When I read articles or books by Minxin Pei, I begin to wonder whether the color revolutions were to Vladimir Putin what 9/11 was to George Bush – an existential challenge that would forever define the presidencies and skew their decisions toward sometimes damaging policies. In the United States, there were a host of constitutional problems and the nearly inconceivable debate on torture, and in Russia, we saw the most peculiar development: a “doppelgänger effect” of the state creating and funding imitation NGOs to fill the vacuum left empty by their crackdown. The process illustrates Russia’s technique of so-called co-optation, by which former opponents of the state are pushed into cooperative roles by use of incentives or threats, a method that dates back to the early struggles of the Bolsheviks. In Minxin Pei’s latest article in the Financial Times, we are seeing it happen all over again – this time in China – with the Gongo phenomenon. One hopes that soon more people will begin to see that these instruments of control presently being deployed by corrupt autocratic states need to be identified more often as a threat, not a boon, to the future economic and political growth of Russia and China.
Consequently, the growth of Chinese civil society, as measured by the number or quality of its NGOs, has woefully lagged behind China’s economic growth. China has more than 350,000 legally registered NGOs, but perhaps only about 10 per cent of them can be considered genuine NGOs in the western sense. Most of the rest are so-called “government-organised non-governmental organisations”, or Gongos, an appellation that would make George Orwell proud. As a rule, Gongos are affiliated with a government bureaucracy, headed by retired officials and funded by the state. They have no genuine autonomy. Even among genuine NGOs, one cannot find civic groups, such as independent labour unions, student unions and religious groups, which are capable of large-scale collective action. Most Chinese NGOs are small groups engaged in leisure activities, environmental protection and local charity work like health and education. A promising development may be the formation of local chambers of commerce in Zhejiang province, where the private sector accounts for more than 90 per cent of the economic output. But this is the exception that proves the rule.