This article explores responses to the Covid‑19 pandemic in China and examines the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the changing operation of Chinese civil society. Civil society, generally defined as “voluntary activities that enjoy a certain amount of autonomy,” includes citizens’ active social participation, civic debates in the public sphere, the formation of autonomous social organizations and civic communities, and activism (Johnson 2003, p. 552; Yang 2002). Just what civil society’s role has been in China has long been a subject of debate.
Some have argued that the construction of civil society in China has followed a top-down approach, namely that the state has played a leading role in the formation of civil society and combined strategies of “control” and “development” in its management (Kang and Han 2008). Those who adopt this perspective have seen little possibility of a “pure” civil society developing in China or have emphasized the Chinese case as a distinctive form of civil society that is state-dominated (Frolic 1997). Other have suggested that there is a more dynamic interchange between the state and civil society in China (Heberer 2012; White, Howell and Shang 1996). They have argued that, despite Chinese civil society being developed and led by the government at the beginning, it could experience an “unintended expansion” along the way. As more self-generating associations, civic communities, and online public debates emerged, civil society, it was predicted, would gradually acquire more autonomy and bargaining power, and make its voice heard. This perspective sees the possibility for more agency on the part of civil society in China.
This article connects the two perspectives by describing and analyzing civil-society efforts at the social, political, and policymaking levels that emerged in Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak. Combining analysis of newspaper articles, Chinese government announcements, and semi-structured interviews,  I find that even in state-dominated Chinese civil society there was widespread self-organized social and political participation that arose from below, which neither strategies of “control” nor “development” could fully stymie or control. My findings show the need for a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of the relationship between the state and civil society in China, with cooperation, supervision and activism coexisting. I argue that an overemphasis on the state–civil society dichotomy in China may lead one to overlook meaningful relationships among individuals within civil-society groups.
Self-organized participation at the social level
During the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan during the winter of 2019 and spring of 2020, various social organizations and informal community initiatives were significant in the city’s response to the epidemic. Some were semigovernmental organizations, such as the Wuhan Red Cross; some were private charities and NGOs,  such as the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation ; others still were informal self-organized collective practices. As the Wuhan Red Cross has more connections with the government, it is not considered a part of “civil society” in this article.
At the outbreak of the Covid‑19 epidemic, in response to a severe shortage of medical supplies, Chinese corporations, alumni associations, private charities, and individuals swiftly collected and purchased medical resources from all over the world and delivered them directly to frontline hospitals. This alternative action circumvented the Wuhan Red Cross  and made the whole process much more efficient. Supplies also reached hospitals through donations to private charities such as the Han Hong Love Charity Foundation. In late January 2020, the central government’s primary focus was on Wuhan, while other cities in Hubei province were also struggling (Xiao et al. 2020). Han Hong’s foundation helped to secure medical supplies for Wuhan as well as other cities in Hubei province, and their fast response was highly praised during the outbreak. The pandemic created more opportunities for the foundation to develop and gain publicity, and to compete with semigovernmental organizations like the Wuhan Red Cross.
Social media also constituted a lifeline for patients and helped isolated residents buy groceries. With an extreme shortage of hospital beds in Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak, many people there turned to social media for help. “Pneumonia patients asking for help” soon became a “Super Topic” on Weibo and helped a number of patients get media attention and hospital beds. As of March 23, 2020, the Super Topic had been viewed more than 5 billion times. Social media also enabled contributions to group-buying food delivery services. In the face of lockdown, some homeowners’ committees (yezhu weiyuanhui)  formed different chat groups on WeChat, organizing group purchases from nearby vegetable, meat, and dairy suppliers. One resident described the process:
The vegetable supplier that we contacted required a minimum of 100 orders for delivery. We soon formed a group. Some of us were in charge of bookkeeping, some volunteered to create spreadsheets using Excel, and some collected money from buyers […]. We looked out for one another. We knew which apartment an older neighbor lived in, who might not know how to use smartphones to buy groceries. Thus, when we ordered groceries, we would prioritize their needs. In a way, coronavirus strengthened the cohesion within our community.
These self-organized practices existed before the government recruited community volunteers, and, to some extent, helped food and medical supplies reach the people who needed them the most.
Source: provided by respondents.
Many other volunteer groups and NGOs were also actively involved in helping residents manage daily life in Wuhan during the outbreak. Some of their efforts included providing shuttle services for medical staff to and from hospitals; providing antiviral medication to HIV-positive individuals in Hubei province (Wang 2020); recruiting volunteers to feed pets whose owners were either unable to return to Wuhan or caught up in quarantine (Liu and Talmazan 2020); and launching a professional online clinic to prevent cross-infection caused by the flooding of people into hospitals (China Philanthropy Research Institute 2020). These civil-society organizations and practices revealed the Chinese public’s strong sense of civic responsibility and were essential to keeping the city functioning.
During the pandemic, the alliance of the Chinese public’s online and offline activities transformed what had been fragmented online practices into various collective social actions. Compared with semigovernmental organizations, these civic-society initiatives and groups had strengths of effectiveness, agility, and flexibility. These collective practices played an indispensable role in the early stages of the outbreak, when a uniform government policy was not yet in place. More importantly, they created communities in which people were drawn together by different goals, which were crucial to civil-society development.
Dynamic interchange with the state
In line with the theory that argues that Chinese civil society can expand in unintended ways, the relationship between state agencies and civil society in China is not static, but dynamic. In the case of the pandemic, some earlier civil-society initiatives were either integrated into or coexisted with the government’s efforts for total mobilization. In other cases, the public persistently advocated for greater voice and influenced government decisions.
As the number of new cases continued to rise, the Wuhan government recruited more than 20,000 volunteers from February 10, 2020, to impose stricter quarantine measures and temperature checks at the neighborhood level (Xinhua Net 2020a). These volunteers were often residents of these neighborhoods; their primary duties included delivering groceries to older people and low-income families, disinfecting city blocks, and checking temperatures at building entrances. Therefore, while the earlier civil-society initiatives mainly took a bottom-up approach, and were in many cases informal, from February onwards they were systematically organized to support self-isolation (World Health Organization 2020).
Source: provided by respondents (identifiable information was erased).
Still, it should be noted that government-organized voluntary activities never totally replaced spontaneous voluntary activities; the two types of voluntary activities coexisted and complemented each other. My interviews showed that some volunteers had dual responsibilities. In the morning, they stood at the checkpoints, registering those who tried to enter or exit the neighborhood; in the afternoon, they continued their previous voluntary work as drivers, delivering supplies to different hospitals.
On various occasions, the Chinese public also influenced government decisions and public policy by online and offline means. To begin with, the Chinese public actively exercised its role in supervising and monitoring semigovernmental institutions such as the Wuhan Red Cross and the Hubei Provincial Red Cross. During the coronavirus crisis, people publicized their discontent with the Red Cross for its slow response and discrepancies in allocations between hospitals. In response, the central government removed one deputy director of the Hubei Provincial Red Cross from office and disciplined two other officials (Xinhua Net 2020b). Similarly, widespread public discontent pressured the government to replace the mayor of Wuhan and the governor of Hubei province.
Furthermore, the Chinese public’s donation preferences prompted the government to revise its policy regarding charitable organizations. On February 14, 2020 the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs published new guidelines in which charitable organizations and the Red Cross were given equal importance in fundraising activities (Ministry of Civil Affairs 2020b). The change indicated that non-earmarked donations no longer needed to go through the Red Cross, and civil-society organizations had the freedom to allot donated funds and medical supplies as they saw fit (Snape 2020).
Perhaps the clearest sign of civic engagement was the collective mourning of Dr. Li Wenliang.  More than 17 million people watched the livestream for Dr. Li’s health-status updates on the night of February 6, 2020; his death triggered an outpouring of anger, fury, and grief, and demands to be able to freely engage in public debates soon flooded Chinese social media (Deng and Chin 2020). The scale and the intensity of the incident were unprecedented, and the National Supervisory Commission of China set up a “thorough investigation” with regard to Li. On March 19, the Commission revoked the reprimand against Dr. Li and officially honored him as a “martyr” (Xinhua Net 2020c). To some extent, the decision marked the central government’s admission of its early mistakes in reprimanding Dr. Li.
The examples mentioned above suggest that we cannot simply say that the central government controlled civil society in either a loose or a tight way. The coronavirus crisis revealed that the government and civil society are not necessarily in opposition but rather can complement each other. While government-organized voluntary activities ensured that the lockdowns were fully enforced, spontaneous voluntary activities “made up the shortfall” (Caixin Global 2020). Moreover, as White, Howell, and Shang concluded in In Search of Civil Society, the further development of China’s market economy has been gradually shifting the balance of power between the state and society “in favor of the societal component” (White et al. 1996, p. 211). It is important not to overlook the potential of Chinese civil-society organizations and activities to influence public policy and government decision-making.
The coronavirus crisis saw an extraordinary burst of civic engagement and civic-mindedness in China. People participated in various types of volunteer work, formed diverse disaster-relief groups and communities, took on the civic responsibility of taking care of their neighbors and their local communities, actively engaged in public debates on the Internet, and persistently advocated for better governance. The efforts performed by ordinary Chinese people were impressive and should not be underestimated.
These initiatives suggest that civil society’s presence or absence relies not only on its remoteness from the state but also on relationships among individuals within civil-society groups. One should not only look at groups and associations’ relative autonomy vis-à-vis the state but also at their internal dynamics, including the ways members within these groups are drawn voluntarily together by a common goal, and the degree of civic-mindedness that they develop within these groups (Chamberlain 1998).
We need a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of the relationship between the state and civil society in China. There was no homogeneous pattern but, rather, diverse forms of social organizations and initiatives that emerged during the coronavirus outbreak, each of them responding in different ways to the crisis. It remains to be seen whether these civil society initiatives will be sustained after the coronavirus crisis and transformed into a regular component of the Chinese public health system.
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