Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Katherine K. Chen

Committee Members

James M. Jasper

Robert C. Smith

Paul M. Ong

Subject Categories



China; Civil Society; NGOs; Organizational Strategies; Dilemmas


Research on Chinese civil society has tended to focus on the relationship between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the state. Such work has underestimated the complexity of the emerging institutional environment where Chinese NGOs are often caught between the state, the market, and a constrained civil society. How do civil society organizations and their respective nonprofit sectors emerge, what forms do they take? More specifically, how do organizational forms and strategies reflect political and market structures at the time? Chinese nonprofit sectors re-emerged in the late 1990s, and their relationships with the state have been contentious. The rapid transformation of the nonprofit sectors provides a unique opportunity to look at the emergence of a new organizational field. Using strategic action fields (SAFs) theory, I examine how organizations within the field of nonprofit organizations attempted to establish and defend their positions vis-à-vis the state and market. I conducted comparative case studies of two leading China's NGOs –Civil Society Center (CSC) in the city of Guangzhou and Excellence Promoter (EP) in the city of Shanghai. I traced the histories and current development of CSC and EP and their connected organizations and used ethnographic, interview, and survey data to triangulate the emerging urban nonprofit sectors in the context of an authoritarian state. I argue that, in different periods, the nonprofit organizational fields of Guangzhou and Shanghai reflected political and market structures at the time.  In the early 2000s, Guangzhou’s nonprofit organizations were grassroots-driven, and a State Avoidance Autonomous field arose as large organizations decentralized into smaller organizations to decrease state scrutiny and intervention. In contrast, in Shanghai, where the state promoted nonprofit organizations as an extension of governmental programs, a State Alliance Social Market Field developed. This State Alliance Social Market Field prioritized business values and practices to guide organizational strategies rather than the ethical commitments that had been the center of the State Avoidance Autonomous field. By partnering with government, EP was able to rapidly expand while its Guangzhou counterpart, CSC, remained small and marginal. Powerful e-commerce companies such as Tencent, however, have been changing the rules and norms that used to govern the field. They entered the nonprofit field through the creation of a new fundraising platform that opened up alternative resources for Chinese NGOs. The involvement of the market through corporate foundations and new technologies has provided alternative funding for grassroots NGOs under the attack from the state. My study contributes to nonprofit studies and China studies by providing insight into how NGOs interact with different state and market players and the consequences of such interactions on organizational strategies.

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