Civil society under authoritarian rule: disasters, social capital, and their consequences in Chinese state-society relations
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This dissertation addresses the question “how disasters change state-society relations under authoritarian rule?” Specifically, I investigate how space and social capital were created after major earthquakes and the relationships between local governments and civil society organizations (CSOs). Based on four years of interviews conducted with government officials and CSO leaders and two rounds of surveys in 126 villages in rural Sichuan province, utilizing experiments, focus groups, and interviews, I argue that social capital and space for CSOs were created after major earthquakes. Adding to the literature of consultative authoritarianism and graduated control, I demonstrate that within the newly created space, local governments use a deliberate differentiation strategy towards different CSOs. Such differentiation is more driven by the state’s interest to extract productivity and outsource responsibility for public goods provision by regime-supporting CSOs, and less dictated by the state’s need to acquire information from regime-challenging CSOs with collective action potential. Such approach contributes to the authoritarian resilience in China. Despite the interference from the state from above, the newly created space also faces challenges from the private sphere with individual citizens being skeptical of the CSO sector due to limited interactions, mismatch of criteria, institutional constraints, and lack of civility. I then draw from the qualitative data and construct a dynamic framework of state-society relations under an authoritarian state after disasters by starting from co-operational, complementary, competitive, and confrontational relations, and end up in either co-optation or confrontation in the long run. Finally, I trace the development of the newly drafted charity law and the foreign NGO law. I argue that the state-organized legalization process would first allow the state to use the “zone of indifference” to get to know the new developments in the public sphere. Then, through a process of toleration, participation, initiation, replication, and bifurcation, the state manages to extract productivity from, and outsource responsibility to, the regime-supporting players, and drive out the regime challenging ones. The laws, made through this process, is also vulnerable to state intervention at any time, and therefore, prevents China from having a meaningful civil society.