Building New Frontiers in China: Socio-Economic Justice and Civil Society

Chinese peasant-workers collecting and cleaning bricks to resell them. (Gilles Sabrie)

Hu Suyun, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences
Wan Yanhai, Beijing AIZHI Action Project
Xu Anqi, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences
Zhang Qi, Peking University Law School
Andrew Nathan, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University (moderator)

The enormous challenge of building a civil society in China was the topic of an engaging panel discussion at Asia Society. Four Chinese scholars -- in the United States to participate in a Dickinson College conference on Socioeconomic Rights and Justice in the People's Republic of China -- presented reports on the paths and pitfalls to socio-economic justice. The journey towards socio-economic justice and civil society has just begun but most panelists were optimistic about the first small steps taken.

Moderator Andrew Nathan deftly led the panel in a comprehensive overview of the challenges ahead for China. Dr. Xu Anqi, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, who was ably translated by Jian Zhang, offered a picture of how social issues are handled in China today. The fledgling concept of domestic violence, which is Dr. Xu's field of study, falls under the purview of the State Committee for the Work of Woman and the Child, which coordinates all services for women based on reports from the field. In the field, the biggest civil society organization connected with domestic violence is the All China Women's Confederation, which has branches across the country, down to the county level, and plays a big role in women's rights in all industries. However, as is typical in China, this is a quasi-governmental body. Its funding is from the government and its leaders, appointed by the government, rarely take independent stands. In the case of mandatory retirement, for example, most Chinese working women, unless they are intellectuals or technicians, must retire at the age of 50, while men have a retirement age of 60. Women may complain about inequality, but the Confederation is unlikely to take up this cause since this earlier retirement age assuages China's unemployment problem.

In the case of AIDS and SARS, however, the Chinese government not only refused to acknowledge the problems, it also made it dangerous for non-governmental bodies to address the issues, until recently. Wan Yanhai, Director of Beijing's AIZHI Action Project, a group of individuals organized to fight HIV/AIDS stigmatization and promote awareness, was detained along with his colleagues in 2002 for his work, shortly after registering his organization with the government as a non-profit enterprise. The advocacy group had been working with funds donated by individuals, mostly middle-income citizens, but lost a lot of support after the detentions. International organizations filled the funding gap as Wan's advocacy was picked up by international news organizations. When China finally recognized AIDS, funders and friends came back, says Wan. And in an abrupt turnaround, the Chinese government is now funding Wan's NGO-training workshops on basic public service principles.

Dr. Nathan elicited panelists' opinions on the extent of a public groundswell for socio-economic justice and human rights. Professor Xu says the problem of domestic violence was brought to public awareness by civil society hotlines but, on the whole, the development of civil society for women is still very backward and non-vocal. If anything, domestic violence was a top-down concern of the State Committee for the Work of Woman and the Child.

Professor Hu Suyun, whose studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences include health rights and health insurance reform, agrees that there is little grassroots demand for health rights or health insurance. Most rural Chinese accept their country's poor health system and lack of public funds for care. This attitude changes gradually when they move to cities, their basic condition improves and they can afford medicine. Even so, the concept of health insurance is almost non-existent.

Even AIDS patients are not clamoring for health rights at the moment, admits Wan Yanhai. Health rights as a concept is growing in high-AIDS populations, like central China's Henan province, where free health care is being given to a million people who contracted AIDS in a contaminated-blood scandal. But most people remain silent, he says, due to lack of information, knowledge of treatments and advocacy.

Zhang Qi, a Peking University law teacher who is doing research in the United States on the connection between civil society and the rule of law, says people may not be able to voice their desire for human rights without the legal ability to do something about it. In the Henan province blood scandals, he notes, advocates like AIZHI are using a consumer protection law to determine compensation. Laws must evolve and, to make them palatable to the ruling elite, they must be compatible with Confucian values.

Questions from the audience followed, including one on the state of philanthropy in China. Wan Yanhai explained that the rich are reluctant to donate money to a cause that is not "politically safe," i.e., owned by the Government. Indeed, the concept of serving other people is somewhat new to Chinese society. One questioner asked Professor Zhang whether the government's acceptance of the concept of human rights was opportunistic or real. Although the acceptance is "real," Zhang added that written laws are needed to translate words into action. Many questions remain, including the status of women's rights (there is some evidence of a government backlash compared to the Cultural Revolution's required equality) and how non-profits can influence decision-making.

As retiring Asia Society president Nick Platt said, this is hopefully the first of several collaborations on such topics with Dickenson College's Program in Law and Asian Culture.

Photos on China’s peasant-workers by Gilles Sabrié.