I’ve written before about civil society in China, and how it’s lacking, and how it’s scary to those in power (see some of my earlier ideas on Four Chinas theory for some examples).  To recap, most democratic societies have a strong concept of “civil society”.  I’ll go into explaining what that means in a bit, but it’s something very obviously missing from China, and this is a categorically negative thing.

Hanna Arendt was a political science professor who developed a theory called “atomization.”  Communist societies, she argues, seek to break all connections between human beings and tie everyone solely to the State.  These connections include:

  • Religious, in that Communist societies are atheist
  • Work, in that everyone works for The State; no private enterprise
  • Familial, in that many families may live in a communal area, or that children are separated from parents
  • Social groups, in that many are either outlawed or state controlled
  • Media, in that all news is controlled by the State
  • Education, in that all material preaches adherence to State policy
A truly astonishing atomization process took place during Stalin’s purges, and more recently during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  During this time, loyalty to Mao was taken to such an extreme, that all other sectors of society shut down.  To use the example items above:
  • Religious sites and other traditional cultural sites were destroyed, and religious works burned.  Tibet and Xinjiang were particularly affected.  Thousand year-old temples and relics destroyed.
  • “White collar” or intellectual workers were sent to the countryside for “reeducation”.  This prevented them from connecting with others in like fields, like incomes, and like education levels.  People were rotated between positions on farms or in factories.
  • Children were encouraged to rat out their parents for being “counterrevolutionary”.  The education system was such that children were rewarded for turning against their parents, even if their claims were untrue.
  • Social groups besides those sponsored by the state were – and are – forbidden
  • Newspapers encouraged the hysteria and promoted this sort of blind loyalty to the cause.
  • Educators were criticized and sometimes killed for no reason at all.  Students loyal to Mao accused them of perpetuating old traditions that made China weak, or accused them of “capitalist” tendencies.  The entire Chinese education system shut down, and a large segment of the Chinese adult population today never attended university because students were told to work on farms or look for “capitalists” to attack instead of attending school
It was a nightmare, without rhyme or reason.  However, when all people are tied to the State like this, it’s impossible for them to form an opposition.  Everything from their jobs to recreation is founded in the state structure, making it very convenient to rule autocratically.
Today it’s not this bad, but there is still a legacy of this Communist system.  Children aren’t denouncing their parents and teachers, but the linkages are still primarily to the government:
  • Religion is still frowned upon.  Catholic churches are controlled by the government, and other churches are harassed.  Some religions when they get too big (re: Falun Gong) get outlawed, and then subsequently radicalize.
  • When your company gets to a certain size, it is required you have a Communist committee.  This committee serves as a sort of government liaison/union office.
  • Education and media are completely state-run.
  • Social groups remain forbidden.
In sum, the connections people have in China tend to be family, friends, classmates, work, and government.  People in the US also have these connections, but also connections to civil society.  This is important because it is voluntary, and free from government interference.  Things like political parties, gardening clubs, or the  neighborhood watch are absent in China, and much to its detriment.  It is something very hard to describe unless you are really looking for it, but once you discover this, it becomes quite obvious how different China is.
The idea of “volunteering” is politically dangerous in China.  The only charities that are really “safe” are those controlled by the government, and deal directly with a specific topic, usually natural disasters.  Other charities do exist, but are problematic in the authoritarian system.  A charity to help the homeless or poor is dangerous because it implies the government isn’t taking care of its own.  To imply it should do better is to imply that some one else could do a better job, therefore discrediting the Party’s claim to power.  Religion is dangerous too.  God will of course rank higher than the Party for religious people, and that is a threat to control.
The government thinks it can solve all of China’s problems without a civil society.  But this is very dangerous for the government as well.  When anything goes wrong, the government takes the blame.  State controlled industries might dominate chemical manufacturing, but when there is a chemical spill, people start burning down police stations, not attacking a specific corporation.  Small, seemingly unrelated issues can snowball into outright government opposition.  Since the media can’t report it and there’s no way to release the pressure valve, sometimes it can become violent.
A recent trip to the US reminded me of some of the benefits of a civil society.  The streets in the US are clean not because we have a million street sweepers.  They are clean because no one throws garbage on the ground.  Doing so would cause harm to the environment and to others in our society, so we don’t do it.  But in China, this isn’t as big of a deal, because it doesn’t affect work, classmates, friends, government, or family.  In the US, I don’t cut in line because it hurts others in society, and I wouldn’t want people to cut in front of me either, but in China, it’s every man for himself.  People primarily identify themselves with family, and don’t consider their actions to have positive or negative connotations for society.
This is a generalization and there are exceptions to the rule.  But if you look at both societies, it’s very clear how lack of a civil society hurts China.  Sometimes it’s maddening for me to see how little people care for their neighborhood or fellow citizens, but in a sense, it’s not really their fault.  Without knowing what a civil society is, it’s hard to participate in it.