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Civil Society under Communist Authoritarianism: The Case of Vietnam

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Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: International StudiesSociology

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The 1980s and 1990s witnesses the significant role of civil society organisations in democratic transitions in countries under totalitarianism and dictatorship in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Those historical evidences highlighted the ability of civil society to challenge the authoritarian regimes through forms of public mobilisation – the decisive factor of the democratic transitions (Konrad 1984; Rau 1991; Putnam 2000; Sardamov 2005). As sparsely mentioned in Cavatorta (2013), this assumption is not only narrowed down to the contexts of Eastern Europe and Latin America but also widely accepted by academics of authoritarianism in varied cases such as China, Vietnam, Burma, Central Asia and Arab nations. However, the notion that civil society has a significant impact as a concept and a tool of change in countries under authoritarianism still fails to convince all. Even in the relatively clear-cut cases of Eastern European countries, the conceptual and practical significance of civil society to political transformation is still questioned. Tempest (1997) argues that civil society activism is not always anti-political and the growth of civil society is not magically conducive to the democratisation in the cases of East European countries. The importance of civil society in democratisation might eventually be a ‘much cherished but sadly oversold’ conceptualisation (ibid.:  122). This point of view is backed up by scholars who further argue that civil society in authoritarian context may be anything far from an instrument of democratisation (Encarnacion 2006; Jamal 2007; Glacius 2013). The civil society activism may, as argued by (Encarnacion 2006; Durac 2013, Mikirova et al. 2013), hinder democracy and benefit the fortification of authoritarian practices in many parts of the world.

The debate is, thus, tightly embedded into how civil society actually works under authoritarian rule and what role the civil society plays in the authoritarian systems. From this it returns to the puzzling questions on how to embrace the concept of civil society, one of the most ‘slippery’ and ‘ambiguous’ to academic and policy-making discussions (Owen 2004 cited in Hardig 2014: 1132) and how to apply that conceptualisation into authoritarian contexts. As a concept, civil society embraces varied contents and features, each of those may vary, evolve or integrate to others during historical contexts and different practical applications. Hence, taking a look at all the basics during the evolution of ‘civil society’ might be the very first step to provide throughout understanding of the concept’s components.

Understand civil society as a concept:

<Reclaim the role of this part: chronically introduce and elaborate the civil society as a concept with all its components and features>

Edwards (2004; 2009; 2014), in his popular and carefully nuanced editions of ‘Civil Society’, believes that the rosters of civil society thinkers may start since antiquity, with the participation of Greek philosophers when they struggle to comprehend the ‘nature of the good society’ (p.5). Though some of Edwards’ deduction may still be an optimistic overstatement to other scholars (see Chandhoke 2005), it is relatively consented that the conceptualisation of civil society has a long history, in which civil society evolved itself as ‘construct of ideas’ and ‘social praxis’ that ‘disseminates norms of civility, structures social and political behaviour’ (Hall and Trentmann 2005: 18).

In classic thought, as Edwards (2014) introduced, civil society and the state was ‘indistinguishable’ in a type of ‘political association’ that ‘governed social conflict through the imposition of rules’ (p.6). Aristotle is credited as the first user of the term ‘civil society’, or politike koinonia (political society/community) in his language, with a very different meaning from what is conventionally perceived nowadays (DeWiel 2008: 8). He believes that polis is an ‘association of associations’, in which the qualified ‘citizens’ were enabled to share the ‘virtuous tasks of ruling and being ruled’ in an effort to achieve the common ends and distinguish their own civilised society from barbarism (Edwards 2014: 6). In this sense, Aristotle’s politike koinonia is defined as ‘the political sphere’s deliberation, self-rule, and mutual recognition’ under a legally defined system of rule, a concept that reflects the social practices dominated by the rule of noble action and the absence of untrammelled and self-interested economic life (Ehrenberg 2011: 16).

Centuries later, the collapse of Roman civilisation and the ‘triumph of barbarism and Christianity’ weaken the Aristotelian conception of civil society as a ‘politically organised community’ for good ends (Ehrenberg 1999: 28). However, the distinction between state and society had not been made by political writers until the Age of Enlightenment as the medieval politics and academics, heavily influenced by religious powers, continued to include the state and the civil society into the narrowed value of ‘Christian Commonwealth’ (ibid.). Late medieval thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke initiated and developed theory of social contract, in which human beings are expected to combine themselves in social agreements and common public authorities under rationality and self-interests, not the Aristotelian ‘human virtues’ (Kaviraj and Khilaini 2001). Though Hobbles’s theory challenged the feudalist discourse of divine right by claiming that human beings are able to design the political order which will in its turn protect the people’s basic rights, he still emphasises the coexistence of civil society and the state (Ehrenberg 2011: 20). In case of Locke, his efforts to differentiate between the state and the society was recognised as clear (see Cohen and Arato 1994: 88). Going further than Hobbes, Locke believes that the consolidation of political power should be restricted as it can lead to autocracy (Kaviraj and Khilaini 2001) and ‘absolute monarchy’ cannot be equated with the government (Kaldor 2013: 18). Though Locke’s suggestion for this issue as ‘dissolution of government’ was presented inconsistently (Cohen and Arato 1994), he did propose that the legislature, executive and judiciary should be separated to protect people’s fundamental rights and the public should be free to give expressions as the conditions of civil society (Kaldor 2013).

The conceptualisation of civil society subsequently took a sharper turn when the economic and social transformation started eroding feudalism’s hierarchy by ‘growing power of national markets’ and ‘national states’ during the Renaissance and the following Age of Enlightenment (Ehrenberg 1999: 55). As described by Edwards (2014), during the period, the market economy provoked differentiation of interests and replaced Dark Age’s ‘communities of neighbours’ with ‘communities of strangers’ while revolutions broke the ruling social orders1. In contrast to Hobbles and Locke, philosophers of the later Enlightenment started viewed civil society as a separate realm from the state which helps defend the state’s intrusions on individual rights, interests and freedoms (Ehrenberg 2011; Edwards 2014). Adam Smith, one of the most prominent Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, further elaborated Locke’s notion of private property and emphasised the fundamental role of market economy in a civilised society (Kaldor 2013). In the first modern usage of the concept ‘civil society’, Adam Ferguson (1767 cited in DeWiel 2008: 21), described civil society as a ‘universe’ characterised by ‘moral and cultural accomplishments, the subjection of the government to the rule of law, a sense of public spiritedness, and a complex division of labour’ (Chandhoke 2005). Hegel is the one who went furthest in specifying the independent standpoint of ‘civil society’, which he define as ‘the realm of difference, intermediate between the family and the state’ (Hegel 1995 cited in Kaldor 2013: 18). Hegel conceptualised civil society as the bourgeois society (bürgerliche gesellschaft) which encompasses the market – the territory of ‘economic relationships’ in a modern capitalist world (Stillman 1980: 623; Chandhoke 2005). Being aware of the problems that a society structured around rationality and self-interests, Hegel suggested the state to be the guarantor of civil society and considered the authority of local communities and ‘corporations’ (associations) as ‘barriers’ to protect the ethical life (Cohen & Arato 1994: 104; Hant & Trentman 2005: 129-35).

Hegel’s legacy was inherited in different ways during the 19th century’s thought of civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville, who also ‘feared the powerlessness of atomised subjects’, continued to seek for an ‘intermediate level of power between individual and the state’ and a way to ‘control the potential arbitrariness of the state bureaucracy’ (Cohen & Arato 1994: 107). He focused on civil society as a ‘self-regulating universe’ committed to preserve ideas of ‘democratic expedients’, including ‘local self-government, the separation of Church and State, free press, indirect elections, independent judiciary’ and the voluntary ‘associational life’ (Kaldor 2013: 19). Those values must to be protected ‘at all costs’ from the state to preserve the civil society’s role in ‘resisting depotism’ while the government’s responsibilities ought to be restricted within ‘its political sphere’ (Edward 2014: 7). As John Ehrenberg (1999) remarks, Tocqueville’s conception of civil society consists of ‘anti-statist’ thrusts and disregards, along with the emphasis on the democratic values which give his school of thought a strong charm and influence on contemporary thinking (p.144).

While Tocqueville visualised civil society as the independent realm of voluntary associations as the generator of constructive ideals, trust and cooperation and the foundation of democratic polity, Karl Marx acquired Hegel’s civil society with the lens of social class. Taking the theme that civil society includes the market and its economic relations, Marx, however, rejected the positive role of Hegel’s ‘modern state’ as the mediator or an expression of the reconciliations of social contradictions and tensions (Glasius et al. 2004: 17-18). Marx argued that, firstly, the state was ‘an instrument’ or ‘an apparatus’ in the hands of the dominant classes to rule the lower classes (ibid.). Secondly, Marx conceived Hegel’s bürgerliche gesellschaft as ‘the society of bourgeoisie’ which represents capitalism’s interests and is only a ‘stage’ in the development of mankind towards the telos (the ultimate aim) of communism in which both the bourgeoisie’s state and society will be eliminated (Kaldor 2013: 27).

In the 20th century, a huge difference between Marx (and then Soviet Marxists) and Western Marxism was witnessed when the former sought to end the contradictions within civil society through revolution while the later sought to explain how and why such a revolution would eventually fail to occur (Hall & Trentmann 2005: 10). Antonio Gramsci, the prominent Marxist descendant in the West, drew attention to the bourgeois ‘hegemony’, the dominant ideas and views that uphold the capitalist order though the illusion of media, culture and political pluralism (Heywood 1994: 101). The ‘civil society’, in Gramsci’s views, is not ‘economic structure’ as Marx conceived but the site of ideological and cultural struggles (Glasius et al. 2004: 18-19). It is the civil society where norms and institutions to sustain the bourgeois hegemony are constructed and/or reproduced as well as the public sphere in which the rebellion against the orthodox take places all through social connections: families, schools, universities, media, voluntary associations and political parties (Edwards 2014: 75-77).

In contemporary usage, Gramsci’s ‘civil society’ as an arena for contestation was taken by American philosophers such as John Dewey, Richard Sennett and Hannah Arendt and develop the theory of ‘pubic sphere’ as a crucial form of thriving and democratic society (Ibid.). As a ‘public sphere’, civil society is a ‘non-legislative, extra-judicial, public space in which societal differences, social problems, public policy, government action and matters of community and cultural identity are developed and debated’ (McClain & Fleming 2000: 303). In this sphere, individuals are able to act according to their consciences and resist to the influences of ideological and cultural hegemony (Kaldor 2013: 21).  This concept, developed by Americans, was taken up to its highest levels of articulation in Europe by Jürgen Habermas, who ‘combined the Marxist tradition that exposes domination in civil society with the liberal tradition that emphasises its role in guarding personal autonomy’ and linked them together by theoretical tools (Edwards 2014: 9). Harbemas’ ‘civil society’ is the sphere directed by its components’ shared values that are developed and debated democratically through communication (Chambers & Kymlicka 2002: 94). Contemporarily, theorists and activists to the left welcome Habermas’ ideas of civil society as the place where ‘culture of inequality can be dismantled’ by democratically progressive politics (Ibid.: 8).

However, the current debate of civil society is, as pointed out by Kaldor (2013: 22), Edwards (2014: 10), dominated by the neo-Tocquevillian school that focuses on associational life, with the significant contribution of Robert Putnam, Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Francis Fukuyama. This view, as remarked by Kaldor (2013), is more of an establishment view in which the civil society is also considered as a realm of between the state, the family and the market but ‘it is a realm of stability, rather than struggle, of service provision rather than advocacy, of trust and responsibility rather than emancipation’ (p.22). The Neo-Tocquevillian ‘civil society’ represents, more precisely, a ‘non-governmental’, ‘non-profit’ or ‘third’ sector with the emphasise on the voluntary networks and associations (Edwards 2014: 20). At the global level, Neo-Tocquevillian school highlight the rise of non-state actors, particularly the transnational networks of non-governmental organisation of NGOs that arguably formed the ‘global civil society’ (Kaldor 2003; Anheier et al. 2001). This ‘neo-liberal’ school of thought rose since the end of 1980s, became dominant throughout the last decade of the twentieth century and remains currently influential with its official discourses, as Edwards figuratively commented ‘it is Alexis de Tocqueville’s ghost that wanders through the corridors of World Bank, not that of Habermas or Hegel’ (p.10). This status has been viewed as the result of: (1) The fall of authoritarian states in 1989 and the emergence of an apparently autonomous democratic public in the old Soviet world credited the significant role of democratic associations and self-organisation (Kaldor 2004: 193) (Powell 2007: 1-25). (2) The demise of state-sponsored development in the post-colonial societies, which attracted intellectuals and social practitioners to the concept as they sought new forces to organise progress (Van Rooy 1998). (3) The attempts by donor agencies in the same parts of the world to bypass weak and corrupt official agencies, and grant funds to non-governmental organisations, also in the name of strengthening civil society (ibid.). (4) The withdrawal of voters from political participation in developed countries, and the generalised feeling of alienation besetting citizens in western Europe and the United States also make the civil society argument attractive: it promises a return to associational life, enabling engagement with the state and fostering solidarity in the public sphere (Putnam 2000). (5) The globalisation, as Kaldor (2004: 193-194) explained, initiated a kind of global non-party politics, enabled by the era of ‘growing interconnectedness, increased travel and communication’. The resurrection of ‘civil society’ as a concept is a reaction to the speed and scope of technological, economic and cultural changes that globalisation has ushered in (Cohen 1999: 55 cited in Müller 2006: 318)

Nonetheless, as Chandhoke (2005) commented, there has been ‘much more restraint, hesitancy, ambiguity and scepticism’ amongst writings on ‘civil society’ now than in 1990s when there was a huge welcome for the term.

To this point, the whistle-stop tour through the history of civil society as a concept shows that it has passed through many phases. From the idea of civilised human society in contrast to barbarism and natural status in the classic thought, civil society was conceived as a general sphere of political, economic and social life in the medieval age. In the modern thought, the concept has gradually been separate from the state with the condition of voluntarism. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the economic ties have been also distinguished from the concept of civil society, particularly by the discourse on non-profit associations.

Noticeably, during its recent rise as a concept, ‘civil society’ has been employed so frequently in so many different ways and in so many different theoretical, practical, and historical contexts that contemporary attempts to deploy it are typically more obfuscating than illuminating (Jensen 2006). Futhermore, international policy debates and global problem-solving usually witness the concept has been used to advocate for tons of ‘poorly understood’ and ‘imperfectly applied’ concepts like the ‘new policy’, soft power, complex multilateralism, which often put civil society as its centre (Edwards et al. 2001: 1). Nonetheless, Michael Edwards (2014) claimed that rarely any of the massive work on civil society is at the same level of systematisation as the 2 schools of thought mentioned above: civil society as the ‘public sphere’ and civil society as the ‘associational part’ of society (p.10). The only exception is the school of thought that normatively defines civil society as a (good) type of society (ibid.). This perspective is articulated by the correlation of means (civil organisations) and ends (good society), in which associations are responsible for dissemination of positive norms, values and pursuits of social goals, especially at the transnational level. However, that last one in Edwards’ three models of civil society might be less conceptually salient because it seems to be overlapped by the formers. For example, the model of civil society as ‘a good society’ is not clearly different from the model of public sphere as the latter is also regarded as the arena where desirably democratic values are developed and protected. Moreover, the definition of ‘civil associations’ mentioned in ‘good society’ is broad enough to cover the non-governmental, non-profit sector that the neo-Tocquevillian approach endorses. Beside that, considering that Edwards, a ‘civil society revivalists’ as he claims (2014: 112), might lean on optimism more than realism (Chandhoke 2005), his promotion for ‘good society’ school of though is, perhaps, less objective than the first two historical conceptual frameworks. Such an intrinsically ambivalent and arguably biased conceptualisation, in this writer’s opinion, is not necessary for the paper’s purposes.

In the past two decades, almost all of the authoritarian regimes permit the existence of ‘formally autonomous organisations engaging in activities beyond the direct control of the state’, except for North Korea and arguably Turkmenistan (Lewis 2013: 325). The paradoxical emergence of the associational activities under contemporary non-democratic regimes has raised questions of the nature of civil society and its co-existence with authoritarian states. The dominant Neo-Tocquevillian (neo liberal) thoughts continued to credit this phenomenon to the conducive role ‘civil society’ to democratisation, indicating that: the civil society activism is conducive to democratisation, and hence, has the power to weaken illegitimate power (Rau 1991; Putnam 2000; Warren 2001). In other words, civil society, perceived by the neo-Tocquevillian thought as ‘associational life’, can nurture the emancipatory and democratic values because civic organisations are considered as the ‘schools of democracy’ or even ‘bulwarks of democracy’ (Hyden 2010: 253). These values, backed up by the ‘central contributions of associations’, are believed to not only maintain democracy where it already exists but also have managed to significantly change the ‘political contexts of tyranny or deep injustice’ (Fung 2003: 516). The importance of growing a domestic civil and political society (or what Putnam called ‘social capital’) to put the state power in check and fuel resistance has been highlighted by the international and institutional discourse (Warren 2001: 185; Fung 203: 516; World Bank 2009: 51). Eventually, the nature of the coexistence between authoritarian states and civil society is interpreted as the ‘awakening of civil society’ that manages to achieve the concessions from the ‘illegitimate power’ of authoritarian regimes and enhances democratisation (Kubba 2000; Fung 2003). Of course, democracy here is understood to be liberal democracy, the ‘end of history’, as if there were ‘no other games in town’ (Fukuyama 1992). This argument is backed up by rich historical evidence, initially the processes of democratisation in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the following decade, observers continued to note empirical evidence that supports this theme of literature. For example, observers like Clark (1998), Silliman and Noble (1998) remarked the phenomenally prominent role of NGOs in enhancing the participatory democracy in Cambodia and the Philippines, countries usually assumed as being under non-democratic regimes. The argument is also supported by authors of authoritarianism in other contexts, including the Arab world, China, Burma, Vietnam, and Central Asia (see Diamond 1999; Mendelson & Glenn 2002; the discussion in Cavatorta 2013: 1).

Theoretically, ‘civil society’ depicted by neo-Tocquevillian thought might be a narrower concept than Tocqueville’s original ideas: an ‘inherently good’ realm of ‘organised social life’ that is ‘voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules’ (Diamond 1994: 5). Moreover, realising the fact that not all kinds of associations can stabilise and strengthen the democracy, the emphasis of neo-liberal argument quickly moved from ‘how associations enhance democracy’ to ‘what kinds of associations are good for democracy and why’ (Fung 2003: 516). The outcome is that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became the bolsters of neo-Tocquevillian ‘civil society’ by virtue of ‘their participatory and democratic approach’ (Mercer 2002: 7). In the authoritarian context, neo liberal observers note that civic associations, particularly NGOs, play a key role in checking abuses of state power, supporting public resistance and citizen participation (see Clarke 1998;). Also, it should be noticed that much of the neo liberal literature usually refers NGOs to those organisations that ‘are officially established, run by employed staff, well-supported by domestic or, as is more often the case, international funding, and that are often relatively large and well-resourced’ (Mercer 2002: 6).

Practically, along with the dominant neo-Tocquevillian discourse, non-governmental organisations dramatically grew in numbers and strength as their roles in preventing ‘the worst excesses of authoritarian systems’ were highly evaluated and promoted by the international institutions and donors (World Bank 2000: 44). However, as claimed by Cavartorta (2013), most of the contemporary authoritarian states seem to still healthily coexist with a wide range of civil society organisations. Meanwhile, contrary to neo-liberal premises, the associations, especially NGOs, in the authoritarian context seem to have very limited contribution to put the political power in check and support resistance.  The case of China has always been a representative example, many China specialists and democracy theorists, as noted by Nathan (2003), expected the regime to fall to the third wave of democratisation, particularly after the Tiananmen crisis in June 1989 (p.6). Before the incident, the emerging activism of newly born civic organisations in China was expected to bring the demise to the rule of Chinese Communist Party. Instead, the regime has proven its resilience by reconsolidating itself, restarted economic growth and expanded its influence both domestically and abroad while still continuously arrested and exiled civic activists, crushed the fledging China Democratic Party, and largely oppressed Falun Gong movement (ibid.).  Paradoxically, during that period, the civic organisations in China bloomed in numbers and involvement and have intensively involved in the country’s political and social life (Teets 2013). Another example is the overthrow of tyrannical regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, also called as the ‘Arab Springs’, during which the primary actors were claimed to be outside the world of associations (Leenders 2012). The popular revolts during ‘Arab Springs’, as observed by Challand (2011), were neither anticipated nor lead by any type of associations, even grassroots organisations, but were fostered by the mass dissatisfaction and loose horizontal networks.

The paradoxical coexistence, if not cooperative relationship, of non-democratic regimes and pro-democracy associations raised burning questions about the nature and status of civil society modern authoritarianism. A new wave of research on associational life under authoritarian regimes has expanded rapidly and much of those literature is particularly focused on authoritarian states in East and South-East Asia (Wells-Dang 2010; Hsu 2010; Wischermann 2010; Spires 2011; Simpson 2013); Middle East and North Africa (Cavatorta & Durac 2011; Durac 2013; Clark 2013; Ismail 2011) and Central Asia (Gray 2013; Fumagalli 2013; Mikirova 2013). Work on Cuba (Gray & Kapcia 2008; Hoffmann 2013) and some of the literature on civil society in African countries (LeVan 2011; Helliker 2012) have also contributed to this debate. Despite being parts of a diverse discussion, most of these studies take issue with the neo-Tocquevillian school of thought on civil society and democratisation in authoritarian contexts.

First, instead of portraying civil society as the realm of associational life distinct from the state, this new body of research view civic associations and the state as ‘enmeshed together’ in a complex and multi-layered network of material transactions, personal connections, and organisational linkages. (Lewis 2003: 326). Cavatorta (2013) views this close identification between associational life and the authoritarian state as evidence proving the international actors have failed to support what they assumed an autonomous realm of civil society. Studying the authoritarian stats in Central Asia, Zharkevich (2010) and Ziegler (2010) consider such a strong interconnection between state and civil society associations as inevitable because of particular social or cultural structures, which are sometimes affected by the patterns of state power consolidation.

In this connection, much of this research wave argues that there might be no direct linkage between civil society as the realm of associations and democracy-building and that in fact such activism can even be counterproductive to democratisation (Encarnacion 2006; Jamal 2007). Re-assessing historical cases, this approach shares a broadly sceptical attitude toward neo-Tocquevillian portrayal of civil society as supportive realm for resisting injustice state power. Spires (2011) assesses that ‘we should not assume that NGOs in an authoritarian state, even independent grassroots organizations, are working toward democratic purposes’ (Spires 2011: 35). Many observers on this field share Spies’ point and argue that the civic organisations’ role of ‘watchdog’ vis-à-vis the state is rarely reflected in reality as their closeness to the state and to national and international donors might severely deteriorate their critical impetus (see Banks et al 2015, Glasius & Ishkanian 2014; Hulme & Edwards 2013).

Furthermore, as Wischermann (2016) notes, some authors have even ‘turned Tocqueville’s positions upside down’ and claimed that civic associations can strengthen the authoritarian practices (2016: 59). The international support for building civil society has been considered as a tool for authoritarian regimes to legitimatise their rules rather than for supporting democratic progresses (Cavatorta 2013).  In this connection, much of the neo-Gramscian analysis also focuses their critical views on the interconnection between the worldwide civil society promotion, or ‘NGOization’ (Carroll & Sapinsky 2015), and Western geopolitical interests. Remarking the democratic processes in sub-Saharan countries during 1990s, Abramsen (1997) argues that bilateral donors and international institutions are ‘neutral and disinterested observers’ of the transitions, rather than ‘active and ideologically motivated participants’ (1997: 129). Observing the famous Arab Springs, Challand (2011) also noted that ‘not a single dime of aid earmarked for democratisation has contributed to the flow of people pouring into Middle Eatern streets’ (2011: 274).

Despite sharing the critical point that the current worldview fails to portray the nature of civil society under authoritarianism, scholars of this new research wave differ in their explanations the paradoxically durable coexistence of civic organisations and non-democratic states. This body of researching is diverse and attempts to introduce it may be at the risk of over-generalising. Nonetheless, this paper will briefly identify several popular theoretical frameworks: (1) Model of ‘political culture’: Civil society is a realm of associations that ‘reproduce elements of the political context in which they exist and will structure themselves accordingly’ (Jamail 2007: 20), (2) Model of ‘organisational imperatives and functional coincidence’: under organisational imperatives, civil society under authoritarianism carries out functions that overlap with the state’ policy goals to survive and flourish (Hsu 2010; Spires 2011), (3) Model of ‘behavioural and cultural aspects’: Civil society associations and the authoritarian state cooperate as civil society is more as a sphere of social interaction influenced by communication, attitudes and behaviour than as a fixed and organisational entity (Wischermann 2010; 2011). (4): Model of ‘activated citizenship’: Civil society should be seen the realm dominated by activated or activist citizens who, in complete autonomy, decides to ‘take up an issue and promotes it even under very difficult circumstances’ in a loosen horizontal processes of connection with other like-minded individuals without having the necessity of setting up a formal organisation (Cavartorta 2013: 262).

Among these set of explanations, Wischermann’s work is distinctive because of his desire to develop a non-normative framework for understanding civil society. In his study of civil society in Vietnam, Wischermann prioritises action rather than structure and society, in his view, implies a set of attitudes that ‘includesempathy, respect and willingness to compromise, characterized by cultural values’ such as respect to women or marginal groups (2010: 36). These aspects of attitudes and culture may even be found in the state apparatus and result in the engagement between the state and civic associations in cooperative behaviour, which Wischermann (2011) called ‘Civil Society Action’. Wischermann’s effort to stand out is sensational yet much of his work still reflects many Western liberal normative approach and his emphasis on attitudes and behaviours shows potential overlap with Neo-Tocquevillian values of ‘good civil society’.

Meanwhile, Cavartorta’s approach is the most valuable to this paper’s purposes because it helps shed lights on the formation of mass contestations in authoritarian regimes with interesting insights into dynamics of public dissatisfaction and the horizontal networks of dissidents (2013: 262). This theoretical framework plays as a potentially productive tool to capture how the public react to the state’s injustice, restriction and oppression. Noticeably, for the way it is articulated, this approach is the echo of the ‘public sphere’ view on well-known historical evidence during the Arab Springs. The significant distinction of Carvatorta’s ‘activated citizenship’ from Habermas’ ‘sphere of individual communication’ is that Cavartorta recognises the absence of a relative heathy public sphere under a non-democratic context. Noting that contemporary technology can provide alternative sphere of communication, particularly blogosphere, Carvatorta convincingly explores the formation of a more assertive citizen autonomy from the state, leading to the new form of public mobilisation and contestation against the authoritarian orthodox.

To this point, it can be seen that much of the new way research has offered critical insights into the nature of civil society under authoritarianism and its relationship with the state. The authors take issue with dominant neo-Tocquevillian ‘heroic’ narrative of civil society and focus on the mutually interdependence between the state and civil society and explain how such a relationship might be anticipatable and sustainable under the authoritarian contexts. However, this body of research is arguably less explanatory in cases where high contestation exists between civil society and the state. In these cases, the civic associations, particularly grassroots organisations, are object of physical and legal restrictions, threats and oppression even though they might share the same patterns of political context and tendencies with the state or are actually helping the state achieve its goals. In other words, the new wave of research still falls into broader issue of the contemporary writings on the field: overlooking the importance of state coercion (Art 2012).

Interestingly, in her study on civil society in China, Teets (2013) manage to use Neo-Tocquevillian model to solve what the new body of work on civil society under authoritarianism struggles: explain convincingly the dynamics of state-civil society interaction. Perceiving civil society as the realm of civic associational activities, Teets terms the relationship between the local state and civil society as the model of ‘consultative authoritarianism’ (2013: 1). In this model, the state develops a consultative relationship with civil society, which that combines the pluralistic aspect of democratic governance with the state control mechanisms prevalent in authoritarian regimes. Thus, the growth of civil society under authoritarianism is not a unidirectional march toward political liberalization, but rather an interactive and dynamic process (2013: 2). By emphasising the autonomy and pluralism the civic associations need, the state learns from civil society information that cannot be obtained via formal institutions, for instance, public dissatisfaction and it meets these demands through social innovation, thus improving governance and increasing satisfaction with the regime. This same relationship also decreases the ability and likelihood of these groups to challenge authoritarian rule and mobilize citizens to resist nondemocratic governance (2013: 176). The model is believed to be diffusive and has been widespread among the authoritarian regimes through international policy learning (2013: 177). Teets recognises that proponents of democratization might be disappointed in this model, she, however, argues that human welfare in authoritarian regimes around the world is nontrivial and should not be dismissed in favor of a focus only on sweeping revolutionary change (2013: 3). Portraying civil society primarily via the lens of ‘associational life’, Teets’ work is particularly valuable as it gives a nuanced analysis on the one-party state’s strategies to deal with civic associations without unfairly undermining the contributions of associational activism. Though Teets’ remark on the worldwide diffusiveness of Chinese ‘consultative authoritarianism might be an overstatement, this writer believes this model will have great influence on certain states that share the same political, economic and social order, such as Vietnam.

The recent literature on civil society gives several important theoretical implications. First, the broad and diverse body of work from different views reflects that the nature of civil society and its relationship with the state in authoritarian regimes is far less anticipatable than what both the dominant worldview and the new wave of research indicated. From the literature reviewed, the new wave of research has been relatively successful to point out that the role of civic organisations in democratic development in non-democratic contexts should be carefully re-assessed. In seeking for an alternative framework, Cavartorta’s efforts to re-define civil society as a public sphere focused on individual activism is a new interesting approach, particularly helpful to explain the recent revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. However, at the risk of undermining organisational activism’s contribution to groups of beneficiaries, this perspective gains less fruitful achievement in terms of modelling the civil society and its interaction with the regime under a strong state coercion. Meanwhile, the neo-Tocquevillian discourse, in the case of China, manages to pull out significant insights of the current state-civic interactions, which Teets (2013) calls ‘civil society under consultative authoritarianism’. Above all, the contemporary writing on civil society under authoritarianism seems to be at the risk of biases and over-simplification the reality whenever it tries to give a common theoretical framework for authoritarian contexts. Also, it should be noticed that not only ‘civil society’ but ‘authoritarian regimes’ is also a broad and challenging concept. Sharing just few traits, authoritarian regimes ‘differ from one to another in terms of survival strategies, institutions and legitimising ideologies’ (Cavatorta 2014: 2). Consequently, drawing a general model based on empirical evidence of specific regimes might put the researchers in the risk of ‘blind men describing an elephant’.

Among authoritarian regimes, countries under the rule of communist parties are particularly paradoxical cases because the ruling communist parties conducted economic reforms towards free market economies, which is totally contrary with their own ideological goals. Despite showing no patience to whom question the power of one-party rule, these states seem to be extraordinarily tolerant with the rapid growth of civic organisations. The burning question here is what civil society looks like in such a regime and how to conceptualise such a reality (Brook & Prolic 1998). Whether the available conceptual frameworks are able to accomplish such a task? Or a different approach is required to recognise the idea of ‘civil society’ in countries with very distinctive historical trajectories and social characteristics from the Western world?

Hence, to address those questions, this writer decided to base the research on the case study of Vietnam. There are several major reasons leading to this choice. First, this writer believes that as the authoritarian regimes are varied in many aspects, studies on civil society in non-democratic states should also be embedded to the local context in order to avoid the issues of over-simplification and over-generalisation. With all of its paradoxical aspects, civil society under the one-party regime in Vietnam seem to be a topic worth much attention. Secondly, much of the work on the case of Vietnam, in which Wischermann’s promising attempts can be considered as most prominent (Lewis 2013), probably fails to develop a convincing and case-based framework for understanding the civil society. This reality encourages this writer to use contemporarily prominent frameworks to re-assess the case in order to seek for a potentially productive one. Apparently, there has been a recent rise of civil society studies in China with numerous nuanced frameworks, Vietnam, with almost similar pattern of political and social order, has received much less attention of the academics. Considering the similarities between this two regimes, it might be reasonable to expect that the frameworks used in the case of China can also help shed light on the case of Vietnam. Last, recent development of Vietnam’s civil society activism has witnessed cases of mass demonstration protesting numerous state policies, particularly on anti-corruption and natural resource management. The interesting phenomenon is the existence of public mobilisation without any linkage to routinized processes and civic organisations, which this writer desire to understand by using the conceptual framework of ‘activated citizenship’.


Methodologically, this paper attempts to use current thoughts of civil society to depict the civil society under communist authoritarianism.

Vietnam is picked up as the case study in order to address the research’s objectives: Explore the nature of civil society in Vietnam; its interaction with the state power and coercion; and develop a conceptual model of civil society in Vietnam using the available theoretical frameworks.

To address these objectives, the writer firstly re-emphasises that both the dominant worldview and the new wave of research on civil society under authoritarianism are one-sided approaches with their own strengths and flaws, described in the previous chapter. In order to have a potentially comprehensive response to the research questions, this study should not put the presume civil society in such a context as either the neo-Tocquevillian ‘associational life’ or the Frankfurt School’s ‘public sphere’. The alternative method is to view civil society as the combination of two aspect, the associational structure and the public sphere. This dualistic approach is inspired by Michael Walzer (1994) who attempted to blend the two most prominent schools of thought into one, defining ‘civil society’ as ‘the sphere of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks formed for the sake of family, faith, interest and ideology that fill this space’.

Each of the two aspects in this dualistic approach will be analysed separately, using potentially suitable frameworks. The findings of this dual-track analysis will be later evaluated and systematised in the final conceptualisation.

The exploration of civil society’s ‘associational structure’ will emphasise on the structure of civic organisations in Vietnam, how they have been categorised, how they fuction and interact with the state, what are the goods and the services they can provide to groups of beneficiaries and particularly how they contribute to participatory democratisation under the state coercion. The analysis of this aspect will use empirical data to examine the presumptions of ‘consultative authoritarianism’ model to see if that model effectively depicts the associational aspect of civil society in Vietnam or not. The evidence used in this part is mostly secondary data, deriving from empirical surveys and studies on Vietnam’s civic organisations by Wischermann (2010; 2011; 2013); Wischermann et al. (2015), Nguyen Hai Hong (2014); Dang Thi Viet Phuong (2015); Bui Hai Thiem (2013).

The analysis of the civil society’s ‘public sphere’ will examine Cavatorta’s model of ‘activated citizenship’ by empirical evidence in two cases: (1) The public mobilisation and demonstration against the State’ policy on natural resource management in Hochiminh City, Vietnam, from 1st to 15th May 2016. (2) The case of Trinh Xuan Thanh – Full Member of CPV’s Central Executive Committee, Vice-President of Haugiang Province, who chose to flee from Vietnam, to become a dissident, and to leak confidential documents via the blogosphere. All of the cases were chosen because they are potentially helpful for examining the existence, functions and influence of a ‘activated citizenship’ sphere in Vietnam. The first case will focus on how individual dissidents, driven by their own conscience, self-organised together and carried out consecutive demonstrations under the State’s oppression without significant linkage with or support from civic organisations. The second case will emphasise on how self-assertive citizens, empowered by digital and web-based technologies enacted a widening of public sphere with newly emerging form of communication and pose new and potent threat to authoritarian regimes. Data will mostly be facts and figures, intentionally collected from both State’s official media, the international media and the blogosphere. At the risk of relatively non-academic data, all the sources of information will be compared to define its reliability and analysed under theoretical model’s presumption.

The conceptualisation of civil society in Vietnam will attempt to give a generic systematisation of findings. Diagrams might be used in this part to provide visual assistance for understanding the final product of the research.

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