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ECPR Standing Group on the European Union 10th Biennial Conference LUISS, Rome

China’s New Civil Society Regulations: Gauging the Role of Authoritarian Diffusion and International Versus Domestic Learning

Civil Society
International Relations
Policy Analysis
Domestic Politics
Bertram Lang
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Bertram Lang
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

This paper examines the Chinese policy-making process and discourse concerning two seminal civil society regulations adopted in 2016, namely the “Charity Law” for domestic social organisations and the “Overseas NGO management law”. While both are closely interrelated, it is especially the latter, more restrictive law that has attracted widespread international attention and has been interpreted as part of a global “wave of repression against NGOs” (Bank/Josua 2017: 4).

By combining theoretical perspectives on norm diffusion (Acharya 2004, Risse/Ropp/Sikkink 1999) and international dimensions of authoritarianism (Soest 2015, Erdmann et al. 2013) with an analysis of the domestic evolution of Chinese civil society policies and state-society relations under authoritarianism (Hasmath/Hsu 2009, Han 2016), I aim to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of diffusion and learning processes involved in the phenomenon of globally ‘shrinking spaces’ for NGOs and civil society, which can be considered an important aspect of a global democratic regression in favour of “authoritarianism as an attitude” (Stenner 2005).

China has often been described as an authoritarian regime very good at learning and adaptation (Nathan 2003). The relevance of policy learning for Communist Party policies and regime survival has been demonstrated both for the domestic and international level (Heilmann 2008, Huotari/Heep 2016). However, domestic and international learning perspectives have rarely been systematically combined, partly due to a disciplinary segregation between China studies and comparative or IR perspectives. The recent civil society regulations are an interesting case in point, because they have been interpreted as an example of authoritarian diffusion (Bank/Josua 2017, Plantan 2017) from an international perspective, while being viewed as “a tactical move in a long-term strategy” (Hsu/Teets 2016) by many China specialists.

I argue that both exclusively China-focused and comparatively-oriented approaches tend to overestimate the relative importance of either domestic idiosyncrasies or international policy transfer. I combine various indicators of policy learning to obtain a more balanced assessment of international and domestic influences, namely:

- Policy content and implementation practice, compared to both other countries and province-level pioneers within China
- Official and unofficial policy debates surrounding the legislative process and policy implementation
- Policy communication, directed at both domestic and international audiences

This combined approach reveals that while cross-national similarities in policy content and some international references in Chinese policy debates do point to authoritarian diffusion effects, the prior existence of provincial-level regulatory models within China and the cautious, management-oriented rhetoric accompanying the implementation of the NGO law (in stark contrast with the confrontational, anti-liberal framing of NGO laws in Russia or even Hungary) support the hypothesis of a gradual, conscious integration of new regulatory techniques of ‘civil society management’ in national-level policies. Furthermore, this paper stresses that international learning takes place not only between authoritarian regimes: Especially the mobilisation of civil society actors in US foreign policy (Schade 2010) has been viewed by Chinese elites as both a potential threat and a model worth studying.
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