China and the global future of NGOs

I just returned from a two week trip to China.  Among experiences such as re-awakening my childhood facility in Mandarin, hiking the Great Wall, and eating some of the most delicious dumplings of my life, I was also struck - as many Westerners are when they visit - of the incredible dynamism of the society. 

I knew intellectually this truth before I visited, of course, but after being there, I was struck viscerally by the reality that what the world will look like in the 21st century depends a great deal on what Chinese society will look like.  Thus, if one cares about the future of global social entrepreneurship, one has to ask this question: 

What is the future of NGOs in China? 

I didn't realize that Social Edge would be asking this very same question in its weekly discussion but I'll take advantage of the synchronicity and post my thoughts.  Or more precisely, the thoughts of a friend of mine who has worked extensively in the NGO scene in China. 

I asked him a number of questions on my mind after the trip.  Due to his concern about what the Chinese government how might pick up his comments and respond (itself an indication of what the scene is like), I've changed his name to "Howard."

Here's a transcript of our conversation.

• What was your role in the NGO scene in China?

Howard: I lived and worked in China for five years. As marketing director for two different NGOs involved in Development, Relief and Humanitarian work, I engaged companies and foreigners to raise support for the rural and urban poor. Through this work I met many other NGOs and multi-lateral organizations as well as public and private sector leaders in China.

• How would you evaluate the current prospects of NGO there generally speaking?

Howard: The Government has a fundamental distrust of foreign NGOs. They view their work with suspicion and question the motivation of foreigners who work without a profit motive. There are understandable reasons for this as foreign governments have used NGOs as platforms for gathering intelligence, encouraging opposition to state policies etc. The Color revolutions that happened in the former soviet states of Ukraine, Georgia. Kyrgyzstan were closely watched by Chinese leaders, as well as how Russia and other former Commuist regimes relate to NGOs. Though the work that many NGOs do is appreciated by local government, the underlying lack of control over NGOs activities, governance and purpose makes the Chinese government at all levels uneasy.  As with anything in China, the State plays a premindent role in the NGO/Civil Society Community.

• What kinds of NGOs operate there?

Howard: There are four different types of entities in the NGO world in China:

1. The GONGOs (Government Organized NGO's) - NGOs that were part of the Government and are now still psuedo Governmental organizations. These are usually large and have the authority to do public fund raising and marketing. Leadership is usually retired government officials.

2. The Grass Roots NGOs - There are millions of these small NGOs formed by citizens. Most are tiny, not registered and depend on the donations of family and friends. Even the ones that are registered cannot legally fund raise. A few register and work in partnership (or under the supervision) of the GONGOs. Many provinces have their own registration process that may differ from the central government. For those who are registerd it has been reported that contact with foreign donors has to be reported to their government counterparts.

3. The Foreign NGOs - These are not registered under any formal process. Some register as a business. This is permitted as business is a field that the Government is encouraging. As the work of the NGOs (for the most part) is appreciated, but the organization, leadership and motivation of the NGO is distrusted, the government has come up with a method of coexistence: non-registration. They are aware of what the NGOs are doing and work in partnership with many of them, however there is no legal or formal acknowledgement of their existence, so if thin go badly, they can be expelled from China without a legal battle. The smart NGOs steer clear of legal, political and social landmines and focus on quietly providing benefit to Chinese society. Independent fundraising is not an option for these organizations. Sometimes, they have done fundraising with GONGOs, but not on their own.

4. The Foundations - There has been a foundation regulation that had been signed into law, permitting the registration of Foundations to raise and fund philanthropic activities. The registration process has been difficult and follows the same hurdles as NGO registration - requiring a government bureau to 'sponsor' them. Most bureaus are unwilling to sponsor anyone because of the risk associated with dealing with an organization they have little control over. A few high visibility foundations have registerd, but it has not been a big change in the overall environment that civil society watchers had been hoping for.

In general the Government controls the registration process and any work done by NGOs is watched, if not coordinated or even approved by governmental authorities. Effective/long term NGO work can only be done in partnership and close coordination with Government at all levels. Most NGOs play in a murky world of operating without a legal status because registration is so difficult.

• How does funding work? Is there any Chinese based philanthropy?

Howard: There is great philanthropy in China, but are also many skeptics. During times of natural disaster, the government makes a 'call' for donations to professional and civic organizations and other parts of society. These funds are given over to GONGOs or government agencies to do the relief work. In some publicized cases millions of RMB have 'disappeared' and only a small fraction of the funds were used for the relief they were intended to provide. This makes the average citizen skeptical about donating to anybody. At the same time, many are very civic minded and want to give to something that they can see and touch. Many will give to causes they believe in, however the machinery for them to give to any organization other than a GONGO or those who have partnered with the GONGOs, there is no channel for donations to legally flow through to grassroots or foriegn NGOs.

• How do the Chinese culturally view the NGO?

Howard: It is a concept that is not that familiar to many Chinese. Many will ask - isn't the work you are doing something that the Government ought to do? In a centralized one-party rule system, people are expecting the Government to solve problems. Citizen self initiated organization to address social or humanitarian problems can be viewed as a criticism or acusation of failure of the state and therefore a risky venture.

• What do you imagine the future of NGO work in China looks like? Are there any new models that will be required, ones that differ from the Western one?

Howard: The future of NGO work in China is uncertain. Recent reports have indicated that the regulation and registration process is tightening and even more difficult than before. Until the NGOs gain government trust, they will continue to work in the gray world of doing their work without legal status and without formal recognition. This does not look like it will change much in the near future. You have to realize that until about 20 years ago, there were virtually no formal or recognized NGOs in China, so China will continue to slowly experiment with NGO regulation and policies until they find something they are comfortable with.

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