Sunday, November 14, 2010

Global Village's LOHO Community project in Sichuan -- excerpts from a volunteer's blog

Below I've posted some excerpts of a blog written by my son, Simon and his friend, Wen who are volunteering at the LOHO Community project started by one of China's earliest and best-known environmental NGOs, Global Village. I've written about this project in some previous posts.

The entries below were posted October 17, 2010 on their blog which can be accessed at

We arrived at Da Ping Mountain on Wednesday, October 13th. Da Ping Mountain is located in SiChuan, two hours west of ChengDu.

It is very different from the city life style that we led in Beijing. The toilets are squatty potties, and showers are taken right outside the cubicles. -.- The food is good. (: So far we have been eating the same dishes, fresh vegetables cooked in various ways along with rice. These plain dishes contrast with the oily, MSG-filled food in Beijing, which turns out to be a nice healthy change of diet.

Day 1:

We were woken up by the hustling and bustling of the other volunteers - preparing breakfast for the sleepyheads. Walking out of our dorms to the smell of man tou's and fresh clean air (unlike Beijing's polluted weather), we were prepared for whatever the villagers had planned for us. We were also greeted by an American volunteer called Ted that had been at Da Ping Mountain for a week. After a filling and warm-welcomed breakfast, a retired volunteer called Lu Lao Shi guided us down to a field (what was it called??) to pick yams (called shan yao zi in Chinese). These yams are not what you think, as to my surprise, they were pea-sized yams. Crawling on our knees in the muddy earth and picking pea-sized yams was definitely a first. On top of that, dodging massive spider webs that would appear out of nowhere at eye-level was also on our minds (I saved my friend from a huge spider web). After doing that for the whole morning, Ted, Simon and I carried three bags full of yams back to the village (a bag per person... but of course Ted - with experience - had the fullest bag).

When we arrived at the village, lunch was served. Man, we were hungry from picking all 'em yams. After lunch, we had an opportunity to use our free time however we wished; we used that time to read, play solataire on our iPods, wander around and enjoy the scenery and natural environment. Then we had dinner and went to sleep.

Day 2:

Today Wang Pan (the station director) went with Ted and some others to the city at the bottom of the mountain, Tongji, so Wen and I slept in until 9 am. and decided we should probably wash some of our clothes. We brought out the plastic basins and detergent, hand washed everything then hung it out to dry. Ted warned us that is normally takes longer for clothes to dry up here which makes sense considering we're up in the clouds most of the time, but we've been lucky with the weather so far-clear skies during the day and sun enough for t-shirts. With weather like this during the day and mostly cloudy skies and mist in the afternoon and through night, our clothes took a day to dry.

Ted, looking to get some photos and explore the mountain, wanted to go for a hike and we, having nothing else to do and eager to get better aquainted with this moutain, decided to join him. We hiked up muddy paths, if you could call them paths-most of the paths have been washed over by rain and muddled by small landslides and mudslides, but we managed. A motif on this mountain, we noticed for the first time, is the vegetable that serves as a medicine called Hua Lian. It's grown in large patches of land and covered by black tarp as it prefers the shade, but covers a surprising percentage of the mountain and is grown all the way up to the highest peak. But between dodging spider webs woven in between cedars and slipping up muddy hills, we saw some great views and got a better idea of the layout of this huge mountain and it's agricultural inhabitants.

Lunch today consisted of fried rice, left-over xifan from breakfast and some pickled vegetables...also left-over from breakfast. But don't worry, Wen has a secret stash of cookies that we share. After lunch was down time where, again, we read, napped, talked etc. until it was time to get farming.

We walked down the mountain through a corn field to another "team" of houses and fields, of which there are a total of 11 on Daping. Here we planted rows and rows of vegetables that we don't know the name of but which will probably either feed the next wave of volunteers or go down to the city to be sold. What we planted weren't seeds, but plants in their ealy stages of growth-with stems and leaves about 6-10cm. tall and with which we buried the roots into the tilled soil. Once all of the vegetables were planted we watered them and by this time were both ready for dinner.

On our way back we noticed the sunset and how nice it was up there, with the hills rolling up all around us and the leaves starting to change color, and curtains of harvested corn hanging in front of every house. We walked through the corn field again to get back to the station where the office and dorms are and where we eat every day. Dinner was squash, sichuan style (spicy) which was really good actually, and the sichuan specialty Huiguorou which is basically steamed slices of pork fat that's not quite as tender as you'd expect, but good nonetheless. After dinner was more down time which Wen and I used to sit outside and talk, read, and talk some more. Then bed at around 10 pm, and by that time we're pretty dead. So far we have a good feeling about this place.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An exchange between Meg Davis of Asia Catalyst and Shawn Shieh on regulation of Chinese NGOs

In a recent posting on her Asia Catalyst blog, Meg Davis reprints an exchange between the two of us on how China's new nonprofit regulations - including new regulations on international NGOs in China's Yunnan Province (for a text of the regulations, see -- were affecting grassroots groups. The essay was reposted to Chinapol (aka C-Pol), an email list of professionals working on Chinese policy issues.

I'm posting it here as well because it gets to an important issue that Meg and I disagree on, and that is, whether or not new regulations (when there were none previously as in the case of Yunnan) represent a tightening of control over NGOs. This is an important issue because China currently has very few laws and regulations governing the NGO/nonprofit sector, and we'll undoubtedly see more laws and regulations. Will this be beneficial or detrimental to NGOs? I realize some people will see regulations as an effort by an authoritarian state to control NGOs, but I'm keeping an open mind. I think having some kind of regulatory structure is better than having none at all for reasons I state below.

Shawn Shieh writes:


Thanks for writing this up. I'm actually in the middle of translating the Yunnan regs, so if anyone has the translation already and would be willing to share, I'd be most grateful.

I had one question and a comment. In your discussion of the Yunnan regs on foreign NGOs, you note that foreign NGOs will have to apply for approval with the provincial Civil Affairs and then go on to say that this will make them [government-organized NGOs, or] GONGOs. I didn't understand the connection. How does applying for approval translate into becoming a GONGO?

My comment has to do with the larger question of NGO regulation which has been the subject of some lively discussion on this listserv. You call the Yunnan regs a tightening of control over foreign NGOs, but let me present another way of looking at it. My understanding is that foreign NGOs in China at this point aren't really clear how to register because there are no specific regs governing them, except for foreign chambers of commerce. It's a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy where different govt depts and local govts have to deal with them on a case by case basis. Foreign NGOs have been able to work in China by entering into some creative arrangements with their local counterparts, but it's not an ideal situation. I think it's in this context that the Yunnan govt is now experimenting with clearer regulations governing foreign NGOs, just as other provinces are experimenting with regs for other kinds of NGOs such as community-based organizations (CBOs), trade associations, and foundations. Perhaps the experience with these different experiments may eventually percolate upwards to the center and shape the revisions of the NGO regs that we've been expecting to come out for so long.

So I see these regs as a way to clarify the regulatory environment, rather than as a tightening. It seems preferable to have some kind of clear standards and guidelines for foreign NGOs than to have none at all, although of course the devil is in the details and the implementation. If foreign NGOs continue to be stymied by bureaucratic red tape and are unable to register using these regs, then they may just go back to the old way of doing things. Either way, with or without these Yunnan regs, foreign NGOs that are not registered with Civil Affairs are technically illegal.

I'd be interested to hear what people working in foreign NGOs think about this, on or offline.

On the issue of regulating both domestic and foreign NGOs, I'd like to highly recommend Deng Guosheng's article that just came out in Spring 2010 issue of The China Review, "The Hidden Rules Governing China's Unregistered NGOs: Management and Consequences". It sheds a lot of light on a murky subject.


Meg Davis replied:

Dear Shawn and colleagues,

Many thanks to Shawn for his thoughtful comments and questions. I'd like to start by referring to Shawn's useful interventions on other C-Pol threads about the fact that there are a lot of different kinds of GONGOs, some of which are empty shells for the purpose of collecting grant money, and some of which do valid and life-saving work (Shawn, I was hoping to find a post to this on your blog that I could cite in the article - if there is one, could you send it offline?). Saying a group is "like a GONGO" is not necessarily a statement about the value of the work the organization does, but more a comment on the restrictions and controls on that work.

When I wrote the blog post on China's NGO regulations, I would have spent more space elaborating on the Yunnan regs, but the post was already quite long; I'm happy to have a chance to do so now. To start, I need to make reference to international rights law, quoting from the report I wrote for HRW in '05 on restrictions on AIDS NGOs in China:

"Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, China has the right to restrict freedom of association, so long as those restrictions are 'necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others'. Any restrictions should be interpreted narrowly, and be proportionate to the reasons for them; a government should use no more restrictive means than are absolutely required. While the state has the right to ensure that NGOs are honest and transparent, legal requirements should be minimal, clear, and attainable, permitting maximum flexibility for NGOs to establish themselves and perform their daily work. They should be enforced without discrimination."

In other words....states do have a right to restrict registration or establishment of NGOs, and this is something that all countries do. To take the US as an example (not because it's a model, but because it's the system with which I'm most familiar), someone registering a nonprofit needs to first file incorporation papers with the state, and then file much a much longer application with the federal government in order to obtain tax-exempt status. In founding Asia Catalyst, I went through both those processes with the help of a pro bono lawyer. While this was certainly a lot of annoying paperwork that had to be done carefully, the requirements were clear, attainable, non-discriminatory, and did not prevent our organization from getting down to business right away. I didn't have to have guanxi [personal connections] in the state attorney general's office, or in the IRS. My lawyer and I didn't have to buy gifts or take anyone out for expensive meals. We sent in the paperwork registered mail and got a letter of determination back within the legally-mandated time frame, end of story.

The Yunnan regulations are not minimal, clear, and in many cases will not be attainable. They also are not simply a matter of filling out paperwork and mailing it in. They require foreign NGOs to obtain "approval" for their work from multiple different, sometimes vaguely defined departments; the documents required are left to the discretion of those departments.

More to the point, because of the vague way in which these regs are written, in practice there is broad leeway to implement them in a discriminatory manner. In practice, in order to register with the Civil Affairs Bureau, the foreign NGO in question is going to basically need a "mother-in-law" agency (a la the GONGO registration requirements); that is, some senior official or friendly high-ranking department that can pull strings, make calls, maybe take some people out to lunch, and smooth the way to registration. That official or agency will then be held accountable for whatever the foreign NGO does, and will have some say over decisions the foreign NGO makes. If the foreign NGO plans something that someone in power finds anxiety-producing, the first call is probably going to go to the Chinese friends who helped facilitate registration.

Of course, to some degree this is already what happens for foreign NGOs that open offices in China, as most of them will say off the record. Most of them won't say it or anything critical about NGO management on the record (as one journalist pointed out, writing to me offline about how she'd like to write about the Yunnan regs but can't find any foreign NGO to comment for the article). This is just part of why some ticked-off Chinese AIDS activist friends tell me they already think of most foreign NGOs working in China as being GONGOs. If Asia Catalyst ever tries to open an office in Beijing, I expect we'll have to become the same way - it's the nature of the game.

That said, Shawn, I'm intrigued by your reference to "other provinces...experimenting with regs for other kinds of NGOs such as community-based organizations (CBOs), trade associations, and foundations" and would be grateful for references/info, either online, offline or on your blog. If this is part of a larger trend, it would be interesting to do some comparing and contrasting.

However, I'm not persuaded by your prediction that organizations that fail to register in Yunnan will just go back to doing things the way they were before. But I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the regs are implemented.


Shawn Shieh replied:


I think we have somewhat different interpretations of what a GONGO is, and maybe that's where my original confusion came from. To me, a GONGO is an "NGO" established by a party or government agency but registered with Civil Affairs as an NGO with the agency that established it being its "mother-in-law" or professional supervising unit. The state provides funds and staff for the GONGO, and determines its leadership. Most GONGOs also have an administrative rank. Then there are "real" NGOs, some of which are registered with Civil Affairs and have a professional supervising unit, but nevertheless are private, formed voluntarily and self-governing. I think there is an important and very real distinction to be made between the former (e.g. GONGOs or top-down NGOs) and the latter (e.g. bottom-up NGOs), and we shouldn't conflate them simply because they have a "mother-in-law". It's one thing to have a "mother-in-law" for registration purposes (and as a number of NGOs I've spoken to indicate, the "mother-in-law" is largely pro forma and doesn't really supervise the NGO that closely). It's quite another to have your funding, staff and leader come from the party-state.

I've written a post on the distinction between GONGOs and NGOs in my blog that is available in the June 2010 section of this blog.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The passing of Liang Congjie, China’s environmental and civil society pioneer

On a personal note, Liang Congjie is one of the few first-generation NGO founders that I never had a chance to interview due to his illness. I hope to gain a better understanding of this fascinating man and his impact through the eyes of those who were close to him.

November 1, 2010

On October 28, 2010, Liang Congjie died in a Beijing hospital after a long illness. His death marks the passing of one of the leading lights of the first generation of civil society activists in China. Amid all the post-Nobel Peace Prize buzz about Liu Xiaobo who received the award for advancing “fundamental human rights in China,” Liang’s life and legacy should be remembered and celebrated for contributing to the same cause. His work as one of the founders of Friends of Nature has been less dramatic than Mr. Liu’s but equally important in advancing many of the human rights laid out in the Charter 08 document that Liu coauthored.

Since its founding in 1994, Friends of Nature has been the standard-bearer for a rapidly growing community of environmental NGOs and activists that is widely-regarded as the most independent, assertive and successful civil society sector in China. As the head of Friends of Nature, Liang emerged as one of China’s leading public intellectuals and advocates on behalf of environmental protection and civil society.

Mr. Liang’s distinguished pedigree is already known to many. He was the grandson of Liang Qichao, the famous Qing-dynasty reformer, and son of Liang Sicheng, a famous architect known for his work in trying to preserve Beijing’s city walls, and Lin Huiyin, a poet and writer who contracted tuberculosis during the war and died in 1955 when Liang was 23.

Liang followed in the footsteps of his parents, training to be an academic, but for the next few decades, did nothing particularly remarkable. During the 1950s, he studied history in college and entered graduate studies at Beijing University but his studies were interrupted by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In 1958, he was assigned to Yunnan University to work as a lecturer. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent down to the countryside in Jiangxi for nine years. In 1978, he was allowed to return to Beijing where he was offered a position as editor of a general knowledge magazine, Encyclopedic Knowledge.

Liang’s big break came in 1988 when some prestigious intellectuals set up the private Academy of Chinese Culture, and invited Liang to join them. Liang accepted, quitting his position at Encyclopedic Knowledge. It was a risky move but as he said later, “I gained my freedom.” Shortly thereafter, he was invited to be a member of the Population, Resources and Environment committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It was a position he would later leverage with considerable success in various environmental campaigns.

When the Tiananmen protests began in 1989, he was overseas in the U.S. to speak to overseas Chinese student communities in California. He returned a few days before June 4 and observed the crackdown from the sidelines as colleagues and friends were either arrested or criticized.

Liang became aware of China’s environmental problems when he was editor of Encyclopedic Knowledge. In the early 1990s, he began talking with his friends about what could be done to address the environmental problem in China. Liang and three of his friends who became cofounders – Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan and Wang Lixiong – talked about establishing an NGO. They knew that NGOs outside of China were playing an important part in informing and mobilizing the public to address environmental ills. They came to the conclusion that China could use a few good NGOs even though they only had a vague idea of what NGOs were. At the time, the only environmental NGO Liang could recall was Greenpeace because he had seen their protests on the television.

By 1993, when Liang was already in his 60s, he and the other co-founders came up with a charter for their NGO and went about finding a government sponsor so they could register with the Civil Affairs bureau. They went to the State Administration for Environmental Protection (SEPA) to ask them to serve as their sponsor, but were rebuffed. Unable to find a sponsor, Liang and the other co-founders gave up trying to register Friends of Nature as a NGO, and in 1994 affiliated with Liang’s employer, the Academy of Chinese Culture which is itself registered as a NGO. Friends of Nature retains this affiliate status to this very day.

Under Liang’s leadership, Friends of Nature’s achievements came first in environmental education. They worked with the public schools in delivering environmental education, carried out tree planting trips, organized bird watching groups, and established a mobile environmental education classroom. They also built up a membership base that now includes around 10,000 members nationwide. A number of the new generation of environmental activists counted themselves as members, or worked and trained there, before going on to establish their own NGOs.

Then in the mid-1990s, Friends of Nature embarked on a series of widely-publicized campaigns to save the snub-nosed monkey and Tibetan antelope, and to oppose illegal logging in southwestern China. Liang played a crucial role in these campaigns, using his position and connections as a member of the CPPCC, to bring these issues to the attention of the media and government leaders. These campaigns are credited with transforming the environmental movement in China, demonstrating to NGOs and activists that civil society could play a role in shaping policy. They also signaled a broadening of Friends of Nature’s mission to include influencing public policy through a multi-pronged strategy that involves working with government allies, the media and the public to pressure government authorities to enforce environmental laws. In the mid-2000s, Friends of Nature joined forces with several other environmental NGOs to form the China Rivers Network which used similar advocacy techniques to raise concerns about plans to build dams along the Nu River in Yunnan. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the dam project to be suspended until further review. Friends of Nature continues to be a part of the China Rivers network, and other environmental advocacy networks operating in China.

Liang has received many accolades for his work as a leader of Friends of Nature. In 2000, he was recognized by SEPA, the agency that refused to sponsor him, as an “environmental ambassador”, appointed an environmental consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. In 2004, he was named one of China’s 50 most influential public intellectuals by the Southern Weekend magazine. He should also be recognized for another achievement rare in the Chinese NGO world – shepherding his organization through a leadership transition. Many first generation NGO leaders tend to view their NGOs as their personal projects and devote little time to grooming a successor to take over. Liang was different and began to look for someone to replace him as executive director of Friends of Nature in the mid-2000s, thereby setting an important precedent for other NGOs.

Liang, and by extension Friends of Nature, have been called moderate forces within the environmental movement. If moderate means working with allies in the government and media to highlight environmental abuses, and being circumspect about when and what methods to use to criticize and pressure the government, then the term fits. At the same time, Liang has always been a vigorous defender of the need for an independent civil society in resolving China’s environmental problems. He believed grassroots NGOs played a critical role in informing the public, encouraging public participation, and supervising the work of the government and businesses.

More than 16 years later, China’s civil society has grown immeasurably since 1994 when Friends of Nature was one of a handful of NGOs. Now, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of NGOs like Friends of Nature and they are becoming more assertive, networked and professional. Liang can rest easy knowing that he played no small role in their advancement.