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Opening Space for Civil Society in China: Can the "Soft" Power of the United States Help?

Catholic University School of Law at the National Press Club will host a discussion on US-China relations.

February 8, 2011 5:00pm to 6:30pm

Despite headline-grabbing reports of repression of China’s nascent civil society, there are unmistakable
signs in China of the emergence of new organizations and the willingness of government to
work with them. Broadly, a civil society is defined as one that permits significant opportunities for
citizen participation, as well as the unfettered presence of not-for-profit organizations (NPOs).
Trends have been quietly moving in this direction in China for 25 years, little reported to the outside
world except by knowledgeable scholars. The process gained momentum in 2010 after a visit to
Beijing by billionaire philanthropists Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who hosted a dinner to urge
their Chinese counterparts to greatly increase their financial support of civil society initiatives.
Does the U.S. model of support for NGOs and NPOs work for China? What lessons, if any, can it
adapt from the American experience? The United States has both cultural and strategic reasons to
encourage the development of civil society in China, but as the Asian giant poses an increasing economic
and even military challenge, can the “soft” power of the United States help?
Ambassador Mark Palmer served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe from 1982 to 1986 and as the United States Ambassador to Hungary from 1986 to
1990. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Committee on the Present
Danger, and serves on the boards of Freedom House, the Council for a Community of Democracies,
and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University. He is also a co-founder of the
National Endowment for Democracy. Palmer served in policy positions in the State Department in
the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations. He became a venture capitalist and
investor in 1990, as well as president of his own company. He believes in the potential of business
as a force in the transition to democracy. Palmer founded Central European Media Enterprises
(NASDAQ: CETV) which established the first independent television stations in Central Europe.
Palmer's 2003 book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by
2025, argued for a revamping of American foreign policy to make the worldwide promotion of democracy
its central goal.
Dr. Lester Salamon is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University and director of the Johns Hopkins
Center for Civil Society Studies. He previously served as director of the Center for Governance
and Management Research at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. and as deputy associate director
of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President. Dr. Salamon
pioneered the empirical study of the nonprofit sector in the United States and has extended this
work to other parts of the world. His book, America's Nonprofit Sector: A Primer, is the standard
text used in college-level courses on the nonprofit sector in the United States. Author of more than a
dozen books, Dr. Salamon's most recent publications include The Tools of Government: A Guide to
the New Governance (Oxford University Press, 2002) and The Resilient Sector: The State of Nonprofit
America (Brookings Institution Press, 2003).
Dr. Anna Brettell has served as senior advisor to the Congressional-Executive Commission on
China since 2009. Previously she was a program officer for East Asia, with primary responsibility
for China at the National Endowment for Democracy. Brettell has been a research associate at the
Harrison Program on the Future Global Agenda, University of Maryland, and a visiting professor at
Cornell University and the University of Vermont, teaching courses in Chinese and Asian politics,
international environmental policy and law, and comparative politics. She lived and worked in
Greater China for more than nine years and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Bretell’s publications
include articles and book chapters regarding the relationships among economic development, levels
of pollution, and public participation in China; Chinese environmental groups; environmental justice
and China's complaint and dispute resolution systems; and environmental cooperation in East Asia.
Wan Yanhai is the best-known AIDS activist in China. His frank and aggressive approach toward
AIDS have led to frequent run-ins with authorities and landed him in detention three times in the
past 12 years. Wan is the director of the country's foremost AIDS-awareness group, the Beijingbased
Aizhixing Institute of Health Education. He was fired in 1994 from his post as a public health
official after setting up the first HIV/AIDS telephone hotline in China. In 2010, Wan Yanhai and his
family fled to the United States because of what he considers to be government persecution. He is
currently a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. The program
was established in 2001 to enable democratic practitioners, scholars, and journalists from
around the world to deepen their understanding of democracy and enhance their ability to promote
democratic change.

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