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Civil Society Workshop on October 25 – Wenjuan Zheng

The Civil Society Workshop will meet on Wednesday, October 25, at 1 pm for a discussion with

Wenjuan Zheng

PhD Candidate, Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center

Civil Society and Social Movements under Authoritarian Regimes: Pro-democracy Social Movements in Hong Kong and Their Unintentional, Paralyzing Effects on Chinese Civil Society

Abstract: Existing scholarship on civil society and social movements tends to agree that social movement can play a more positive role in the growth of civil society. However, most of those studies were conducted in Western settings. The optimism over social movements overlooks the complexity of current institutional environments in East Asia such as China. I argue that instead of promoting civil society, social movements, which directly challenge the legitimacy of Chinese state, could have a wider unintentional effect on civil society. Using a case study of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, I examine various aspects of such unintentional, paralyzing effects of social movements on Chinese civil society. Fearing Hong Kong’s protests might spill over to Mainland China, the Beijing authority adopted multiple strategies to contain the pro-democracy movements within Hong Kong, such as reframing the protests as civil disobedience. Based on media content analysis, interviews, and ethnography of grassroots NGOs in the city of Guangzhou near Hong Kong, my study shows the state has significantly strengthened the control over Guangzhou’s nonprofit sector since 2014. Before that, Hong Kong had functioned as an offshore civil society for China for many years. However, the state now places more restrictions on NGOs, particularly those with ties to Hong Kong. The Chinese Anti-Foreign NGO law also quickly passed by the Congress in early 2016. Ironically, the law has declared Hong Kong NGOs as foreign NGOs, which considerably limits their future activities in mainland China. Using the theory of field, I found three main aspects of the state’s effect on dismantling civil society: interrupting the flow of resources, undermining the legitimacy of people and organizations, and destabilizing the ties between allies. In contrast to Habermas’ argument of the potential role of social movements as agents of revitalizing civil society, I propose social movements could unintentionally set back the development of civil society under authoritarian regimes when civil society there is emerging but fragile.

We will meet in room 5401.01 (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society)


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