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Advocacy in Action: China’s Grassroots NGOs as Catalysts for Policy Innovation


How do small, grassroots NGOs influence a powerful authoritarian state and its policies? This paper presents data on instances of interaction between China’s grassroots NGOs and party-state agencies through which NGOs are able to exert influence on policymaking and implementation by modeling innovations in action. The analysis begins by painting the backdrop against which policy influence occurs: a political context characterized by diminished bureaucratic capacity, policy discretion, and experimentation under hierarchy. It then presents the argument that collaboration between grassroots NGOs and local government agencies can act as a risk mitigation strategy for official innovation in a system of experimentation under hierarchy. Extensive longitudinal field research across six sub-national units shows convergence among grassroots NGOs on a conception of advocacy in action. This expanded conception of advocacy overcomes the dichotomy between advocacy and service delivery functions, and allows for observation of a fuller range of efforts that include ‘obstructive’ as well as ‘instructive’ advocacy. Globally, traditional channels of political participation are decreasing in availability and efficacy. This research shows how, as growing numbers of the populace organize to address social and environmental challenges through grassroots organizations, they open alternate channels of political participation, in turn refashioning state practice.

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    Clarke 1998; Edwards and Hulme 1996

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    Hirschman 1984; Sanyal 1994.

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    Fowler 1993; Ndegwa 1996.

  4. 4.

    Fisher 1997, 252.

  5. 5.

    China’s non-state, non-market sector includes a wide variety of groups and institutions, of which the organizations discussed here form only a part and thus cannot be taken to represent the whole. Sometimes referred to as civil society organizations, nonprofit organizations, or, in the Chinese context, social organizations, the term NGO is used in this paper. See methodological appendix for an explication of definitions and terminology.

  6. 6.

    An early indication of this advocacy impulse is discussed by Ho and Edmonds who note that ‘China’s environmental groups find ways, albeit incremental and ad hoc, to approach and influence relevant government departments with policy suggestions.’ They cite a 2000 survey of 1500 NGOs, of which 58.7 percent had provided policy advice to state institutions Ho and Edmonds 2007, 27). See also a recent study of environmental NGOs by Li, Lo, and Tang 2017).

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    See Bondes 2011; Dai and Spires 2018; Salmenkari 2008; Teets 2018; Yang and Calhoun 2007.

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    For exceptions, see Zhang and Baum’s Zhang and Baum 2004) important early study, Spires, Tao, and Chan 2014; and Fu 2017) study of unofficial civil society.

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    See methodological appendix for specific estimates.

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    See, for example, Ashley and He 2008; Tang and Zhan 2008.

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    Provinces were selected based on variation in economic development, ethnic makeup and associational experience. Selected sites included one major urban center and one municipality covering a large county apart from urban centers so that the sample of NGOs would represent organizations working in urban, semi-urban, and rural realities.

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    Spires, Tao, and Chan 2014) define these as groups without a government background and in operation for over two years. This study similarly includes groups without a government background, but also excludes foreign NGOs, placing the focus on indigenous groups rooted in local communities. The selection criteria used in this study are outlined in detail in the methodological appendix, as is descriptive information on these organizations and further information on case selection.

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    Interview H262, Government Director. Hebei, August 2010.

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Farid, M. Advocacy in Action: China’s Grassroots NGOs as Catalysts for Policy Innovation. St Comp Int Dev 54, 528–549 (2019).

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  • Governance
  • Policy
  • Grassroots NGOs
  • Development
  • China