thinking about the possibility of non-state communities

For the third year, Group+ has ranked its top-30 online communities, which is interesting as it is part of a model of disseminating information about not-for-profit, non-governmental organizing. Over 1,500 groups use Group+, a Shenzhen-based online platform to organize real time “community” events. Fat Bird ranked 3rd, even above the Shenzhen Reading Federation (#5) and Green Mango (#13), which have much broader audiences than does experimental theater. What do these rankings tell us about the possibilities of imagining outside the state in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally?This ranking interests me for several reasons:

  1. Reformulation of Chinese lists of models to emulate in a semi-formal mode; we all know that the gaokao produces municipal and provincial valedictorians, even as once upon a time paragons were listed on public arches.  But these lists, which circulate widely, also allow for semi-formal rankings in terms of values particular to an organization. In this case, Group+ is promoting itself as a means for helping “communities” grow even as it promotes a vision of what “community” looks like in 2015;
  2.  These “communities” function suspiciously like NGOs, but are glossed by the understated term 社群, literally “community-group”. In this sense, “community” has taken on interesting political social connotations, alluded to in the expression 民非–literally “people not”, a gloss the expressions “not-for-profit” or “non-governmental organization”;
  3. The number of Shenzhen based “communities” is striking. Folks in Shenzhen are actively using WeChat and other virtual platforms to organize society across a wide spectrum of interests, ranging from family life through education and the arts. The nine categories of community are: knowledge, innovation, commercial, parents and kids, alumni association, space, tourism, professional networks, and theater (?!).

Together, the ranking both allows insight into how traditions continue through change, as well as begs the question: in the organization of online communities is Shenzhen taking the lead (as it has in other sectors, industrialization and finance, for example) or is a unique case, the exception to strict oversight that proves the rule (elsewhere in China)? In this sense, the colloquial gloss for these organizations, 民非 is particularly revealing.Where the English expressions emphasize what the organization is not (not-for-profit, non-governmental), the Chinese gloss highlights the character 民, a constituent of 民间–the realm of the people, which is explicitly non-governmental.

All this to say, when looking for middle class signs of resistance in Shenzhen, it is important to remember that much of what constitutes 民间 is not simply the non-governmental, but rather the space created by attempts to re-appropriate parts of society from the state–depoliticization in order to appropriate society toward other ends. This movement is as flawed as progressive middle class efforts elsewhere and explains the neo-liberal rhetoric of many of these organizations; after all the economy was one of the first domains explicitly disentangled from the state.

“But, but,” you say.

“I know,” I respond, “nothing in China is completely disentangled from the state.”

And that’s point du jour:  efforts to claim non-state spaces in Shenzhen are tactical (in de Certeau’s sense of the word), rather than strategic. They are moments in which it is possible to imagine bottom-up change despite and against relentless top-down change, and at the end of the day, it is worth celebrating these efforts which do not overturn the government, but keep alive the possibility of alternative dreams.


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