Civil Society in Identity-Formation and Institution-Building Processes in Asia

Panel organizers

Kamila Szczepanska (University Turku, Finland)
Anna Caspari (University Bochum)
Anja Ketels (University Münster)


Katja Levy (University of Manchester, UK)
Diana Schnelle (University Bochum)
Bertram Lang (Frankfurt University)


Anna Caspari (University Bochum)
Kamila Szczepanska (University Turku, Finland)
Anja Ketels (University Münster)

Panel abstract

Over the last three decades, the profile and significance of civil society across Asia have risen, including in illiberal democracies and authoritarian states. Processes of identity-formation and institution-building are deeply interwoven with the engagement of civil society actors as either advocates or service providers on behalf of their governments.

Democratization, advancement of neoliberal economic solutions, increasingly vocal demands for political and environmental justice, rise of alternative identities and lifestyles, and acute socio-economic challenges are just a few factors driving the profile and significance of civil society across Asia. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are also increasingly involved in their governments’ ambitious global development programs (e.g. Japan and South Korea’s foreign aid, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative), have expanded their engagement with global and regional governance institutions, and accelerated efforts to build transnational connections with relevant state and non-state stakeholders.

The multiple contributions of civil society actors to dynamics of identity formation and institution-building processes in Asia at domestic and international levels merit further attention. To explore the dual role of civil society actors as advocates and service providers we invite contributions addressing the following questions:

How have civil society actors contributed to the process of identity formation and identity contestation in Asia?

Recently, numerous Asian countries experienced the rise of identity-driven movements, such as indigenous, independence, or gender and sexuality related movements. It is therefore worthwhile exploring how the civil society actors behind these movements mobilize, interact, and eventually influence the formation of such identities, and what effects they have on society and policies. We encourage submissions that explore civil society actors’ contribution to the process of formation and contestation of identities in the national and transnational context.

How have civil society actors been involved in institution building in Asia?

Asian civil society actors increasingly contest existing national, regional, and global institutional orders, with their activism frequently focusing on promoting social, economic, environmental and political justice. In many instances, transnational collaborative advocacy networks are established to amplify civil society voices and lend support to common causes. Hence, wewelcome critical submissions elucidating the role of civil society actors as agents of institutional change, and highlighting opportunities and challenges inherent in these processes.

How have states engaged civil society actors in identity formation/contestation and institution-building processes in Asia?

States frequently instrumentalize civil society actors to promote particular social and cultural identities or to construct specific domestic and transnational institutional frameworks. We therefore encourage perspectives on civil society actors as agents of norm representation, as ambassadors of their governments or as service providers in national or international governance mechanisms, and welcome contributions illuminating how states/governments/governmental agencies enlist civil society actors to pursue institutional and identity-related goals in Asia.

Anna Caspari:  Managing China’s Civil Society in the Xi Era: The Case of LGBT Activism

Since the 1990s civil society activism in China has experienced an albeit heavily regulated boom period. At the same time the regime has reluctantly granted more basic rights to citizens who identify as LGBT, such as removing homosexuality from criminal codes and diagnosis manuals. This climate has allowed for LGBT civil society organizations to develop and engage in some limited activism at a time when the topic of LGBT identity formation is gaining more and more attention worldwide.

Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, however, the country has seen a crackdown on civil society unprecedented during the reform period. LGBT activism has been one of the main targets, resulting e.g. in the marginalization of LGBT related civil society organizations and heavy media censorship. A noteworthy example is the short-lived ban on LGBT related content on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging website, which in 2018 announced to remove content related to homosexuality.

In sharp contrast the current “Action Plan” to fight the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic identifies MSM (men who have sex with men) as a risk group and explains in detail how “social organizations” (社会组织) are supposed to be employed to help with combatting the epidemic.

The presentation will therefore examine the CCP regime’s strategy in dealing with LGBT related content and civil society activism.

By contrasting the two cases of media censorship such as the Sina Weibo “ban on homosexuality” with the government’s apparent openness to work with civil society when it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS the paper will outline not only the CCP regime’s stance on LGBT related topics, but on civil society as a whole. The example of LGBT activism shows how the Xi regime has developed a sophisticated approach to civil society management that aims at keeping unwanted criticism in check while absorbing the resources of civil society organizations deemed useful.

The paper will trace the regime’s strategy in relation to LGBT activism, including analyzing the relevant laws and regulations pertaining to LGBT relevant topics to offer insights into the political opportunity structure for LGBT activism in China. It argues that the CCP regime is not concerned with LGBT activism for ideological reasons, but that containing human rights activism plays a crucial role in its own survival strategy.

Kamila Szczepanska: The Challenge of Building Institutional Framework for Collaboration: Development Cooperation Networking between North East Asian NGOs in the 21st century

In the last three decades we have observed a gradual thickening of civil society networks and collaboration initiatives to address multiple humanitarian, development and environmental issues in Asia, including advocacy measures and contestation on regional and global governance forums. Nevertheless, despite this progress, there still remain conspicuous under-institutionalized spaces as far as links and exchanges between non-governmental actors are concerned. This has been the case of North East Asia.

The aim of the paper is to discuss how Japanese, South Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese NGOs have engaged in collaboration in the field of international development, including the Sustainable Development Goals, and what were the outcomes of such cooperation. The paper explores what institutional channels have been created and/or utilized to facilitate contacts, and to foster dialogue and cooperation between NGOs from NEA in order to amplify civil society voices and lend support to common causes. To this end the paper explores the following three case studies. The first case analyses collaborative initiatives of NEA NGOs surrounding the implementation of new international norms and standards on aid effectiveness through the deliberative medium of the North-East Asian CSO Consultation Meeting for Development Effectiveness (2012 onwards). The second case investigates the presence and activities of NEA NGOs in the Asian Development Alliance (2013 onwards) a regional civil society networkfostering international collaboration and coordination between national and sub-national development NGO/CSO platforms from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia. Last, it illuminates the manner and extent of NGO joint initiatives within the framework of the North East Asian Multistakeholder Forum on Sustainable Development Goals (2017 onwards).

Methodologically, the paper draws on global governance theories and research on civil society networks. On the basis of its findings, the paper assesses efforts of NEA NGOs towards building a robust institutional framework to strengthen collaboration among them, and how they used other forums to enhance networking and propose joint initiatives on international development-related issues. The paper further appraises challenges for greater institutionalization of collaboration and networking among NGOs from NEA countries, and to what extent they managed to overcome antagonisms afflicting intergovernmental relationships.

Anja Ketels: NGOs in China’s Foreign Policy: Processes, Strategies and Objectives Behind the “Going Global” of Chinese NGOs

In a globalized world, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are increasingly involved in the decisive issues of world politics. They are important providers of international development assistance, address global issues such as climate change or poverty, and fulfil diverse political roles in the international system, e.g. by getting involved in the United Nations. As NGOs are considered crucial for providing (democratic) legitimacy and for enhancing the effectiveness of global governance, many nation states readily include them in their international politics.

Chinese foreign relations are traditionally state-centered, however, in recent years, China demonstrates a more diversified and proactive foreign policy approach. In the domestic debate, this is mirrored in a growing discourse about the Chinese way to adapt its foreign policy strategy and engage in global governance, including considerations concerning the international engagement of Chinese NGOs. In the last couple of years, Chinese NGOs have really started a process of “going global”, which is still in its infancy, but increasingly draws the attention of scholars and practitioners. Against this background, the paper aims at unravelling the newly emerged topic of the involvement of NGOs in China’s foreign policy. I draw on the research results of a mixed-methods study including an exploratory discourse analysis of the Chinese global governance discourse with special focus on NGOs and an explanatory embedded case study of Chinese NGOs’ “going global”. Based on an extensive analysis of Chinese documents as well as in-depth interviews with Chinese NGO representatives and experts, the paper therefore examines the Chinese perspective on why and how NGOs are involved in China’s foreign policy. The discourse analysis sheds light on the Chinese ambitions in global governance and how they involve NGOs, and the case study verifies and explains the results of the discourse analysis from the perspective of Chinese NGO actors. Taking International Relations (IR) research and particularly the concept of global governance within IR as a framework for understanding the involvement of NGOs, I find that Chinese NGOs actively support China’s engagement in global governance, which, however, differs in many ways from the global governance approach of “Western” countries.