DISSERTATION RESEARCH

The Interplay of Neoliberalism and Authoritarianism: The Social Construction of Accountability by Environmental Nonprofit Organizations in China

Dissertation Committee: Dr. Angela M. Eikenberry (Chair)

                                            Dr. Jodi Benenson

                                            Dr. Tara K. Bryan

                                            Dr. Chin-Chung Chao

                                            Dr. Chao Guo

The purpose of this research is to explore the interplay of neoliberalism and socio-political institutions and their impact on environmental nonprofit organizations’ accountabilities in an authoritarian regime—in this case, China. It focuses on how environmental nonprofit organizations in China navigate neoliberalism and their relationship with various stakeholders. It examines the primary research question: How have environmental nonprofit organizations constructed their accountabilities within the neoliberal context of China? Related to the primary research question, this research has three secondary research questions based on the literature of neoliberalism and social constructionist framework of accountability: (1) How have neoliberal discourses been embedded in environmental nonprofit organizations’ accountability practices and processes? (2) To whom are environmental nonprofit organizations accountable? (3) How are environmental nonprofit organizations accountable? A multiple case study approach was used, consisting of in-depth interviews, field observations, online observations, and document analysis of three environmental nonprofit organizations in Beijing, China.

The research findings suggest that the environmental nonprofit organizations’ accountability building was deeply rooted in their understanding of the nonprofit organizations’ roles and functions in society and the state-society relationship. The government’s adoption of neoliberal policies has created a nonprofit sector that serves as an extension of the state rather than challenging larger institutional and social structures. For the three organizations studied, various development approaches have been adopted to embrace or resist neoliberal practices and discourses. Two case study organizations developed their capacity through the organizations’ marketization and managerialization. Professionalization has been a strategy for these two organizations to maintain their legitimacy, organizational identity, and mission achievement as well as maintain their relationship with funders. In contrast, the third organization has tried to resist marketization, managerialization, and professionalization while remain its social impact. Accountability building was largely based on the organizations’ capacity for navigating stakeholder groups who held critical resources or power such as the central government, local government, and domestic foundations. Accountability practices mainly focused on information disclosure to funders and donors, meaningful stakeholder engagement with stakeholders who hold critical resources and power for these organizations, and organizational capacity building to mobilize social and financial resources.

As an ongoing process, this research identifies the dynamics of the state-society relationship and the changing spaces in which environmental nonprofit organizations in China have been allowed to operate. It challenges a simple understanding of the relationship between neoliberalism and civil society.

 

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