An introduction to CSOs in China and Japan

The following essay, written by Vanessa Bramwell, introduces Civil Society Organisations in China and Japan. CSOs are non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and exist separate from family, state and business organisations.

Civil Society Organisations are gradually becoming more significant and influential around the world, and especially in the Asia Pacific, which is experiencing a general democratic transformation. However, East Asia faces unique challenges regarding the growth of these organisations and the maintenance of transparency and effectiveness in the same. These challenges are the result of specific cultural and political aspects that have shaped the societies of these nations throughout history. The following essay is a comparative analysis of the development of CSOs in both Japan and China; the problems they face in these countries; and the likelihood of their influence increasing to a level on par with CSOs in the modern Western world.

Although Japan and China have experienced very different ideological influences throughout their histories, we can identify a similar period of democratic growth in both countries; although of course this a general global trend also. Dr. Wang Yizhou, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, outlines three main stages of transition in modern China, which can be observed to correlate chronologically to Japan.[1] The first stage is the period from the 1940s to the end of the 1970s, under the rule of Mao Zedong. In Japan, this approximate stage was a period of one-party dominance under the LDP (which did continue beyond the 1970s, but was influenced then by other factors). The second stage in China outlined by Dr. Yizhou is the interim period after Mao’s death in 1976 until the beginning of the 1990s, during which the populous demonstrated the development of a political conscience. This period in Japan was characterised by a similar economic boom and outside political influences causing legislative change. The third period in China is after 1992, following the incident at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, coupled with economic flourishing. In Japan, this period comprised the first general election in which the LDP lost power, along with law changes allowing civil society a much greater autonomy. In order to understand the development of CSOs in these countries, it is necessary to examine each of these periods in detail.

Prior to the late 1970s, CSOs on a national level were almost unheard of in both Japan and China. Mao Zedong’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party prohibited civil activity. No interests were allowed to be embodied independently of the state. This being said, as remains the case today, small village groups were not checked in gathering to pray together and maintain a local temple, or to identify with a common lineage. Although village officials existed, they were not overly concerned with such inconspicuous gatherings, as their attention was focused on siphoning village funds or securing their own advancement in the CCP. This laxity is likely a characteristic of a very large population with a centralised government; the power and concern of the CCP did not reach right to the rural outskirts in a particularly intimidating form.

In Japan during this period, little civil activity occurred; as Professor Robert Pekkanen argues, this period of one-party dominance was one of history’s strongest in terms of the state-encouraged, submissive Japanese psyche.[2] In the 60s and 70s, some small CSOs and student movements did appear without any government backlash as would be expected in China, but they were simply not paid attention to. This small movement of disorganised – mainly environmental – groups was not paid particular heed by the public either, who did not like to be heard espousing a cause that the state did not support, due to this submissive mindset investigated by Professor Pekkanen. Some CSOs persisted into the 1980s, but most had insignificant life-spans.

The second period in these countries’ democratic transition was one of great economic change. China’s CCP was unofficially factionalised, and different members were competing for influence. Mao Zedong died in 1976, along with some other prominent CCP members and supporters, and this was viewed according to the common Chinese political philosophy as the death of the “First Generation” of great leaders. Hua Guofeng, successor of Mao, was less authoritarian and traditional. During the 1980s, China’s economy was exposed to international influence and mobilised massively. Conservative officials began to see democratic mobilisation as a threat, perhaps expecting it to occur as wealth and influence became more available to a growing middle class. Deng Liqun, minister of the propaganda department, was one such official and was quoted in 1983 as labeling China’s derivation from Mao’s communist method as “a quagmire of decentralism, selfish departmentalism and individualism”.[3] Deng Liqun promoted the idea that a holistic, communist approach must be taken towards conflicts of interest. Increasingly paranoid, he also launched a campaign against jingshen wuran, or spiritual pollution. “Things that look new,” he warned, “may not be the new-born things of socialism”. This was an initiative to discourage the growth of independent civil society. Many so-called civil society groups did exist in China, but were entirely state-funded and controlled, even down to membership. In this way the state provided an illusion of civil society, changing its purpose to celebrating the civil freedoms already ‘allowed’ by the state rather than expressing dissatisfaction with them. Still, despite the CCP’s effort, this era of political destabilisation did encourage civil activity; students in particular were the mobilising force. Protests were generally broken up by the police with only moderate violence and no fatalities. However, the death of Hu Yaobang in1989, a liberal CCP politburo member who sympathised with students, is regarded as the main catalyst for the June the Fourth incident at Tiananmen Square. Protesters and bystanders were massacred in a government crackdown. This, coupled with a new level of economic prosperity in the early 1990s, triggered a debate abut civil society and enabled slightly increased autonomy of CSOs. A law passed in 1987 aiming to prevent the corruption of village officials also allowed for far greater democratic administration at the local level.

In contrast, Japan during its ‘second stage’ was much more tolerant of civil activity, following a gradual trend from the previous decades. The difference was that CSOs were not brutally disbanded, but rather ignored entirely, or used as publicity vehicles for bureaucrats. The bureaucracy of Japan at this time was massively far-reaching (though not comparable with that of china), and to set up a CSO one had to apply for various permissions from a senior bureaucrat. Even once established, the organisation was subject to any control imposed by that bureaucrat, and the bureaucrat would often use the CSO to his political advantage. The practice of amakudari (senior officials ‘retiring’ into organisations or business in advisory roles) also served as a mechanism of control. As such, it was very difficult to set up an autonomous civil organisation. Many groups existed that were under the wing of various factions, such as farmers’ collectives and religious groups who made donations to politicians. These were certainly not the unbiased civil organisations that Maruyama Masao, the prominent Japanese political theorist, had advocated in the 1940s; his ideal democratised society comprised “free assembly in diverse groups of varied structure, with competition between them”.[4] While there was competition, it was not their own, but rather the embodiment of factional politics. Change began to occur in the 1980s, when American investment exposed Japanese businesses and government to foreign CSOs that wanted donations. In 1995, the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe was met with a relief effort seen by many as inadequate on the government’s part. CSOs took advantage of this opportunity to contribute, and out-performed the government. Subsequent public debate inspired much-increased participation. CSOs in 1990s Japan enjoyed a growing autonomy.

The third period of democratic transition in Japan and China occurred from the late nineties onwards. 1997 was a key year for this development in China, although change had really started to occur in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union– the failure of that regime caused the CCP to reflect on its own governance. Deng Xiaoping, a conservative politburo member who was suspected of having ordered the crackdown atTiananmen Square, died in 1997 along with several other notable “Second Generation” leaders. As the death of Mao had done, this signalled a period of change in Chinese politics as Deng and his companions could no longer influence the party under the guise of retirement. Proof of the significance of this is the massive growth in CSO registry that occurred in 1997. The CCP passed a reactionary law in 1998, the Regulations on Management of Civil Charities, which sought to define civil society (though still very strictly) and provide for its legitimate existence. Under the new regulations, CSOs still had to register with the relevant department, and could not undertake any activity that might be deemed offensive to social morality or contrary to party policy. However, now at least they could avoid bureaucratic interference for the most part if they so chose. As is explained below, although CSOs in China still grapple with institutionalisation, they have shown themselves to be nearly autonomous in recent years.

Japan’s ‘third stage’ occurred after 1999, when legislative change allowed CSOs to register under a new category which limited bureaucratic involvement in their establishment. The reason for this is less clear than those that caused change in China; however, Robert Pekkanen cites a growing need to provide for an aging population in a nation with a limited welfare state. The legislation was also passed only four years after the country’s CSOs proved their worth in the Hanshin quake relief effort. Furthermore, the new non-LDP administration were more liberal and could be said to have encouraged civil activity for the reasons cited by Pekkanen; CSOs are valuable societal contributors and can work in partnership with governments, lightening their workload. CSOs in Japan today have only to overcome the hurdle of government factionalism before they can be considered completely self-governing.

The current and future prospects of CSOs in China and Japan look to follow a democratic trend, growing away from state influence and taking a more active role in society. Today, China’s CSOs are able to act sometimes in accordance with their own mandates; although, as Dr. Yizhou points out, there are still some points of view which are very sensitive with the CCP and might result in the organisation being audited or voided. Larger CSOs in China are still subject to government negotiations in order to avoid being seen as a threat. This allows the CCP to maintain some control. Moreover, the practice of chuan xiaoxie, literally “giving someone tight shoes to wear”, is still a bureaucratic tool in China; this implies bureaucrats making life difficult for those participating in undesirable civil activity, by restricting sick pay, withholding raises, etc. Membership is still sometimes managed by government departments. China also refuses to take a role in international initiatives to develop CSO effectiveness. However, a promising action of the CCP has been to offer tax incentives to CSOs who do not use any state funding. This indicates a possible willingness to relinquish control.

In recent years, large CSOs have suddenly demanded greater concessions from the government. Four of China’s most significant environmental organisations have had considerable influence on National Peoples’ Congress discussions, eliciting greater consideration of ecological issues in policy, and collectives of landlords in urban areas have rallied successfully against demolition that would destroy their livelihoods. All things considered, it seems that although progress is slow, Chinese civil society is definitely developing autonomy. Two opposing schools of thought dominate Chinese discourse about their own civil society; one group argues that China will follow a general democratic trend and CSOs will gain autonomy; the other argues that state-controlled civic activity is just a reality of China, and evidences itself throughout history.[5] Yizhou claims that the consensus on the way forward for China is to advance civil society but not in a “Western Way”, as this will cause “turmoil like Tiananmen”. This seems too vague to be effective. If China aims to retain its regime, it must openly and transparently define its goals regarding civil society, relinquish autonomy to it, but may maintain socialist propaganda. In this way it can greatly reduce the likelihood of protest, but still espouse its ideologies. Positive reinforcement will create a better attitude among the Chinese public towards the continuation of socialism; incentives are more effective than punishment. A totally authoritarian state will not survive in contemporary China; it can choose to ride the democratic wave to its advantage, or fail.

Japan has a less monumental challenge ahead, although not uncomplicated. Today, Japanese CSOs still have trouble remaining independent due to two primary factors; the difficulty of engaging the public, and the factionalised politics of the country. The public in Japan is taught from a young age to learn by rote and not question authority, an aspect of a Confucian social hierarchy; thus the public is difficult to mobilise in civil activity. However, this traditional problem is slowly becoming less significant with the increase of democratic civics in Japan. The second problem is less likely to solve itself organically; Japanese politics has always been, and remains, very prone to factionalism. Even with the one-party-dominant state under the LDP out of power, factions are rife among local and central party bodies. Perhaps it has now become too ingrained a tradition to remove, or perhaps it will gradually devolve as transparent democracy takes hold. The result of factionalism regarding CSOs, however, is that they are frequently used by the bureaucrats that approve them as a propaganda tool. Factional leaders must gain the public’s favour by appearing socially conscious. Pork-barrel politics also make use of CSOs, as a local MP backed by a faction, for example, can unite with an organisation to do relief work, in order to gain public support. Still, despite these roadblocks, CSOs in Japan now have significant influence. Japan takes an active role in discussing the international ‘Istanbul Principles’ (of effective CSO development and governance), having a council that convenes annually to discuss this progress.

Current trends in China and Japan indicate a shift in approaches towards CSOs; more tolerant policy in the former, and more inclusive and legitimising policy in the latter. Over three identifiable stages of democratic transition in the latter half of the twentieth century, these countries both experienced a gradual tilt towards democratisation and a free civil society. It could be argued that they are simply following a broader global trend, as is embodied in movements like the Arab Spring; however, this is too simplistic an approach. Indeed, although they both fit a broad pattern (as does the rest of Pacific Asia), they are not completely in line and arrived at their current status quo through very different circumstances. The emphasis, in any case, should not be on the idea that both nations will eventually drift into a transparent democracy, but rather on the fact that each must respond in a fitting way to its own situation; and that China and Japan may need to maintain some level of state control over civil society, simply in order for it to function in an East Asian context. The concept of civil society and CSO activity is growing momentum in East Asian universities, becoming increasingly popular (and tolerated) as a thesis topic. The future will reveal what path these two countries will choose to take.


Kersten, R. (1996) Democracy in Post-war Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy. London: Routledge.

Pekkanen, R. (2004) After the Developmental State: Civil Society in Japan. Journal of East Asian Studies, 4 p.363-388.

Shi, T. (1997) Political Participation in Beijing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Yizhou, W. (2005) Civil Society in China: Concept and Reality. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Burton, C. (1990) Political and Social Change in China since 1978. Connecticut: Greenwood Press Inc.

Japan Association of Charitable Organisations (2008) Present state of CSOs sustaining Japanese civil society. [online] Available at: [Accessed:13/05/12].

[1] W. Yizhou, Civil Society in China: Concept and Reality, Chinese Academy ofSocial Sciences, Beijing, 2005.

[2] Pekkanen, R. (2004) After the Developmental State: Civil Society in Japan. Journal of East Asian Studies, 4 p.363-388.

[3] C. Burton, Political and Social Change in China since 1978, 1990, Greenwood Press Inc., Connecticut, US.

[4] R. Kersten, Democracy in Post-war Japan: Maruyama Masao and the Search for Autonomy, 1996, Routledge, London.

[5] W. Yizhou (as previously referenced).

Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Craig Hill.


  2. This is refreshing to know. I hope these organizations blossom and become productive, positive institutions.


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