The politics of doing gongyi: an ethnographic study of Chinese NGOs

Zhao, Hailing (2020) The politics of doing gongyi: an ethnographic study of Chinese NGOs. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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NGO development in authoritarian states has long been seen as an important indicator of state-society relations. The past decade has witnessed great changes in China’s NGO sector: withdrawing international donors, increasing government funding of social service delivery, rising domestic donors from the private sector, and so forth. Researchers have investigated the dynamics of the relationship between the authoritarian state and NGOs in China and the survival strategies of grassroots organizations, given the policy changes. However, few studies have looked at the internal politics and structure of China’s NGO sector, particularly, language changes and knowledge production. This thesis aims to fill this gap as reflected in the ways in which “gongyi”, translated as ‘public interest’ or ‘philanthropy’, has been used by the Chinese state and non-state actors. It focuses in particular on the relationship between the state, Chinese entrepreneurs, and NGOs. The changing use of gongyi both in official state discourse and in China’s NGO sector shows a shift from a state-centric discourse in the late 1980s towards a more market-oriented discourse in the past decade, alongside a process of commercialization. Re-examining Chinese NGOs in epistemological terms, through the language of gongyi, suggests that China’s NGO sector has become increasingly heterogeneous. The market and rising entrepreneurship, with the help of the local state, are shaping the sector not just financially but in terms of knowledge production. Moreover, Chinese NGOs, given such changes in the past decade, have strengthened corporatism and social inequality in their daily operation, rather than challenge them. In this sense, my study of gongyi understands corporatism in China in two ways: how the local corporatism contributes to a more fragmented authoritarian state in China; and how it connects to a rapidly unequal society in people’s daily life.

Based on my yearlong multi-sited ethnography of an entrepreneur-founded foundation and its partner organizations in China, this research reveals how gongyi, a language that popularly used by most of the organizations in China’s NGO sector, has been firstly reinvented by the Chinese business elites, applied in the office of their own foundations, and then widely disseminated, learned, and negotiated in different grassroots organizations in other parts of China. This research presents the normalization of different forms of corporatism in Chinese NGO sector under the name of “doing gongyi”. At the same time, my ethnographic study of the everyday life of Chinese NGO workers reveals how gongyi and corporatism has been performed, negotiated, and challenged in various ways. Based on the findings at both organizational and individual levels, the thesis argues that gongyi contributes to and increasingly depoliticized and commercialized culture in Chinese NGOs, while also helping to reproduce social inequalities in today’s Chinese society at large, particularly in terms of gender and family labor division.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Social Sciences > School of Global Development (formerly School of International Development)
Depositing User: Chris White
Date Deposited: 09 Dec 2020 09:28
Last Modified: 09 Dec 2020 09:28


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