Accepted paper:

The contraction of China's civic space through government purchasing of welfare services from NGOs


Regina Enjuto Martinez (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Jude Howell (LSE)
Yuanyuan Qu (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines the new policy of government purchasing of welfare services from NGOs in China and its impacts on state-civil society relations. It shows how it restricts the civic space and co-opts civil society into a social stability-maintenance function.

Paper long abstract:

Since 2013 the Chinese government, under the premise of increasing state capacity and improving efficiency, has rolled out a national programme to deliver welfare by contracting services to NGOs. Given the novelty of this policy, existing research has mainly explained its institutional origin and design across China. This paper, however, examines the impact of government contracting welfare services to NGOs on state-civil society relations, and on the development of efficient and inclusive welfare services. It draws on empirical evidence from an ongoing ESRC-funded research from three different locations in China and three welfare service sectors, namely, migrant workers, people living with disabilities, and people living with HIV/AIDs. It presents fourfold findings: first, the purchasing process is not a level playing field, but instead favours NGOs with pre-established relations with local authorities, and excludes rights-based groups that are politically sensitive; second, governments' bias towards certain NGOs implicitly re-constructs social needs into those with priority, while certain NGOs and social groups, are excluded from government welfare funding; third, together with the contraction of alternative sources of funding -foreign in particular due to the Foreign NGO Law (2016)-, service contracting makes NGOs highly dependent on government funding for their survival; fourth, service contracting drives NGOs away from their mission, vision and values, becoming functional arms of the state in the delivery of welfare. We argue that the policy of purchasing social services from NGOs in China is, in fact, a mechanism of co-optation of civil society that fulfils a social order-maintenance function.

panel G2
What does changing civic space mean for development?