Constructing Civil Society in Transitional China: Case Studies of One Private University and One Non-governmental Institute for Peasant Education

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The political shift in China in the last two and a half decades, from an emphasis on ideological orthodoxy and centralized economic control, to an emphasis on national economic development for modernization, has made it possible for non-governmental actors to enter into fields previously controlled by the government and to take initiatives in making social changes. This dissertation examines the capacity that non-governmental organizations demonstrate in their fight against all odds and their promotions of a civil society in China, using two non-governmental organizations working in the field of education as examples. The cases are analyzed from a historical institutionalism perspective to show how organizations' actions are affected by the contextual factors and meanwhile how their actions influence the institutions. In the case studies, the interaction between the society and the state government is carefully studied; moreover, the associational, ideological and cognitive dimensions of the civil society construction in China are comprehensively examined.

Two non-governmental institutions are examined in this study. Their increasing participation in educational practices provides alternatives to the educational model in government-managed organizations. The dissertation also examines the development of the two organizations and pays special attention to the constraints imposed on the organizations by the existing political and educational system: The government is alert to their increasing power and attempts to restraint it. However, both organizations were successful in negotiating spaces for their survival and gained increasing influence in the society. Case analysis showed that the most important feature in the state-society interaction in China is trust-building which requires sophisticated strategies. While sticking to their non-state identity, these organizations have made significant efforts in establishing channels of discourse with the government, and won their trust in this way. Overall, the civil society groups in China showed divergence in their goals and practices from other countries, but also share certain convergence in their features and strategies for the redefinition of state-society boundary.

In the dissertation, a dynamic interaction between the institutional factors and the agency of social actors is discovered. The institutional contexts shaped the social actors' vision and strategies, and the institutional environment was also transformed by the action of social groups. The direction of political and social reform is co-steered by the state-government and the society, instead of being determined by the government alone.