Editor's note: This month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout is on civil society. It airs for the first time on Thursday, June 26, 4:30 p.m. HKT. For all viewing times please click here.
Hong Kong (CNN) -- China, a single-party state run from the very top, is bubbling from beneath as grassroots activism pushes for change. In recent years, NGOs and activist groups have sprung up in the country from protesting against factory pollution, striking for better salaries to delivering free meals to village children.
With the explosion of social media, these groups are more connected and better resourced than ever before.
But how much power can the people really have in the People's Republic of China? Will the growing civil society transform the country's political landscape? In this episode of "On China," CNN's Kristie LuStout explores people power in China.
Her guests this month: Han Dongfang, founder of China Labour Bulletin, James Miles, Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, and Issac Mao, social media researcher.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Issac Mao, James Miles and Han Dongfang. Welcome to "On China." Now, in the next half hour, we're going to dig into the rise of a civil society in China. Just how are people inside the country bringing change to their communities outside the state system?
JAMES MILES: Well, there has been an extraordinary change in China. The growth of a new middle class. The growth also of a huge new migrant population moving into cities to work in factories and service industries. On the back of these social changes, a huge elevation in terms of people's consciousness of their own assets, the wealth they very rapidly built up over the last few years, the legal environment that is needed to protect that. So a much stronger consciousness of the role of law in protecting what they've gained. So we have seen, as a result of economic and social change, change in information technology, the creation of so many different kinds of little spaces for people to maneuver, whether it's NGOs, whether it's through social media, whether it's just through individual activism.
HAN DONGFANG: People are waking up bit by bit. It's not at the beginning you get everything, so it's a process. And you look at the Yue Yuen shoe factory strike, it's the biggest strike in the last 35 years. And you see these labor NGOs from not only Dongguan city, but from other cities in Guangdong province. They try to get involved, to help the workers to see whether there's opportunity to start some kind of a collective bargaining. But at the same time, the government does not know how to deal with this side of the strike. That means you have issue to deal with which never happened. That is the reason the civil society in China is able to develop under the one-party dictatorship rule. Because the party need that too. The problems, they never exist, and they never dealt with it, and they can't hide away. They have to be dealt with.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: The rise of the civil society in China is based on need, and that's why we're seeing the rise of this true non-governmental organizations or NGOs. In China there are different types of NGOs, aren't they? There are quasi-official NGOs, they are kind of linked to the state, as well as independent unregistered ones. Describe the lay of the land.
JAMES MILES: Official statistics at least are very misleading on this. Officially there are around half a million registered NGOs. Most of those have some government connection. They are what we might called government-organized non-governmental organizations. GONGOs. But then in addition to those half a million or so registered NGOs, we have an unknown number, could be one million, two million other NGOs, much more of a kind that we would recognize as such. Small groups of people, this is a highly atomized force you could say, tiny little groups of people all over the country working on trying to improve lives of people in those areas whether it's on labor issues, women's rights, or the environment. And now the government itself beginning to try and bring more of these small hitherto unregistered groups into the official fold. Registering them, getting to know them, it hopes presumably getting to control them better.
ISAAC MAO: The government, you know, as I know recently they opened up for many small NGOs to register under the city management, the city-based management. You know, they also open some spaces for small NGOs to use their office, you know, shared space. So you can register, use the office. The benefit to government is that because all the NGOs are together, so it's very easy to manage in a centralized way. But there are still a lot of community groups, you know. They're not using office. They are not using any physical space. They actually work together online, you know. So the internet actually from the very beginning of the internet, you know, it's a very distributive system.
JAMES MILES: One big turning point in this was the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that killed tens of thousands of people. And we saw as a result of that, with the help of the Internet, people all over the country, wanting to contribute, wanting to form groups of like-minded people to go to the disaster area to help out, to help with the relief efforts. And then also over the last few years, more recently, we've seen a great sense of public dissatisfaction and suspicion of GONGOs, these governmental organized, non-governmental organizations. Because of sandals, corruption cases, that have been associated with.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Like the sandals surrounding the Red Cross? Chinese Red Cross.
JAMES MILES: Exactly. A feeling that money that they have been giving to these government approved organizations have been going astray, has been using to feed lavish lifestyles among those involved. So this is helping also to promote a real non-governmental movement.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: The workers of China, have become a force for change in the country. An example of is this 38-year-old female worker, who worked for Walmart, she sued Walmart and won, now she's suing the state union, why is she going after the union?
HAN DONGFANG: There is a union. Official union. The official union always sees itself as, was unfortunately, as government officials. They don't see themselves as workers' representatives. But when the workers stay as victims, it doesn't really reflect this union's role and these people can stay in their office and in peace and drinking tea and reading newspaper everyday. Well as soon as the workers stand up, there's a question appears: where's the union? You don't need to condemn the union. You just need to ask the question. That's what this Wang Yafang's (王亞芳) case on Walmart.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: I also want to ask about the ultra-rich. The extremely wealthy in China. Are they participating as they should?
JAMES MILES: Well, they're not by and large participating really at all. And this is a topic of big debate. Recently we saw Jack Ma of Alibaba.
ISAAC MAO: But I'm not so sure what Jack Ma's purpose is because of his tracking record. To me, you know, I'm not so much sure of that. But I do see some rich men in China, although they have made a lot of money, you know, by taking the advantage of China's development, you know, in the past 20 years, they also see the consequences the China model did to the society. For example, everyone breathe the same air in China. Not only the poor but also the rich. So they can install of course the air distiller in their home, the purifier. But how can they breathe (when they) go outside?
KRISTIE LU STOUT: It was through the online campaign by the Chinese property tycoon Pan Shiyi (潘石屹) that led to the PM 2.0 reading in Beijing for better air quality.
HAN DONGFANG: it's not necessarily their choice. They don't have a choice in this country. There's no one has a choice. This country has been too long only focus on creating fortune for the billionaires and millionaires. Ignoring the mass majority people's basic needs. So the gap is getting, I think China has reached up to the dangerous point. The rich people are supposed to feel the danger. If you won't get involved into creating a civil society to find some mechanism to have some kind of a dialogue possible.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: So you're basically saying everyone in China's rich list you have to get involved or else.
HAN DONGFANG: Exactly.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: Throughout our conversation about civil society in China, social media keeps coming up again and again. But really, what is the true impact of social media in activism and developing a civil society in China?
HAN DONGFANG: QQ, you have the South Media and the platform like WeChat and Weibo. These are all the platforms for at least the labor NGOs and the worker activists in when workers try to organize strikes in the QQ, WeChat and Weibo, they're the most common used platform, you can really use these platform with your smartphone to get the action stimulated and to some kind of scale. Again, I believe, this is at the pre-beginning of the power of social media. It's not began yet.
ISAAC MAO: Also in China it's different because the government they always have this strong will to try to control something but on social media if you want to control, unless you unplug the internet, you know, you have to participate. So you see that CCTV, People's Daily, they all have the Weibo account. You know try to participate. But it's like a big party you know now, it's not something like traditional hierarchical, you know, define. It's like a big party. You participate in the party as most of time you know you have no any privilege there. You were pushed back and forth by other individuals even a very single person can challenge People Daily today. If they post something you know, those people unsatisfied. So it's a very good arena. People never seen before in China, it's a debate you know platform for people to participate.
JAMES MILES: I think it's important to bear in mind also how different particularly micro-blogs are in China compared with the way they're understood in the West. Weibo is not the same as Twitter. Because of the nature of the Chinese language that 140 characters restriction allows for much more freedom in Chinese because, each Chinese word is only made up of one or two characters and no spaces in between them so you can actually pack in a lot more information in a microblog post through Weibo for example. And so it's used much more as a platform for serious debate and exchange of ideas than twitter I would say is in the rest of the world.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: It's interesting the point that you made that the Chinese government will not crackdown or stop social media but it's trying to infiltrate it. To the state-run account a CCTV account Weibo or Weixin. Is it having any impact at all?
HAN DONGFANG: The Chinese government they know better than anyone of us about how bad their system is, how much they were cheated up there and how bad the situation. And the Weibo and social media gave them another channel to check out and the internal report how much is lie how much is covered and they get the respond directly.
JAMES MILES: I agree entirely with that it thinks the social media are helping it to understand the concerns of people all over the country almost in real time. The problem however arises with how you monitor this. It's not that Chinese leaders sitting in Beijing are logging onto Weibo every morning. I suspect they rarely if ever do that. They have a classified system of reporting which is conducted by all sorts of different organizations around China on behalf of the Communist Party and the government. Looking at what these officials believe to be important Weibos, microblogs or whatever, putting them into secret bulletins which are then sent out through the system for the information of leaders. But again all sorts of distortions arise from that. What you pick, what do you not pick. Those who are picking them of course are subject to pressures from local government not to highlight certain issues which might be embarrassing. So it's a very imprecise and imperfect mechanism for understanding what's going on around China. And I think although they like to think that Weibo is somehow helping them, they're always one step behind. Weibo is constantly surprising them.
HAN DONGFANG: This is from the government site, the society site, the people site. I think it's a, I experience the most powerful thing for the social media to people is to bring people out from miserable isolation. There's a classic case. Da Ai Qing Chen (大愛清塵) led by this journalist Wang Keqing (王克勤) looking for silicosis victims. Those workers working in a mine in the street getting this stone lungs. They're dying and they are mostly coming from the big mountain remote places and they're dying in the cold, in the hot and no one care about them. There's no hope. But this organization, they use the social media, they build this platform and that went national wide, volunteer based organization. These people they connect on the Internet, they walk into the mountain physically, funding these silicosis victims, help them to set their own Weibo account and they start making voices. There are hundred thousand of silicosis victims supposed to be dying in the cold and the silent and now they're making voices, they're going to die soon, yes, but the voice bring them together on that platform through social media, that changed everything. Bring people out from isolation.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: So we've already talked about how civil society has led to changes out of grassroots level for workers, for the middle class, for those who want to breathe cleaner air in China. But will an emerging civil society in China transform China politically?
HAN DONGFANG: Jiang Zemin had a lot of time to waste and Hu Jintao had a lot of time to waste, not Xi Jinping. He's fighting a survival battle. So this is where he is, where China is. And based on this, how Xi Jinping can survived together with his party and together with China, and there is a solution needed. That's what when we civil society movement, we try to form what our strategy is, to looking for everyone's interests. When the workers were talking about, several hundred millions of Chinese workers, if they have the power to bargain, have the organizational resources to bargain with employers, and their monthly income will be readjusted every year, and that huge internal consumption, that's what the Chinese government has been looking for the last 35 years. And they never find it, and they create instead huge amount of billionaires. They don't consume much in China. They consume in Los Angeles, London and Sydney, buying houses. But workers' salary can be the real fresh water for next step in China's economy, driving power. So that is what all sort of Chinese government and the new leadership and Xi Jinping's benefit is and the workers' benefit. So if you see the common benefit, take union reform as one example, why not? Why Xi jinping doesn't go that way? I don't believe it.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: You want to weigh in on that, go ahead.
ISAAC MAO: Social media definitely a game changer to China. I mean the government, the civil society, I mean, they all participate in these kind of platform, you know, as their voice channels. And the government, they have to follow the game rules of social media. Not their traditional rules. the authorities themselves they have to learn the new language. And they were influenced of the new language as well. So I mean, information lead everything in the future. What kind of information you are you know facing everyday will lead your thoughts in future. In the government officials and the official media and many people in the system, they also affected by the social media as well. So I think it will change a lot to about the systematic thinking of the system. I don't know what the real you know change you know in what kind of time point. But at least that they are trying to follow the new game rules, you know, I mean subconsciously.
JAMES MILES: And it's not just you who's asking where this will all lead. China's leaders themselves are sitting in Beijing and wondering what on earth is going on. How can we cope with this? We potentially now face dissatisfaction within the middle class over the next few years, which could lead to all sorts of difficulty and trouble. And this could be fueled by and aided by the growth of civil society. The real issue I think is when it comes to the crunch, when a real crisis emerges, that say for example, such as we saw in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Something that consumes the party with fear of possibly Soviet Union or Eastern European style collapse. And at that point I think what we might see now compared with 25 years ago during Tiananmen, is that the cells of organizations are much more quickly formed together. These currently atomized bits of civil society are more rapidly formed into a body. Be much more difficult for the government to control information, to stop people organizing, to stop the flow of information in these kind of critical events. And that's what it's truly afraid of. So I think when it comes to those sort of crunch points, we may well see civil society playing a critical role in terms of changing the political makeup of China.
KRISTIE LU STOUT: We'll leave it at that. James Miles, Issac Mao and Han Dongfang. Thank you so much for a deeply insightful discussion to the rise of civil society and people power in China. Thank you.