Building Alliance Between Civil Societies in Opposing Authoritarian Hegemony
On 1 January 2017, the Law on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China (the Foreign NGOs Law) became officially effective, marking the winter of the developing civil society in mainland China. However, regulation on overseas civil organizations is not unique to China. Worldwide, a number of countries have similar regulations and some have been in place for years, and respective civil societies have accumulated experiences in dealing with such monitoring and regulation. Their experiences in coping with monitoring and regulation from the government are valuable references to civil society in mainland China. In view of this, the HKCTU, together with the City University of Hong Kong, organized an international seminar on global development trends of civil societies. Representatives of civil societies and trade unions from 8 countries were invited to have exchanges with local and mainland China civil societies. Participants learned from each other and inquired future directions for the movement.
In recent years, the Chinese Communist regime has systematically institutionalized monitoring and regulation of the society through vigorous legislation. The Foreign NGOs Law which came into effect in 2017 is a set of stringent controls on actions and activities of overseas civil organizations through legislation which put the development of civil society into the clutches of law-enforcing departments. Representatives from Vietnam, India and Russia reported that there are similar laws in their countries to regulate overseas civil organizations, while there are a lot of commonalities with the Foreign NGOs Law in terms of details of regulation, scope of control and management mechanism. For example, the Act No. 12 which came into effect in 2012 in Vietnam required all overseas NGOs operating in the territory to submit activity plans and financial reports to the government. This mechanism is similar to the system of registration and record under the Foreign NGOs Law. All the governments in these 4 countries tried to limit the development of civil society within the scope favourable to the regime (such as poverty alleviation, disaster relief, medical and health service, economic development and trade, etc.) through legislation. As all similar regulations in different countries prohibit NGOs from involving in political or sensitive activities while definitions of such activities are often unclear, civic right organizations could hardly acquire legal status. As a result, all NGOs which might post threats to authoritarian regime are shut off.
At the same time, laws in these 4 countries are also stringent in regulating cooperation between local NGOs and foreign NGOs, with the purpose to reduce power of civil societies by systematically cutting off exchange and cooperation between civil societies in different countries. Obviously, authoritarian regimes have been learning from each other’s practices to refine domestic laws to tighten control on civil society. Ironically, while governments are eager to break trade barriers in promoting the freedom of flow in capital and goods under the name of neo-liberalism, some authoritarian regimes are also deploying various approaches to suppress exchange and cooperation between civil societies, so as to eliminate threats to the regimes and monopoly of trans-national capital.
Though collusion between authoritarianism and trans-national capital has strong impact on development of civil societies all over the world, participants to the seminar did not consider it an end to civil society. On the contrary, we learned from cases in different countries the exploitation and injustice brought by authoritarianism and trans-national capital have resulted in local resistance from the people and workers all over the world. Take China as example, labour collective actions were taking place continuously due to wealth disparity, and did not die down despite government’s suppression on NGOs. At the same time, local resistance induced by land issues had forced the renunciation of a proposed nuclear power plant construction in western India. Despite shrinkage of spaces for civil societies, there are still cases of successful local resistance. The future of civil societies depends on the flexible bonding between affected people and workers in the communities, and empowerment of people through resistance. When facing suppression from authoritarianism and trans-national capital, civil societies in different countries also need to forge for innovative means to exchange and cooperate with each other and, hence, depose the monopolistic hegemony.