Thursday, December 13, 2012

Can the Chinese Government Both Support and Micromanage NGOs?

Here's one of the Policy Briefs I wrote for China Development Brief in November. It's about whether the Chinese government can have it both ways. It want to support the development of NGOs, but at the same time, closely manage and supervise that developmental process. But doesn't the latter ultimately subvert the former? Here's what I said:

In the run-up to the 18th Party Congress which opened November 8 and ended November 15 with the announcement of China’s new leadership core, the news falls into two categories of policy trends that we have been seeing over this past year.

The first of these trends involves policies that are more supportive of social organizations, the official term in China for nonprofits or NGOs.  These policies come in different forms.  One is the continuation of reforms at the local level to make registration easier for social organizations. This month, much of the news has been about reforms in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang, such as the cities of Ningbo and Wenzhou. Another policy involves local governments, in places like Guangdong and Sichuan, setting up special funds to support and incubate social organizations and contract services to social organizations. More localities are financing these special funds using public welfare lottery money.  Some environmental NGOs, however, have found that the funds used for purchasing services from social organizations are not sufficient to carry out their projects.
The second trend involves policies seeking to better regulate and manage the social organization sector. We have seen some of these policies and guidelines come out over the last few months. This month, we hear about other methods the government is using to standardize the sector. Both the Ministry of Civil Affairs and local Civil Affairs bureaus are providing ratings to registered social organizations, although it is not clear what goes into creating these ratings. With a 3A-level rating or above from the Ministry, a social organization may receive awards, and is given priority for government contracting. With a 4A-level rating or above, an organization can undergo a simplified process for its yearly inspection.  An organization’s rating is good for a three-year period and is based on a 1000 point rating system.

Ratings may not be a bad idea if done correctly, but another method that has been making the news is the Party’s efforts to become involved in managing social organizations. We touched on this in our last Policy Brief where we discussed the role of the Social Affairs Committee which is a newly formed agency under the local Party Committee responsible for social affairs which includes the development of social organizations. This month, we continue to hear more news about efforts to establish Party branches and groups within social organizations. This trend would mean both the government and Party would be involved in supervising social organizations.

It is not clear how the government and Party would coordinate their specific roles and responsibilities, but the involvement of both Party and government bureaucracies in managing social organizations is not a good sign. It runs counter to the first trend of supporting social organizations and making it easier for them to operate. Perhaps the Party and government see their efforts to manage social organizations as a good faith, paternalistic gesture to provide guidance and support. But they could also be interpreted as micromanagement, and an attempt to exercise stricter supervision over social organizations. As one article in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, makes clear, “loosening restrictions” over social organizations does not mean authorities should “become lax or complacent”.

Micromanagement not withstanding, some observers have been optimistic about the future for social organizations after the 18th Party Congress.  Professor Wang Ming, director of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center and one of the leading authorities on China’s NGOs, is bullish on the future for social organizations, noting that the 18th Party Congress continued the same strong support for social organizations expressed at the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

China Development Brief's December Newsletter -- New "Weekly Civil Society News" Feature

I'm reposting here China Development Brief (English)'s December Newsletter.  CDB (English) is the place to go for information and resources about China's nonprofit, NGO, philanthropic space.  Check our stuff out!

Highlight: New "Weekly Civil Society News" Feature

In order to help our readers keep up with the rapidly-changing landscape of Chinese civil society, CDB has developed a new weekly feature which compiles some of the most interesting and groundbreaking Chinese and English-language news articles concerning Chinese NGOs, with an emphasis on government policy. Here is the most recent Weekly Civil Society News, and please check our homepage on Fridays for weekly updates!

Policy Briefs

Special Report

Featured Articles
Bringing “Pro Bono” to Beijing: A Case Study in Localizing International Practices

Between Heaven and Hell: Grassroots NGOs in Central China
Introduction: As part of CDB’s series on NGOs in Anhui, this article chronicles the struggles and slow progress of public service NGOs working in China’s central region of Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Hebei and Hubei.

Laos’ Ban Chim Village: The First Partnership Between a Chinese NGO and a Chinese Company Overseas

Yang Guang: From MSM Trailblazer to Marching in Place
Introduction: As part of her series on NGOs in Anhui, CDB Senior Staff Writer, Guo Ting, provides a moving account of an MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) worker’s 14 year effort to provide a space for gay men in Fuyang, Anhui to get counseling and HIV testing.

Ma Zhengzhou: An AIDS Relief Practitioner on the Frontlines

The Culture of China’s Environmental Movement
Introduction: A group of young environmentalists offer a critical examination of what they see as the shortcomings of the current environmental movement in China.

Reflecting on “Activism” in China’s Environmental Movement
Introduction: A group of young environmentalists argue that more strategic thinking and reflection, and less of an “action first” mentality, is needed if China’s environmental movement is going to succeed.

Roundtable on the Impact of Recent Policy Changes on China’s NGOs
Introduction: In May of this year, CDB invited a diverse group of NGOs to share their views regarding recent policy reforms in the NGO sector at both the national and local levels.  What they had to say should be read by everyone who is concerned about the impact these reforms will have on China’s nascent civil society….

Yang Yunbiao’s Brainchild: A Rural Cooperative in Anhui
Introduction: CDB Senior Staff Writer, Guo Ting, delves into the fascinating world of rural cooperatives in this profile of an Anhui cooperative founded by Yang Yunbiao, a former rural rights-defense (weiquan) activist…..

The 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center Opens Its Chuandao Academy
Introduction: CDB Researcher, Fu Tao, profiles the Chuandao Academy which was set up by the Chengdu-based 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center to promote exchange and learning among grassroots NGOs….

Forthcoming Articles

In the next month, we will have articles appearing on gender and feminism, a "voluntourism" NGO, and an oral history of Xu Bai, founder of Golden Key, an organization that promotes education for blind children.

Make a Donation to CDB
  We are exploring ways of creating fee-based subscriptions to some of CDB(English)’s resources, but in the meantime, we ask that you consider making a small donation if you find our articles and other resources useful.
Thanks to Give2Asia, U.S.-based individuals and organizations can easily make tax-deductible donations to CDB by going to our Give2Asia fund page at  Once your donation is made, Give2Asia will send you a letter and receipt confirming your donation.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Does the 18th Party Congress Augur for the Future of China's Civil Society?

The 18th Party Congress has wrapped up and we now know the number and composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee which make up China's new leadership core.  It consists of seven men – Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli in order of their rank on the Committee.  According to most observers, this leadership group is stacked with conservatives and supporters of the past president, Jiang Zemin. In China’s political spectrum, the difference between reformers and conservatives is not as wide as it used to be (think Deng Xiaoping vs. Hua Guofeng, or Hu Yaobang vs. Chen Yun), so I’m not sure how meaningful it is to say that the new leadership is on the conservative side.  To me, they represent different shades of grey.  Ultimately, their core interest regardless of their liberal or conservative leaning is to strengthen the Communist party and its governance of China.  Here I use the term “governance” to denote a process of government working through horizontal partnerships with other stakeholders in society.  “Rule”, in contrast, implies a process of strengthening the vertical, bureaucratic lines of authority. 

As I explain below, the old and new leadership now recognize that the Communist Party will only survive into the 21st century if it “governs.”  For the party-state, this line of thinking means reaching out not only to the business elite (a process that started with Jiang Zeming’s Three Represents in the 1990s) but also to NGOs and other social actors.  We saw this outreach in the 16th Party Congress in 2003 when Hu Jintao recognized the need to strengthen the party’s horizontal linkages with society, and create institutional channels for the orderly participation of society in resolving China’s social contradictions. 

This recognition is reflected in party jargon such as “social management”, “social management innovation” and “social construction”.  These terms received more attention in the 17th Party Congress in 2007 in which Hu’s speech actually mentioned a role for “social organizations,” the official Chinese term for NGOs or nonprofits.  Over the last few years, top leaders have spoken on numerous occasions about “social management innovation” and “social construction”, spawning a cottage industry of “innovation” at the national and local levels (See the article by China Development Brief editor, Liu Haiying, “How the Official Discourse of ‘Social Management Innovation’ Has Expanded the Space for NGOs”.).  In the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), an entire section (Party IX) was set aside for the first time ever to discuss social management innovations such as promoting social organizations and community governance, and expanding the space for public participation to improve public services and policies.  There has also been a big push for government contracting to NGOs.  Last year, the central government announced it would set aside a 200 million RMB fund to purchase social services from NGOs.  At the local level, a number of localities have been designated to carry out pilots in different aspects of social management innovation.

This news about social management innovation or social reform may come as a surprise to those who have been watching the 18th Party Congress proceedings.  Much has been written about political and economic reform, or the lack thereof, in the run-up to the leadership turnover.  But as Qian Gang noted in an insightful article (“Society Lost”) posted to the China Media Project’s website, social reform got lost in the mix, getting subsumed under the broad rubric of political reform.  Significant political reforms may not be in the offing any time soon, especially with this Standing Committee, but the “social management innovation” initiatives discussed above show that social reform is on the agenda and in the pipeline and will not be easily dislodged.  That is because there appears to be a pretty broad consensus among the leadership that the party-state needs to strengthen its governance capacity, and one way to do that is by carrying out social reforms.  That is good news for those of us who work in and study the NGO or nonprofit sector.

The bad news is that social reforms will be carried out gradually and on the party-state’s terms.  The slogan used to preface the discussion of social management innovation in the 12th Five Year Plan is “the party leads, government takes the responsibility, society coordinates, and the public participates” (党委领导、政府负责、社会协同、公众参与).  Under this principle, GONGOs with close ties to the government will play a primary role with grassroots NGOs bringing up the rear, social service organizations will be encouraged over advocacy organizations, and there will be yet another effort to establish party groups within NGOs.

Still, even within these constraints, the various social reform initiatives that will be carried out over the next five years should provide space for civil society proponents to push for more liberalization. There now exists a debate over how to promote social management innovation. Conservatives emphasize strengthening the state’s vertical management functions, partnering with GONGOs and strengthening the party’s grassroots organization.  Liberals want to play up the state’s horizontal coordination functions and strengthen the role of NGOs and public participation.  NGOs and their supporters will need to work diligently to push this debate in a more liberal direction. 

There remains a great deal to be done to improve the legal, regulatory and ideological environment for NGO and public participation. NGO and other civil society activists will need to forge strategic alliances with other stakeholders in the government, business sector, media and academia. They will need to call attention to the various ways in which the current system discriminates against grassroots NGOs and activists and privileges GONGOs and others inside the system.  And they will need to advocate for further changes in the legal and regulatory system to make it easier for grassroots NGOs to register, fundraise, gain tax exemptions, and monitor and influence policy. 

China’s civil society has come a long way under Hu Jintao’s administration, though due more to their own efforts than to any reforms Hu and Wen put through.  Now they face a similar situation with this new leadership core. Rather than wait for China’s leaders to move in a liberal direction, they will again have to take the initiative to preserve and build on their hard-earned gains.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

China Development Brief's October Newsletter: Launching Our New Civil Society Learning Space

 Here's our October Newsletter announcing China Development Brief's new Civil Society Learning Space.  For those bringing groups through Beijing who want to learn more about what is going on in the civil society sector, or would like to arrange visits with Beijing-based NGOs, we've set up the Learning Space to provide talks and other services.  Take a look at our brochure on our website.

Highlight: New CDB Civil Society Learning Space

China Development Brief is pleased to announce the launch of our Civil Society Learning Space! The Learning Space will allow students and other groups to visit our Dongcheng office to learn about CDB's history and topics related to China's civil society and social development. Please contact Amanda Brown-Inz at for more information about sessions and program fees.

Policy Brief

Editorial: Animal Welfare and the Dignity of the Chinese People
CDB's editors see in the debate over animal welfare hope for reconsidering long-held cultural beliefs rooted in anthropocentrism and utilitarianism.

Feature Articles
Environmental NGOs Join Forces to Influence Legislation
CDB Senior Staff Writer Guo Ting reports on environmental NGOs partnering with mainstream players such as political and business elites, academics, and media to craft and submit legislative proposals.

Chinese NGOs Travel to Myanmar
Yu Xiaogang, one of China's best-known environmentalists and founder of the Yunnan NGO Green Watershed, writes about the environmental and social impact of China's rapidly growing investment in Myanmar.  

"Blood and Sweat" for the Public Interest
CDB Editor Liu Haiying highlights a growing recognition in the NGO sector that public service, nonprofit work is not simply about pursuing one's passion and ideals. As the public service sector matures in China, it has become a way for many to make a living and pursue a career.

Voices: The Best of NGO Publications

Changes in the Global Fund: The Challenges Facing China's AIDS NGOs and How They Should Respond

Forthcoming Articles
In the next month, we will have articles appearing on the future of China's environmental movement, NGOs in Anhui, Chinese NGOs in Laos, and more...
Make a Donation to CDB
We are exploring ways of creating fee-based subscriptions to some of CDB(English)’s resources, but in the meantime, we ask that you consider making a small donation if you find our articles and other resources useful.
Thanks to Give2Asia, U.S.-based individuals and organizations can easily make tax-deductible donations to CDB by going to our Give2Asia fund page at  Once your donation is made, Give2Asia will send you a letter and receipt confirming your donation.
Spread the Word!

If you know of others who wish to receive monthly CDB (English) newsletter, please have them visit our sign-up page (if the link does not work simply send an e-mail to  If you do not wish to continue receiving newsletters, please reply to this email with the subject line “Unsubscribe” and we will take you off our mailing list.

We wish to thank the Henry Luce Foundation, Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst, the U.S. Embassy,
the Ford Foundation, and the Little Gold Book for their generous financial support.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Power of the Mob vs. the Power of NGOs

There are moments when I have reservations about grassroots NGOs in China.  They are committed and passionate about helping society, and many work with integrity to achieve their goals in spite of working under difficult circumstances.  But they are also small, receive little recognition from the government or society, and have little impact.

But then something comes along like the anti-Japanese protests that are taking place on the street where I live here in Beijing, and reminds me what I see in China’s NGOs.   We are already into our fourth day of protests, and I’ve been out to observe them every day.  Today is the biggest because September 18 marks the anniversary of the Mukden incident when the Japanese military invaded Manchuria, China’s northeast.  The protestors are chanting slogans telling the “little Japanese” to get out of the Diaoyu Islands, and calling for a boycott of Japanese goods (which many Chinese already own such as the cameras they are using to take pictures of the protests).   While the protests are generally peaceful, some protestors have taken to throwing plastic water bottles, eggs and other objects at the Japanese embassy which is just up the street from where I live.  In other cities, there have been acts of vandalism against Japanese-made cars and businesses.  Various sources – both foreigners and Chinese – have said that these protests are very organized, meaning not just that the protestors are well prepared, but that there is a scripted quality to these protests.   Here is an email one Chinese friend shared with me:

I just spoke with a taxi driver a moment ago. He told me that the protests are organized by the government. the leader of the village told the members what they can do in the protest, what they can not do. They can throw eggs, they can shout, but they cannot beat the Japanese, they cannot beat the police.  The government even buys eggs for them.

Like many other things going on in China, these protests and the security presence accompanying them are big, and they have impact.  But they are being manipulated by the government for cynical, political purposes, and are really doing nothing to address the many social problems that loom large for so many Chinese – the widening gap between rich and poor, the treatment of migrant workers and their families, the environmental and public health crises just around the corner.  They represent, in other words, everything that NGOs do not.  They lack integrity.

In a country where so much that happens is big and manipulated by powerful political or corporate interests, and actions that make an impact are a dime a dozen, integrity is becoming a rare commodity.  I think integrity is what draws me to China’s NGOs and why I’ve spent my last six year studying them and working for them.  Integrity.  It’s a commodity that is so difficult to find these days.  What does it mean?  For me, a commitment to a set of moral values, a set of progressive values.  A mission to better society.  But it is also about an approach to work that is evinced by sincerity and humility and a concern for the grassroots, for ordinary people and the communities in which they live.  It is an approach that is above all humane, a concern more for the process than for the result.  (Ironically, monitoring and evaluations of NGO projects tend to measure the quality of NGO work on the basis of outcomes, when what NGOs do best is process.Of course, not all NGOs have this quality.  Some are after fame (read: impact) and money, and others just after money.  But most of the grassroots NGOs I’ve met in China carry out their work with integrity.  They may not be the most professional, or the most effective, or make the biggest impact.  But that’s ok.  There’s already too much of that anyway.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Meeting Up with Huo Daishan, founder of Huai River Guardians

I had the good fortune the other day to meet with Huo Daishan, the founder of the environmental NGO, Huai River Guardians (Huaihe Weishi).  Huo is an small, unassuming man who has committed much of his adult life to monitoring the Huai River, China's third largest, home to over 150 million people, and one of the most polluted waterways in the world.  The Huai also runs by Huo's hometown in Henan where he has spent his entire life and where he now lives with his family, including his sons who are now working at his organization.  For his work, Huo received the Ramon Magsaysay Award  in 2010.

Huo was a photojournalist in the late 1980s and talked to me about how he was given an assignment to photograph parts of the Huai but found the river too polluted in many stretches, so he started instead to take pictures of the river to bring attention to an environmental tragedy that was taking place on his doorstep.  He told me how in the late 1990s, he began visiting "cancer villages" that were emerging along the river and witnessing people of different generations dying of cancer.  By 1998, he had quit his job and began monitoring the river on a full-time basis, and in 2000, he started his NGO, Huai River Guardians which now consists of hundreds of volunteers who live by the river and help to monitor water quality.

I went to see Huo when he came to Beijing for a Am Cham event.  I met up with him two days after the event at his very humble 40 yuan a night guesthouse -- bare walls, 3 single beds with box springs and mattress -- near the Military Museum to interview him for my book.  As soon as we met, he told me he had won the lottery at the Am Cham dinner because his name card was drawn, so all the money raised that night went to support his NGO.  He thought the whole event was pretty funny, that his name card generated that much money for his organization. 

I planned on spending an hour or two interviewing him, but as things sometimes turn out, the interview turned into a get-together with his friends who started texting him a few minutes into our interview.   Huo suggested we meet with them at a nearby restaurant and get some dinner, then come back to the guesthouse to continue the interview.  I agreed but had this sinking feeling it wasn't happening.  We met up with his friends -- a CCTV employee who had befriended Huo several years ago when CCTV did a documentary on the Huai river and another environmental NGO (EnviroFriends) founder who was a kick in the pants and seemed to know every other environmental activist in Beijing.  Huo told them his Am Cham story.  It was a fun evening all in all and I got great gossip from Huo's friends, but I never got the chance to finish my interview with Huo because we ended up talking until late and I had to get home.  I left but not after taking a picture with Huo and telling him I'd meet up with him at his hometown where we finish the interview.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Update on the Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling Center (formerly the Beijing University Women's Legal Aid Center)

I'm amazed how much my one post on the Beijing University Women's Legal Aid Center is viewed, so I thought I should provide an update on the Center which is now registered under two names: Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Services Center, and Qianqian Law Firm.  The Zhongze Center also houses the China Women's Watch project.

Two articles that we translated for China Development Brief (English) profile path breaking work carried out by the Zhongze Center on sexual harassment in China.  Sexual harassment in the workplace is a very new issue in China, and the Zhongze Center is working with six companies in China to raise awareness of the problem, and put in place mechanisms for addressing instances of sexual harassment. 

For more about Zhongze Center's work on this issue, check out the two articles at:

A NGO Works with Companies to Prevent Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is a Gender Equality Issue

This post reminds me that I should do more to link this blog with our postings on China Development Brief (English) which offer a rich array of readings and other resources on China's NGO sector.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NGOs and Foreign Influences - A Warning from Egypt

The last few weeks we've been hearing about Egypt's crackdown on NGOs associated with the U.S., particularly those supported by "democracy promotion" NGOs like the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.  Now, according to an article in the New York Times, the Egyptian government intends to try a number of Americans and Egyptians on charges that include "operating without licenses, 'conducting research to send to the United States' and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties 'to serve foreign interests'.”

This case should serve as a cautionary tale about the ambiguous nature of nonprofits.  First of all, no matter how "nonpolitical" NGOs may say they are, there is often a political dimension to nonprofits.  This is especially evident in countries like Egypt and China whose political systems are closed, and which have a history of foreign interference.  In these countries, foreign NGOs are often perceived as having ulterior motives ranging from "regime change" to proselytizing, and in some cases, NGOs are quite open about importing goals and values that are at odds with the regime's.

Secondly, foreign NGOs are perceived as having closer ties to their home governments than we normally assume.  NGOs are in theory supposed to be non-governmental, but many in fact do get substantial government funding.  For example, NGOs like the IRI and NDI are closely associated with the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively, so it comes as no surprise that no matter how "independent" they appear, their interests are seen as closely aligned with the U.S. government.

During the "color revolutions" that brought regime change to some of the former Soviet republics in 2005, the Russians and Chinese saw a clear link between the work of foreign NGOs and regime change.  Since then, the Chinese government has been keeping a closer eye on NGOs, particularly those receiving support and funding from its main competitors, e.g. the U.S.

The Egyptian case will give the Chinese one more reason to hold tight to their suspicions.