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Report on the annual Asia Workshop in Weingarten from 8-11 November 2013

Lukas Maximilian Müller reports on the proceedings of the workshop which focused on Asian civil society.

The conference theme of the annual “Weingartener Asiengespräche”, held from 8 – 11 November in the old monastery of Weingarten, was “Democracy and Civil Society in Asia” In its four panels and workshop discussion, the conference was successful in touching upon a range of issues concerning current affairs taking place within East Asian civil society, while at the same time connecting these issues with a recurring set of theoretical debates. While the covering of current affairs was generally very informative, the theoretical debates often reflected diverging opinions on methodology.

During their introduction, the conference co-organizers Claudia Derichs (University of Marburg) and Stefan Rother (University of Freiburg) established the empirical relevance of civil society in general and the particular relevance of civil society and democracy in Asia. Ms. Derichs introduced the subjects of the conference by reiterating that civil society is not a residual empirical category, but a legitimate unit of political analysis in its own right. Furthermore, the relevance of the conference topic was established by proposing that East Asian states may form a particularly interesting arena for civil society analysis through their particular political systems between autocracy and democracy – and the large number of currently existing hybrid regimes. It may therefore well be hoped by the academic community that a closer inspection of civil society activity in East Asia may deliver a theoretical and empirical blueprint for a range of other cases outside the region.

The first panel, consisting of presentations by Andrea Fleschenberg (Qaidi Azam University, Islamabad) and Nadja-Christina Schneider (Humboldt University, Berlin), delivered two very different perspectives on civil society in Pakistan and urban India, respectively. Ms. Fleschenberg’s brief overview over three different civil society organizations, their motives and strategies provided an interesting impression of a burgeoning sector of the political landscape of Pakistan. In her case studies, Ms. Fleschenberg covered a number of theoretical issues that would be revisited in the following panels: The co-opting of civil society activity by the state and other political or economic elites, the consequences of cooperation between indigenous civil society and international NGO networks and lastly the question of comparison in civil society research. Particularly in regard to the first and second point, there was overwhelming agreement that relationships between civil society and governments as well as international networks deserve closer inspection. Co-operation between international donor groups and indigenous NGOs may lead to non-transformative agendas just like the co-opting of an NGO by its respective government. With regard to the comparison of civil society groups, Ms. Fleschenberg proposed a state-specific framework that considers the relationship between politico-military elites, democratic attitude, activist strategy and relationships with external financiers.

Following this, Ms. Schneider delivered a lecture on the relationship between Indian protest culture and the media, with a particular view to recent developments in urban New Delhi. After giving a brief overview over civil society activity in India as a whole, she emphasized the traditional non-political mindset of urban New-Delhi dwellers. In the ensuing presentation, she delivered a very convincing account of the diffusion process between Indian media, mainly film productions, and urban protest movements in New Delhi. The interesting aspect of this particular phenomenon is the disembodiment of the activism, namely the fact that it lacks clear leadership and an ideological agenda and therefore poses a high risk in terms of co-optation and the influence of uncivil society. Ms. Schneider’s analysis of the interdependency between media and civil society was somewhat of an outlier in the conference proceedings, but enriched the overall discussion by contributing some truly interdisciplinary insight.

Panel two, consisting of presentations by Momoyo Hüstebeck (University of Halle/Saale) and Claudia Derichs, focused on the particularities of Northeast Asian political culture. Ms. Hüstebeck’s presentation exposed the similarities in the political cultures of South Korea and Japan and emphasized the related issues for civil society in both states. Interestingly, the similar political cultures lead to different outcomes in terms of civil society engagement. While the Japanese leadership often co-opts civil society concerns and removes their opportunities to exert political pressure, South Korea displays considerable ideological distance between the government and civil society, leading to a polarization in the political sphere that diminishes the chance for meaningful political cooperation between the South Korean government and civil society. Ms. Derichs’ presentation meaningfully complemented Ms. Hüstebeck’s topic with an in-depth analysis of current issues in Japanese politics and the related civil society activities. Throughout her presentation and the ensuing discussion, it transpired that the current toolset in the realm of social movement theory is insufficient to fully grasp the situation in Japan. Again, the political space between state and civil society movements was identified as the most pressing analytical concern of future research, as the cases of South Korea as well as Japan demonstrate that similar socio-political macro-settings may lead to different outcomes in terms of government-civil-society relations. Again, the discussion touched upon the issue of comparison and co-optation by statist actors.

In the third panel, Stefan Rother and Jürgen Rüland (University of Freiburg) focused on international relations perspectives on civil society. Mr. Rüland spoke about the role of civil society engagement inside ASEAN and the resulting democratization processes inside ASEAN and its member states. He remarked that civil society groups have initiated democratization pressures on ASEAN. While ASEAN has made some concessions towards civil society in terms of new institutional arrangements, the reality of civil-society-ASEAN-cooperation is deeply flawed on the brink to irrelevance. At this point, it appears as if ASEAN is using civil society as a transmission mechanism to create awareness and support in its constituencies. On the other hand, civil society organizations’ room for engagement inside ASEAN remain severely limited. In Mr. Rüland’s presentation, relations between ASEAN’s elitist executive regionalism and civil society take the form of a regional corporatism, thereby transplanting entrenched corporatist state-society relations from the nation state to the regional level. Mr. Rother’s presentation on transnational advocacy networks in Southeast Asia focused on the strategies of civil society organizations, namely on networks of domestic workers between their sending and hosting states. Based upon these two presentations, the panel entered into a discussion about how theories can cope with the empirical realities of civil society research. Key points of Mr. Rother’s presentation and the ensuing discussion were the problem of methodological nationalism and the implied ignorance towards the more complex transnational realities of modern civil society activities. A recurring key aspect throughout the rest of the conference is the fact that European observers are often ignorant about some key features of civil society activity in Asia, which may sometimes hinder a meaningful analysis.

Next to the two conference workshops that were already planned -  one on Southeast Asia and South Asia, led by Patrick Ziegenhain (University of Trier) and Clemens Jürgenmeyer (ABI Freiburg) respectively -, a third workshop on women’s rights was formed, led by Ursula Birsl (University of Marburg), Ms. Schneider and Ms. Derichs. The workshops elaborated on current issues in the research related to the chosen fields. In the ensuing presentations of the results of the workshop, it appeared as if the groups had come up with vastly diverging perspectives on the pressing concerns in their chosen working groups. The workshop regarding women’s rights had engaged in a debate on conceptual definitions and the role of action research in women’s rights civil society analysis. Menawhile, the group related to Southeast Asia elaborated on the socio-political macro-context for groupings of Southeast Asian states with the objective of creating a framework to facilitating comparative analysis between different states and their respective civil society networks. The workshop on South Asia, namely India and Pakistan, focused more on the concrete impact of civil society on the democratic culture of the states in question. In the same vein, the group put emphasis on the ambiguous effects of civil society groups both in India as well as in Pakistan. The concept of uncivil society again emerged as a key concept that holds relevance for the analysis of the general influence of civil society activity on the state in question.

In the last panel on the topic of Civil Society in China, Mr. Heberer (University of Duisburg-Essen) shed some light on the current state of civil society in China and its theoretical implications. Considering that there is no significant consciousness for civil society as a grassroots movement, the Chinese state has created civil society organizations in a top-down fashion. It remains to be seen which path the civil society groups of China will take in the future. The important theoretical implications of this are the question whether or not a top-down introduction of civil society is possible in the first place. Beyond this, the influence of civil society organizations in persistently undemocratic states such as China remains to be investigated.

Overall, the conference convincingly highlighted the current empirical and theoretical issues in civil society research. The recurring issue of political spaces in which civil society activity and the state intersect – either physical, national or transnational – as well as the processes through which civil society organizations co-operate with and are co-opted by statist actors deserve more attention in the academic discourse. Furthermore, certain methodological biases, e.g. methodological nationalism or the insistence on particular social movement theories, have to be overcome in order to develop the analytical tools that are necessary to analyze civil society activities in the 21st century.


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