Universiteit Leiden

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Gongming shehui (Civil society) and the prospect of democratization in China

  • Tomoko AKO
Thursday 20 October 2016
Old Observatory
Sterrenwachtlaan 11
2311 GW Leiden
C 102

--- Tortuous interrelation between social media and political reform ---

Civil society, in Chinese usually translated as “gongmin shehui” (公民社会), has developed steadily in recent years. Social media has facilitated active discussion on gongmin shehui and concrete actions for social change, although the existing political system restricts freedom of expression and freedom of belief. However, the invigoration of social media has embraced the contradiction of granting particular cases exceptions of not following formal procedures established in laws. At the same time, it has provided the state with momentum of strengthening its functions of security means and information control, and as a result has impeded progress of judicial reform and democratization.

After having a brief overview on the development of gongmin shehui, this lecture touches upon the noticeable trend of social media movement in the 2000s. Topics discussed include criticism of corrupt officials, protests against environmental devastation, and roles of intellectuals such as lawyers. In aiming at compensating for the deficit of current systems, lawyers launched what they call “yingxiangxing susong” (影響性訴訟influential lawsuits). They have also participated in a civil investigation team to do an independent inquiry on a mysterious incident, and voice oppositions
against violation of due process and legalization of “jianshi juzhu” (監視居住residential surveillance known informally as “soft detention”).

Being stimulated through the surge of social media, the increasing desire of civilian participation has grown into a new type of social movement. Such internet-based “unofficial democracy” has produced opportunistic and extreme discourses in large volume. Furthermore, it has been difficult to overturn the status quo because political and economic elites at the core of the Chinese society are generally not very positive in accelerated social transformation. It is considered that economic disparities, communitarianism, and colonial history have hindered the advancement of liberal democracy in China, as is demonstrated in other Asian countries experiences.

Yet the sweeping trend of civil society in China has gradually built the foundation for liberal democracy. At the last part of the lecture, it will be argued that gongmin shehui is a key element of democracy, and that they are mutually and intimately interrelated. Although the Chinese governing structure named “China Model” has gained prominence recently, such an authoritarian political system might come under pressure to make a drastic change with slowdown of economic growth, changes in international relations and greater engagement of political and economic elites in social issues.

Tomoko AKO is Associate Professor of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences  at Tokyo University. Her research interests include empowerment  of socially vulnerable people such as migrant workers, HIV/AIDS positives, women, elderly people and children, with a particular focus on China. She has conducted research on migrant workers of new generation, HIV/AIDS victims who contracted the virus through blood selling and transfusion, building of social capital in rural development, and so on. Recently she has
been involved in research projects on civil society and social media, and has interviewed a wide range of Chinese public intellectuals, human rights lawyers, and journalists .

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