Sustaining Civil Society in post-Covid China

Read Time:14 Minute, 48 Second

Part Two of Three in Discussion with Frank Tsai, HNC ‘03

Chad Higgenbottom

Can one, in 2022, stroll into a classy café in Shanghai on a Sunday afternoon and discover a large crowd of spectacled intellectuals exchanging polemic? Can an international NGO with an office in Dongcheng District, Beijing, post policy proposals on social media that have not yet been announced by the Communist Party itself?

This second installment of our interview with HNC Alumnus Frank Tsai will address these questions and more as Tsai delves into the concept of “civil society” and how he has sought to nurture it in Shanghai through his China Crossroads lecture series. Much of the conversation deals directly with the question of whether there is, in fact, civil society in China. Read on for a response composed of several on-the-ground insights.

(The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity)

In regards to any of the lecture series you’ve hosted, do you believe the quality of discussion – in terms of its openness, diversity, and tolerance of dissent – was higher in quality earlier in your talks career?

I’m referring to when Shanghai was, in some respects, more at its “peak,” which some would place around 2011 or 2012 when the World Expo had just happened here. Do you feel like civil society in China was more robust at that time? 

Let me divide this answer in parts: I do think the audience was more opinionated before because you could say more in public. A year and a half ago, I shut down someone who was asking about Xinjiang since we don’t talk about that in public. That was a Chinese attendee, and I said we’ll take it offline. This wouldn’t have happened years ago. 

There was also more circulation, many more people going and coming to China. And I was younger, too, so I had a younger crowd. Now, I did start a business two years ago, and the crowd will change when you have a business. I have an older crowd now, as there is a membership fee. 

I myself have worked in the events/membership field full-time at the Economist Corporate Network, so I know more about getting businesses to come and sponsor this event. That’s one part of the answer. You mentioned civil society, and I want to go in this direction as it is much more important in many ways than what I’ve just said. 

[Speaking on the nature of civil society]

What is civil society? What does it mean that, from May 2020 – March 2022, we had events? It means people met each other. It means people had relationships. People engaged in collaborations. They may have gotten a job, made friends. Civil society is just the horizontal ties that individuals make, rather than the vertical ties they have with the state. That’s all it is. 

Now, that term can also refer to NGOs, interest groups, protests, but it all starts from friendships and contacts and collaborations we make in these kinds of settings.  And universities are not the right kind of setting. I have a bit of a critique of talks behind university walls or in businesses. That’s not civil society because it’s not diverse. You don’t have all kinds of people coming together; there’s no diversity of age, nationality, interests. Sparks are created when random encounters take place, when different people meet. 

A classic example is when journalists and academics meet, since they have no idea what each other does and think the other is interesting. We meet different nationalities – that’s been one fun thing we Shanghairen like about this place.  We don’t just see Chinese-foreigner or Chinese-American interactions but everything: German, Lithuanian, Indonesian, everything. 

It’s the same with age – I think age and seniority are really undervalued as – I shouldn’t say “diversity measures,” which sounds like a kind of woke-ism, right – but it’s great when people of different ages meet. Senior people want to mentor, and younger people want to learn. But it’s good to do that in an informal way. If you do it in a formal way, it doesn’t work as well. When you meet in a bar, you’re all equal, all having a drink. It’s easy to start up a conversation. I think civil society is those kinds of ties. 

[Speaking on the nature of civil society in China]

One of the main points I want to make is that civil society in China is very small. Why is it very small? Because every organization of any scale has to register with the government. I am, of course, a for-profit business, but if I were an NGO, there would be a lot of monitoring of me and vetoing of what I could do, including a lot of self-reporting to the government. Thus, I’m not an NGO or anything like a chamber of commerce. There are organizations that have been shut down in China simply because they’re global NGOs. 

So, is there a civil society in China? It’s a very interesting question. Whatever it is, it is not like the US, or the West, or even a place like Russia. You saw in Russia there were protests, “opposition figures” speaking out. But when one of these figures speaks out, they tend to be someone who was within a previous iteration of Putin’s government or Yeltsin’s government. 

In other words, they have someone behind them, and that’s why they can speak. They don’t fear the monolith of the state. But we have nothing like this in China. We only have the state. We have a few groups like mine. But no union in China is independent, and every charity in China is registered with the government – everything.

Again, is there civil society in China? If civil society is clubs, sports leagues – all the stuff Robert Putnam talks about, which is kind of the broadest definition of civil society – then, of course, there is. I’m a part of that in Shanghai, and I’m by far the largest organizer of talks here. In a city of 27 million, my modest operation is the biggest.

[Speaking on challenges to civil society in China]

I’ve looked at the Chinese side, and there’s nothing, in terms of talks, that relates in some way to current events. There’s nothing like that on the Chinese side. What if civil society is instead defined more narrowly? Are there organizations that actually mobilize people to change policies? There’s nothing like this in China, nothing at all. And I think that’s one thing we need to understand about this country. 

Even if China is seen as an enemy, as many Americans in DC and elsewhere now assume, we still need above all to know the nature of that enemy if we are to compete successfully. What is the essence of the regime?  The Communist Party of China was founded to mobilize society to accomplish national ends, however, it understands those ends. 

Yes, some of those previous ends included leveling society, killing landlords, and giving land to peasants. There were huge mistakes, like the Great Leap Forward. But all these ends were to mobilize people to accomplish national goals as the party saw fit. That’s what Leninist systems do. That’s what they were designed to do.

The Party will not tolerate any other degree of meaningful organizational power. I am fortunate not to have had almost any trouble with the government. But there is any number of groups of a larger scale than mine which have had trouble and been shut down.

I have, what, 3,000, attendees a year, which is not that big. But there are other groups – let’s say LGBTQ rights groups, even some feminist groups – who do not directly threaten the regime politically but are still not allowed to organize. The Chinese government is not opposed to their ideas in principle, but what the party cares about is when people have the power to organize and put pressure on the government or change the narrative in some way. 

You managed to answer a couple of other things I was already curious about. 

Well, this is about political science, really, and how we think about different regimes and how we divide them up. There are autocracies like China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea, and there are other kinds of countries. China has a lot of free market activity, and I would never call it totalitarian. Most people’s lives are not threatened by the state. Hardly anyone fears the state. 

It’s not like Stalin’s or Mao’s terror; it’s not like that at all. This, fundamentally, is a regime that fuses the party with its society or at least tries to. And that’s not true of Putin’s Russia, for example. Putin has problems controlling society. China doesn’t have those problems. 

We’ve seen that CNN interview where some official in St. Petersburg said, “Putin should resign.” That will never happen in China because the party has a hold on society. 

On a more positive note, the state is generally effective here. I run a business here. It works and is rational, and I’m treated fairly. There’s no arbitrary rule here. Xi is getting more power, but he’s no Putin. He can’t invade a country by himself.

But if we want to really compete with China and understand this place, even if we consider China to be our greatest foe, then we must understand what it is about China that makes it our foe. It’s not just garden-variety autocracy; it’s not even what we once called tyranny. It is a one-party Leninist state whose very mission is to control society because it wants to mobilize human beings to accomplish human ends. It’s Leninist party control of civil society.

You said, in Shanghai, there’s not an event series in Chinese similar to what you do. So, I wanted to contrast this with a think tank experience. 

If you go to DC, there’s no Chinese civil society event in the Mandarin language I’m aware of, though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Here in Shanghai, China Crosswords is, not culturally, but linguistically an English-language enclave. 

Let’s get away from US-China for a minute – English is a global language. I have a friend who does events like this in Paris, and they’re in English. We have the fortune as Americans to be speaking our native language, but they do that in Paris too. There’s nothing special about that. 

Right – well on a more important point, to what extent do you think this has been able to have any kind of bearing on policy in China, as what think tanks try to achieve? Or, at least, do you believe it has inspired some of the business executives who attend your events to make their businesses more international and open-minded? 

You asked a very important question. Let me say this as clearly as possible. If I influence policy, I go to jail or get kicked out of China. The idea is not to influence policy in China, nor is the idea to do talks in Chinese. These are both dangerous. 

What we want to do is to influence foreigners and how they think about China and to have more dialogue. Additionally, we give Chinese people a “window on the world,” which I think is becoming more important now that China is isolating itself. Many of my Chinese attendees spent a couple of years abroad, going to school or working. When they’re back in China, they don’t like their lives here insofar as it’s not as vibrant and open as abroad. So, they like to come to our talks. 

They miss school, and they get to preserve their identities as global people. That’s the key thing. And they get to hear English-speaking academics like they did back when they were in school. Among these returnees are any number of SAIS grads who come since it reminds them of SAIS. It reminds them of that atmosphere. 

Interesting. You mentioned that, for those who might like something in their own language, there, unfortunately, are not any Chinese-language equivalents of your events. 

Is this explained simply by the Leninist elements you mentioned? Do you think that these events would happen, and in great volume, if they were allowed to happen? Or would the people, by and large, remain not so interested? 

I have so much to say. First, let’s get concrete. There was a similar kind of event, a lecture series at a bookstore in Shanghai attended by hundreds of people. It was all about books and authors, including many as participants. It got too big and was shut down 4 or 5 years ago. 

So, there was an attempt to have a great, civil society-nourishing event series!

It was held at 季风书店 (jìfēng shūdiàn, which translates to “Monsoon Bookstore”). It was in a huge bookstore under the Shanghai Library in the subway station. There were like 100 people coming.

They were talking about literature and current events? 

They hosted book talks. Some were about current events, but mostly not. Now that’s gone.

How long did it live?

Over a decade. I didn’t go the whole time, but I went a few times. 

So that lived for a decade and died with the onset of covid?

No, it died because the government shut it down. That was before covid. I can’t remember the year, maybe 2018 or 17. 

That’s quite interesting. To reiterate, do you believe a great volume of these kinds of events would exist if they were allowed to exist, all around the country? Or do you think this form of leisure and voluntary association would be unlikely to flourish outside Shanghai? 

Okay, so let me say this to all the China studies students at SAIS and all the other area studies people in the world: it’s important to know your area, but it’s important not to know your area so well that you don’t know other areas too. 

It’s important to know China, but you will never understand China if you don’t know Taiwan. After all, these kinds of events do happen in Taiwan. There they have a proliferation of different groupings and clubs and interest groups – an entire cornucopia. It happens in Hong Kong too, though not as much as before.

We, who are area experts and spend all this time on the language and are in-country, sometimes think that things are all about culture. Not everything is about culture. The reason why we have fewer of these groupings in China is not that people are shy or Chinese people don’t like to go to events. It’s because the organizing principle of a one-party Lenin state is to make sure there are not too many of these. That’s the whole idea. It’s not Chinese culture! 

That being said, there are other factors at play. China’s still a developing country. It was growing very fast up until recently. People are busy; people want to get ahead in life. And there is a cultural element in Shanghai: people tend not to go out as much compared to, say, Beijing or Chengdu. But I really want to deemphasize culture because, again, even if you spend 10 years, or 15 years studying a place, you’ll never know that place if you don’t see a comparison. 

Taiwan is a perfect comparison because it’s democratic and it’s more affluent. It’s also Chinese culture – no offense to any Taiwanese out there. There’s nothing essential about Chinese culture that means “we don’t discuss things and debate things in public,” because that’s what they do in Taiwan. 

So, then, the reason why there would be more of these happening in Shanghai rather than Changsha (capital of Hunan Province) is not that the people of Shanghai are generally or hereditarily primed to be more interested. 

Right! If Changsha were as large as Shanghai and had the same number of MNCs or returnees, it’d probably be more vibrant there. I mean, Shanghai has this because it has all the global 2000 here. A lot of executives who are foreign, as well as a lot of Chinese who work for these companies or attended SAIS or other universities abroad — they are the base.

And they have more affluence and therefore more leisure time. In a developing country, many people are working as much and as often as they possibly can to be able to eat, so they’re probably not going to be attending an academic lecture on a Thursday night.

Right. Compared to Changsha, Shanghai’s more affluent and has more leisure. But compared to D.C. it’s less so. Average people here just don’t do this stuff. They’re working and providing for their family, as Don Draper did in Mad Men. 

Stay tuned for the third installment of this interview, where Tsai will provide an outlook to the future of civil society in China. 

For more information on China Crossroads and Tsai’s work, including a record of every talk ever hosted through each of his lecture series, readers may visit

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