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

Abstract

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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Notes

  1. 1.

    Clarke 1998; Edwards and Hulme 1996

  2. 2.

    Hirschman 1984; Sanyal 1994.

  3. 3.

    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).

  7. 7.

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

  8. 8.

    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.

  9. 9.

    Ma 2002.

  10. 10.

    See methodological appendix for specific estimates.

  11. 11.

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

  12. 12.

    Nathan 2003.

  13. 13.

    Yang and Calhoun 2007.

  14. 14.

    Salmenkari 2014.

  15. 15.

    Achen and Bartels 2017.

  16. 16.

    Bondes 2011.

  17. 17.

    Tsai 2007; Xu and Yao 2015.

  18. 18.

    Teets 2008.

  19. 19.

    Newland 2018.

  20. 20.

    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.

  21. 21.

    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.

  22. 22.

    Shue and Wong 2007.

  23. 23.

    For a detailed discussion of China’s institutional streamlining and downsizing, and its effects on space created for civil society see Teets 2008.

  24. 24.

    Interview H168, NGO founder and director. Hebei, November 2010.

  25. 25.

    O'Brien and Li 1999.

  26. 26.

    Lieberthal 1992; Mertha 2009.

  27. 27.

    O'Brien and Li 1999.

  28. 28.

    Mertha 2008, p. 8-11.

  29. 29.

    Interview Y156, Government director. Yunnan, July 2010.

  30. 30.

    Interview N235, Government village head. Ningxia, June 2010.

  31. 31.

    Interview Y251, Government staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  32. 32.

    Interview Y251, Government staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  33. 33.

    Chung 2000.

  34. 34.

    Interview H259, NGO founder and director. Hebei, August, 2010.

  35. 35.

    Mei and Pearson 2014.

  36. 36.

    Chung 2000.

  37. 37.

    Interview Y133, Government Director of Educational Research. Yunnan, May 2010.; Interview Y156, Government director. Yunnan, July 2010.; Interview Y301, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, March 2018.

  38. 38.

    Jennifer Hsu 2015.

  39. 39.

    Chung 2000.

  40. 40.

    Kuhn 2006; Tang and Zhan 2008.

  41. 41.

    Interview N236, NGO founder and director. Ningxia, June 2010.

  42. 42.

    Heilmann 2008.

  43. 43.

    Ang 2016.

  44. 44.

    Cai and Treisman 2006

  45. 45.

    Heilmann 2008.

  46. 46.

    Teets 2015.

  47. 47.

    Heilmann 2008.

  48. 48.

    Interview Y133, Government Director of Educational Research. Yunnan, May 2010.; Interview Y301, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, March 2018.

  49. 49.

    Teets 2015.

  50. 50.

    Hasmath and Hsu 2014.

  51. 51.

    Hasmath and Hsu 2014.

  52. 52.

    Newland 2018.

  53. 53.

    Mettler and SoRelle 2014.

  54. 54.

    Chen and Göbel 2016.

  55. 55.

    Yu 2013.

  56. 56.

    Teets, Hasmath, and Lewis 2017.

  57. 57.

    Fu and Distelhorst 2018.

  58. 58.

    Shieh 2009.

  59. 59.

    Fulda, LI, and Song 2009.

  60. 60.

    Hsu and Jiang 2015.

  61. 61.

    Teets and Jagusztyn 2016.

  62. 62.

    Mettler and SoRelle 2014.

  63. 63.

    Teets 2008.

  64. 64.

    Hsu and Jiang 2015.

  65. 65.

    Salmenkari 2014.

  66. 66.

    Newland 2018.

  67. 67.

    Mattingly 2016.

  68. 68.

    Young and Everitt 2004 and http://www.npaction.org/article/articleview/76/1/248 accessed August 10, 2011

  69. 69.

    Weiss and Gordenker 1996 37-38; Van Tuijl 1999.

  70. 70.

    Gilbert 2008.

  71. 71.

    Van Tuijl 1999.

  72. 72.

    Wexler, Xu, and Young 2006.

  73. 73.

    Repnikova 2015

  74. 74.

    Waisbord 2000, 236.

  75. 75.

    Protess 1992, 23.

  76. 76.

    See, for example, Dai and Spires 2018; Bondes and Alpermann 2018.

  77. 77.

    Wexler, Xu, and Young 2006.

  78. 78.

    Interview Y252, NGO staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  79. 79.

    Interview Y131, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, May 2010.

  80. 80.

    Interview H262, Government Director. Hebei, August 2010.

  81. 81.

    Interview Y131, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, May 2010.

  82. 82.

    Interview NX40, NGO, founder and director. Ningxia, June 2010.

  83. 83.

    Interview N190, Government Party Secretary. Ningxia, October 2018.; Interview N200, NGO Founder and director. Ningxia, October 24, 2018.; Interview N291, NGO Founder and director. Ningxia, October 20, 2018.; Interview N293, NGO Founder and director. Ningxia, October 24, 2018.

  84. 84.

    Salmenkari 2014.

  85. 85.

    Hsu and Jiang 2015.

  86. 86.

    Interview N179, Government staff. Ningxia, December 2010.

  87. 87.

    Interview Y131, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, May 2010.

  88. 88.

    Interview Y250, NGO director of external relations. Yunnan, July 2010.

  89. 89.

    Interview Y250, NGO director of external relations. Yunnan, July 2010.

  90. 90.

    Interview Y251, Government staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  91. 91.

    Interview Y251, Government staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  92. 92.

    Interview Y252, NGO staff. Yunnan, July 2010.

  93. 93.

    Interview Y158, NGO director. Yunnan, July 2010.

  94. 94.

    Interview Y134, NGO director of external relations. Yunnan, May 2010.

  95. 95.

    Brady, Verba, and Schlozman 1995 discuss how educational programs and policies, for example, enable individuals to accumulate skills, resources and social networks, strengthening civic capacity and participation.

  96. 96.

    Skocpol 1991, 58.

  97. 97.

    Mettler and SoRelle 2014.

  98. 98.

    Teets, Hasmath, and Lewis 2017.

  99. 99.

    Sorace 2015, 493.

  100. 100.

    Farid and Noguchi 2019

  101. 101.

    Hsu and Jiang 2015.

  102. 102.

    Teets 2015.

  103. 103.

    Interview Y131, NGO founder and director. Yunnan, May 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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-019-09292-3

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Keywords

  • Governance
  • Policy
  • Grassroots NGOs
  • Development
  • China