological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi)Hong KongHong Kong

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany