IDS working papers;6

Market Reforms and the Emergence of Civil Society in Post-Mao China

Published on 1 January 1994

Any inquiry into the emergence of “civil society” in post-Mao China is
bedevilled both by ambiguity o f the term “civil society” itself and the complexity of the
historical process it is used to describe. This problem extends far beyond the Chinese
case, since the idea of “civil society” has been embraced by a broad spectrum of
ideological persuasions and used to analyse a wide variety of countries in what used to
be called the First, Second and Third Worlds. In the United Kingdom, for example,
theorists of the right and left have argued for the crucial importance of “civil society” as
a force for protecting social cohesion against the ravages of market forces or providing
the organisational basis for an alternative form of democratic governance to the
traditional bureaucratic state. In Central and Eastern Europe, it was the experience of
political struggle against communist regimes which gave “civil society” the enhanced
currency it has enjoyed over the past decade and a half, particularly the experience of
Solidarity in Poland. In the developing world, many countries have been undergoing
programmes of economic liberalisation which has led to discussion about the interrelationships
between (spreading) markets, (retreating) states and (emerging) civil
society and their implications for the “Third Wave” of democratisation in the region.
These discussions can help to throw light on the Chinese case. As a communist
country undergoing social changes and political stresses, there is a clear resonance with
Eastern European experience. As a developing country undergoing radical economic
liberalisation and a redefinition of the character and role of the state, there is shared
experience with other developing countries. Given the roots of the idea of “civil
society” in Western experience, however, its utility in explaining processes elsewhere
has proven patchy. China’s distinctive historical trajectory and social character should
prompt caution about the extent to which the concept can help us to understand
contemporary processes of socio-political change there.

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published by
White, Gordon


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