Apparently the Communist Party's Propaganda Department has issued an order banning domestic media from using the term "civil society" in their reporting. David Bandurski, writing for the China Media Project, shows that this order is being obeyed by the most official of official media, such as People's Daily, but is not by more independent outlets, such as the 21st Century Economic Herald. Scholars are also still using the term in academic papers.
One interesting aspect of this apparent ban is that it has focused on only one of the three different ways one can say civil society in Chinese, "gongmin shehui" (公民社会). Gongmin shehui could be translated as "citizen" society or, better, civic society. It refers to those members of society who are publicly engaged, often in the political process itself. But there are two other ways to say civil society in Chinese that haven't been banned. "Shimin shehui" (市民社会) literally means "urbanite society" (I'm sure there is a better translation that escapes me right now), and is most consistent with the notion of civil society being the product of capitalists and urban dwellers to create horizontal social ties and cooperative organizations to protect their interests, either against competitors or the state. Think industry associations, chambers of commerce, etc. Finally there is "minjian shehui" (民间社会), which most literally translates as "civilian society," that is, members of society collaborating with each other to form all types of organizations that are independent of state control. This would include anything from industry bodies to non-governmental organizations (NGO's) aimed to help those HIV or other marginalized groups.
If the reports are correct, this is a glass half-empty/half-full story. Propaganda officials are most worried about groups that are inherently politically oriented -- no duh -- but they are less concerned about business-related groups and other types of NGO's geared to address practical problems. If so, this effort at word control would actually imply some progress in terms of being more accommodating to the wide swath of NGO's that are the least politically threatening. Originally, it seemed the Party's view was that any group, even marble clubs and qigong groups, could potentially be threatening; but perhaps now there is a greater willingness to differentiate amongst organizations.
Reading between the lines more, this may mean China is getting ready to move on adopting new regulations related to at least industry associations and perhaps even to a broader group of NGO's. Now in the works for several years, a new set of regulations would be quite welcome and most likely represent a significant improvement over the current regulatory environment.
We'll just have to see whether the word games now being played are part of a larger policy shift, and if so, in which direction.