Social Organizations and the 19th Party Congress

This article originally appeared on ChinaFile’s The China NGO Project.

Party Congress political reports represent the Chinese Communist Party’s policy goals and guidance for the following five years, codifying policy trends already underway and presaging policy emphases to come. Though the reports are lengthy (and sometimes soporific), they are nonetheless worth a close read, as their content is “set down with great precision: wording matters, even if the concrete significance of a formulation is not immediately apparent.” What does the 19th Party Congress political report have to say about NGOs, and how does this compare with what was said in the 18th Party Congress report?

Neither the 19th Party Congress political report (issued in October 2017) nor the 18th Party Congress political report (issued in November 2012) actually use the term “non-governmental organization” (非政府组织), nor do they specifically address international NGOs. Instead, they use the phrase “social organization” (社会组织), the de rigueur official term that encompasses several more specific types of domestic non-profit registrations: social groups (社会团体), private non-enterprises (民办非企业单位), and foundations (基金会). The reports’ discussion of social organizations, however, still offers insights into the Party’s official views on civil society and what both domestic and international groups might expect going forward.

Overall, references to social organizations are few and far between. The 2017 report mentions them five times; the 2012 report three. Both reports bring up social organizations in their sections on social development, and they use very similar linguistic formulations to recommend that the Party “leverage the role of social organizations” (发挥社会组织作用) in social governance. They both also describe a social governance system in which “Party committees exercise leadership, government assumes responsibility, non-governmental actors provide assistance, and the public get involved” (党委领导、政府负责、社会协同、公众参与).

Yet, the 2012 report further states that the Party should “guide social organizations to develop in a healthy and orderly way” (引导社会组织健康有序发展) and should establish “a system of modern social organizations in which functions of the government are separated from those of social organizations, rights and responsibilities are clearly established, and social organizations exercise autonomy in accordance with the law” (政社分开、权责明确、依法自治的现代社会组织体制). The 2017 report contains no comparable language, likely because 2016’s Charity Law fulfilled the need to establish such a system.

Both reports also address social organizations in their sections on Party-building, stating that the Party must strengthen the role of Party groups within social organizations. The 2017 report further says that the Party should seek to recruit new members from social organizations, among other places.

The 2017 report also touches on social organizations in two additional sections. In the section on the political system, it says that the Party should expand “consultative democracy,” increasing consultation with social organizations (along with political parties, people’s congresses, the government, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference committees, mass organizations, and the grassroots). In the section on the environment, it states that the Party will create an “environmental governance system,” led by the government, in which enterprises assume the main responsibility—and in which social organizations and the public have a participatory role.

This comparison of the 18th and 19th Party Congress political reports suggests that the Party’s fundamental view of civil society organizations has not significantly changed. Civil society is a tool to be used to help better understand citizens’ concerns, assist in social service provision, and prevent widespread discontent before it starts; it does not have a role independent of the government’s overarching leadership. Indeed, domestic civil society groups should have Party representation within them.

The key difference, then, is that the 2017 report proposes an enhanced role for social organizations in the environmental sphere. This implies that Party sees an active and positive—though not leading—role for civil society groups in this field.