China’s drive toward reform and modernization over the past 30 years has not only led to rapid economic growth, but has also created new opportunities for social change. The dramatic changes and significant consequences stirred by the development of social organizations have drawn much attention to the subject. Existing studies on the state-society relationship remain largely dominated by the “State-centered approach”, in which the state will and capacity are considered to be the key interpretation variables. By contrast, the attention given to the “organizing of social forces” and “mobilization of social resources” remains limited, and inadequate attention has been directed to the influence arising from the differences between the nature of different agendas and the characteristics of social-sector actors. With the tendency to focus on state apparatuses, research on the relationship between the state and social organizations in China today has been going nowhere, and more in-depth comparative analysis is unlikely.
Theoretically, this article first of all argues that the “governance structure” and “organizational field” of social forces should be reestablished as the focus of research in contemporary China. Such research must focus on the changes in and effects of the various models, driving forces, and structures of social organizations. Secondly, it presents an empirical study of the two most active grassroots organizations in China––environmental NGOs and AIDS NGOs. Both organizations exhibit similar characteristics in certain areas, but they differ vastly in terms of action strategy, methods of mobilization, and interaction with the state. Backed up by extensive empirical investigations, this article will demonstrate such differences. Based on these, this article provides a dialogue with the foregoing empirical research to identify the potential blind spots of existing theoretical viewpoints in their analyses.