The Charity Law of the PRC and the Italian Renaissance

The Year of the Ram is coming to a close with a second reading of the Charity Law. Despite its ten years’ gestation, the Charity Law has received a far lesser amount of attention than other legislative enactments on social governance – most notably the Foreign NGOs Management Law. Yet, the addition of a new legal form, charitable organizations, to the panorama of social organizations underscores the dynamism and adaptability of China’s legal system.

The second reading of the Charity Law also offers an opportunity to reflect on depictions of civil society that prevail in the English-speaking part of the world. Most of our discussions of civil society are directly or indirectly indebted to analyses of Renaissance Italy. Despite the fact a 600-years gap separates the Renaissance from the social, economic, and political context where civil society was revamped after World War II (Margaret Thatcher’s England), Florence and Venice are still thought to be the cradle of modern-day Western NGOs.

What is often forgotten is the following:


(1) Florence and Venice were not the only two city-states that existed in 15th Century Italy.

(2) Trade and guild organizations existed both inside and outside of Italy. Wherever there was a community of Italian merchants, a trade or a guild association would be established. 

(3) Italian city-state displayed significant, sometimes even extreme differences in language, culture, customs, social, and political organization.

Trade and guild associations were active in each one of the city-states but, differences in the relationship between guilds, local oligarchs, and local governance bodies gave life to different modes of social governance. An excellent case is given by the city of Bologna, and how its sometimes strained relationship to the Papal State eventually led to the adoption of a unique social governance pact.

In 1447, the Papal State gave greater autonomy to the city of Bologna, which until then had been firmly placed under the rulership of the Church. The result was a series of intrigues weaved by the House of Bentivoglio, the de facto rulers of Bologna. Seeing how the decision to place Bologna under direct rule by the Papal State had attracted instability, and given how autonomy had led to attempts to seize the Papal Crown, Pope Leo X opted for a different solution. He appointed a Papal Governor, allowing the Bologna aristocracy to cooperate with him, and to be an intermediary between the Papal Governor and Bologna’s residents.

The legislative models behind the Charity Law and the Foreign NGOs Management Law are in part domestic. Both drafts are in part based on local-level legislation, and on the long-standing practices of domestic social organizations, and administrative organs of the state.

Twenty-first Century China shares very few similarities with 15th Century Italy. But, if Renaissance Venice and Florence have inspired analyses of civil society, as these analyses have been performed in the English-speaking part of the world at least, the governance of Bologna and other Italian city-states could be among the sources of an equally powerful inspiration.

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