Sustaining Civil Society in post-Covid China

Read Time:10 Minute, 15 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?

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)

Regarding 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 then? 

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 into parts: To begin with, 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 asking about Xinjiang since we are not allowed to talk about that publicly. 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, and many more people were coming to China. 

That’s one part of the answer. You mentioned civil society, and I want to go in this direction as it is 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 and made friends. Civil society is just the horizontal ties individuals make in societal gatherings rather than the vertical ties they have with the state. 

Now, that term can also refer to NGOs, interest groups, and protests, but it all starts from friendships and contacts and collaborations we make in these kinds of settings.  And universities are not exactly this 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, or 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 in Shanghai like about this place.  We don’t see Chinese-foreigner or Chinese-American interactions but everything: German, Lithuanian, Indonesian, everything. 

[Speaking on the nature of civil society in China]

One of the main points I want to make is that the 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 more monitoring of me and vetoing of what I could do, including a lot of self-reporting to the government. 

Whether civil society actually exists in China is an interesting question. Whatever it is, it is not like the US, the West, or even Russia. We saw in Russia there were opposition figures and even government officials speaking out in the global media. 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.

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. If. on the other hand, civil society more narrowly includes NGOs, independent groups, and media criticizing the government, then it is vanishingly small in China today.

[Speaking on challenges to civil society in China]

I’ve looked at the Chinese side, and there’s nothing more broadly in terms of talks that relates in some way to current events. 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 must understand about this country. 

China is now seen as the “enemy” by many Americans. If true, then we need to understand the nature of that enemy. What is the essence of the regime?

The Communist Party of China was founded to mobilize society to accomplish national ends. Some of those ends have included leveling society, killing landlords, and giving land to peasants. There were huge mistakes, like the Great Leap Forward. Other ends have included China’s economic miracle. Whether good ends or bad, the party wants to “get it right” and therefore requires a monopoly on the organizational capacity to mobilize society and accomplish them. This is the main “feature” and “bug” of Leninist systems.

The party, by design, does not allow meaningful organizational capacity outside its control. I’m fortunate not to have had trouble with the government. But many groups of a larger scale than mine 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 and how we think about different regimes and divide them up. There are autocracies like China, Russia, and North Korea, and there are other kinds of regimes. China has a lot of free market activity, and I would never call it totalitarian. Most people don’t fear the state. Instead, this is a regime that tries to fuse party and society.

On a more positive note, the state is generally effective. 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 compete with China and understand this place, even if we consider China 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. These Leninist ideals set China apart from us.

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

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

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 to me personally. 

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 have spent a couple of years abroad. 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. And they get to hear English-speaking academics as they did back 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 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? 

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.

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 also know Taiwan. After all, these kinds of events do happen in Taiwan. They have a proliferation of different groupings and clubs, and interest groups.

We who are area experts and spend all this time on the language sometimes think that things are always about culture. Not everything is about culture.

The reason why we have fewer of these groups in China is not that people are shy or Chinese people don’t like events. It’s because the organizing principle of a one-party Lenin state is to make sure there are not too many of these. Taiwan is a perfect comparison because it’s democratic and 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. 

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

Leave a Reply

Previous post Drinks, Deals, and Dines: Happy Hours in Northwest D.C.
Next post Plum Blossoms Around HNC “梅”好中心
%d bloggers like this: