Civic organizations have long been heralded for promoting voluntarism and civic participation, yet observational studies, facing endogeneity concerns, have struggled to solidify the causal underpinnings of the neo-Tocquevillian theory. Furthermore, empirical examination of their recruitment efficacy relative to state entities, particularly in crises or authoritarian settings, remains scarce. Our survey experiment in COVID-period China provides a twofold crucial case study. By embodying both the “most likely case” of effective state-led mobilization and the “least likely case” of potent civic organization efforts, it offers unique analytical leverage and insights. Civic appeals significantly boosted volunteer inclinations, whereas governmental outreach had minimal or even negative effects. This civic boost was stronger among those with less social and political trust and channeled by heightened political efficacy and active citizenship norms. Our findings shed light on the pivotal roles of civic organizations, even in authoritarian settings featuring embryonic civil societies.

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