Editorial: When public interest organizations run into “hidden rules”

China Development Brief no 57 (Spring 2013)

中文 English

Introduction: In this Editorial, CDB’s Fu Tao discusses the unwritten rules Chinese public interest organizations have to deal with when operating and discusses the cases of the Shanghai United Foundation (Lianqian) and of the Nanjing NGO Justice For All


“Why do people march?

Because of ideals, because of love,

Because of faith, because of understanding.

No matter how great the disparity in social status or financial power between us, we all walk the same road”.

The above slogans are from the Shanghai United Foundation (Lianqian) charity fundraising activity “an egg’s march”. Participants of this fundraising activity not only need to walk 50 km within 12 hours, but also to promote their “march” to friends in order to collect donations which aim to provide children in poverty-stricken areas with an egg every day. This crazy, fun and touching fundraising innovation sparked public enthusiasm soon after its inception. In the inaugural 2011 event, 122 teams, comprising over a thousand participants, raised a total of nearly 680,000 RMB. In 2012, the participants increased to more than 2,000, in 208 teams, raising more than 2.37 million RMB. Since their second event in 2012, “an egg’s march” has transformed into a platform for various fund-raising activities. Along with its “march” events, it also adopted innovative ways to collect funds for children’s welfare projects and made it possible for donors to participate in decisions over the destination of donations, improving the transparency of projects. “An egg’s march” has quickly become an influential charitable brand.

The third event was due to be held on April 20th 2013, with 400 teams totalling about 2,000 people due to take part. However, before the event, it was revealed by Chinese netizens on Weibo that some of the teams had been disqualified, which sparked uproar.

On February 4th, the Pigu fundraising team completed registration procedures for a total of eight teams, qualifying them to participate in the formal event. The team soon began fundraising and wired the funds into Lianquan’s account. However, in late March Lianquan suddenly disqualified them. For a team that had participated in the past two “march” events and received awards for their outstanding performances, the disqualification was tantamount to a bolt from the blue. The Pigu fundraising team members regularly engaged in “Pigu style” charitable activities, saving their expenses to donate to people in difficulty.

The team exchanged numerous messages with Lianquan, receiving many responses including: “there are too many participants”, “higher authorities found the team name used sensitive words”, “no written notice, and no public explanation,” and “if you really want a reason, it is Lianquan’s hidden rule”.. They were not convinced by these vague responses. In the evening of April 8th, during the final conference with the captain of the Lianquan organization, the team stated their views and expressed their demands, calling for a public apology and asking Lianquan to restore Pigu’s eligibility to participate. They also issued a lawyer’s letter, in which they stated that if Lianquan failed to provide proper explanations and responses, legal action would be taken. As Lianquan remained silent beyond the mutually agreed April 15th deadline for final responses, Pigu proceeded with the planned legal proceedings… Pigu’s “pressing harder and harder” tested Lianquan’s position, as well as its wisdom and ability to deal with the crisis.

Netizens and people working in related fields who have followed the issue hold contrasting views. Some believe that Lianquan is the victim of behind the scenes interference from higher authorities and unwritten rules. Netizens who adopt a “bigger picture” strategy believe that if Lianquan resists it may become a martyr, leading to the end of its activities, and must therefore compromise. A netizen named @ Ping Zhang 9 responded: “Today, you may disqualify us because of pressure; tomorrow you may use unequal procedures to transfer the public’s donations to the Red Cross under pressure; the day after tomorrow, you will find any reason to reshape the rules of charity.”@ Ping Zhang 9 continued:” It is precisely because we too often consider the ‘bigger picture’’ that so many social problems exist now. Let people know that grassroots activists do not compromise or give up under pressure when facing practical difficulties”. User @ Tao also doubted that Lianquan was an ‘independent’, ‘grassroots’ and ‘public interest’, foundation asking “did you fight because of my departure?” The comentators insist fairness, openness and justice are the unbreakable bottom lines for the charity sector.

Members of civil society are a public interest community promoting social change, but when faced with problems that require value judgments, because of different social positions, strategies and values, they may differ in opinion and split

As an important link in the ecological chain of philanthropy in China, Lianquan links the government and grassroots organizations. With the government on the left and the grassroots on the right, it is the basis for trust among both. Enthusiastic grassroots participation adds to Lianquan’s influence, and may bring innovative political achievements for the government in terms of social management. At the same time, as activities broaden their scope and influence, the government may become more worried and cautious. This makes Lianquan a “filled biscuit”, having a “view” that other grassroots organizations do not possess while working “within the system”, creating pressures and difficulties that remain largely unknown. Assuming there are behind the scenes actors influencing Lianquan, when faced with hidden rules it may hope to sacrifice some “details” in order to “focus on the bigger picture.” Otherwise, as rumors predicted, it may mean the complete termination of all activities and the loss of the space already opened up. But tolerance and compromise also mean that Lianquan must confront ’grassroots’ demands and accept that its commitment and credibility will be called into question.

In 2009, Mr Lü Chang, the Director of NPI and the main initiator of Lianqiang, published an article entitled “Pure land and the swamp” warning those who wish to enter the charity sector that NGOs are not a “pure land”, but rather a complicated “swamp”. In this “swamp” there are necessarily both clear rules on the surface and hidden rules that operate beneath it. NGO activists who believe in the ideals of fairness and justice must face this reality.The social environment outside of the NGO circle is an even larger and more complex “swamp” where philanthropic ideals and accepted social norms have to face more challenges from hidden rules. In the public interest sector, pure ideals might be valuable, but they are often not strong enough to survive the reality of pragmatism and compromise. When facing a restrictive reality, some public interest sector values are easily blurred, and therefore evolve differently.This incident reminds people that public interest is a kind of social change – not a dinner party or a garden of roses –, which involves facing and engaging with real, practical problems.

While walking in this “swamp” a transparent ceiling is visible everywhere. In reality, if “behind the scenes” influence is understood as a kind of “act of God”, perhaps Lianquan’s reluctance to engage in discussion will earn people’s sympathy. Faced with this act of God, each institution has its own limitations and can only do as much as it is able. And just as important as the veracity of hidden rules is the principle of confronting them. It’s about wisdom, strategy and courage. It’s about earning respect at the risk of becoming a “martyr”, and using “the bigger picture” to ensure an activity continues. As indicated in the online discussion, different people have different answers, but under the banner of public interest, having different positions and greater diversity will be the norm of civil society in the future.

If supposed “behind the scenes” influences are the cause of this incident, then this has just exposed the problems that the relevant departments have in “maintaining stability” and lawfully carrying out their duties. Precisely because these departments are secretive, their behavior cannot be framed within the transparent rule of law, nor can they take responsibility for their actions, meaning Lianquan must be made a scapegoat. The public interest sector remains fragile, and all parties involved, including Lianquan and grassroots organizations, cannot afford to sustain damage.

In November 2012, the anti-discrimination organization — Nanjing Justice For All — protested an unlawful, unilateral termination of service contracts at a Suzhou hotel. In March this year, the local court ruled against the hotel and ordered the return of deposits and the payment of damages. The court did not accept the hotel’s claim that the police’s “maintaining stability” was the force majeure that led to the termination of the contract. Media commented that this might be the first time a Chinese public interest organization obtained a favorable judgment when the police’s “maintaining stability” strategy led to the lawsuit. It can be predicted that as the public policy environment improves an increasing number of public interest organizations and activities will attract wider public attention. This also means that the relevant government departments will need increased standardization and transparency in their social management campaigns (including “maintaining stability”). Even if the sole purpose is “stability maintenance”, why would being transparent about it so embarrassing?

The actual public interest sector is not a “pure land” built upon faith and ideals; it is a political “swamp” that needs to be clarified.







这是上海公益事业发展基金会(联劝)推出的“一个鸡蛋的暴走”公益筹款活动导语,参与者需在12小时内走完50公里,并游说周边朋友为其暴走行为捐赠善 款,用于为贫困地区儿童每天提供一个鸡蛋。这个疯狂、好玩又感人的快乐公益创意落地后,很快激发了公众的参与热情。2011年首届活动122支队伍逾千人 参加,募资近68万元,到2012年第2届活动,参加者增加至208支队伍2000多人,募资237万多元。从第2届起,“一个鸡蛋的暴走”转型为平台性 筹款活动,在延续先前活动的同时,联劝还采用了创新方式征集儿童类公益项目并提供资助,让捐赠人参与决策善款流向,提高项目的规范透明度。“一个鸡蛋的暴 走”迅速成为一个具有影响力的公益品牌。


辟谷济善团队在2月4日经过抽签和公证程序,共有8支队伍正式获得参加资格。随后启动了相关的组队和筹款活动,并将先期筹到的款项打入联劝账户。3月下 旬,该团队却突然被联劝通知取消参加资格。这对曾连续两届参与“暴走”活动,并因表现不俗而获得联劝颁奖的辟谷济善团队而言,无异于晴天霹雳。辟谷济善团 队成员以定期辟谷的方式从事慈善活动,用省下的生活费捐助受困者。

辟谷济善团队与联劝进行了多次沟通。网友因韬披露,得到的答复,包括“活动人数太多”、“上级单位说你们的队伍有敏感词”、“没有书面通知,也不做公开说 明”、“如果你一定要理由,就是联劝的潜规则”等等。在辟谷济善团队看来,这些答复均含糊其辞,不具说服力。在4月8日晚最后一次联劝组织的队长见面会 上,辟谷济善团队陈述了自己的观点并表达了诉求,呼吁联劝公开道歉并恢复其参加资格。他们还出具了律师函,表示如果不能达成上述结果,将通过法律途径维 权。到4月15日双方商定的最后答复期限,联劝仍然保持沉默,辟谷济善团队最终按计划向法院起诉。辟谷济善的“步步紧逼”,考验着联劝的立场站位,以及处 理危机的智慧和能力。

关注此事的网友和业界人员众说纷纭。有观点认为,联劝也是受害者,是被隐在幕后的干预者潜规则了。有网友从“顾全大局”的策略出发,认为被潜规则的联劝如 果起而抗争,会成为“烈士”导致整个活动泡汤,因此有必要做出妥协。而网友@平璋9则回应:“今天因为压力,你可能取消我们的资格;明天因为压力,可能不 按公平的程序,将公众的钱转给红会。后天就会因任何原因使公益的规则走形。” @平璋9发出追问,“正是太多的‘顾全大局’,才有现在这么多的社会问题。”让人感受到草根公益者面对现实困境不妥协、不放弃的坚韧、执着与锐气。网友@ 因韬同样质疑,“以‘独立’、‘草根’和‘民间’来自我定位的联劝,你可曾为我的离开而抗争?” 他们坚持,公平、公开、公正,是公益行业不可触碰的底线。


作为公益生态链上的重要一环,联劝定位为草根支持,承担着对接政府和草根NGO的功能。左手政府右手草根,是基于两方的信任。草根的热情参与成全了联劝的 影响力,也为政府带来了社会管理创新的政绩。同时,活动规模和影响力的扩大,也会使政府增加了担心而变得谨慎。联劝作为“夹心饼干”,有着草根没有的“风 光”,但“在体制内做事”,背后的难言之隐和尴尬也许并不为人所知。假设“幕后黑手”的操控一说成立,面对潜规则,联劝在策略上可能更希望通过牺牲“细 节”而“顾全大局”:否则如传言所预测的,可能意味着活动的整体取消,丧失已经拓展的空间。但隐忍和妥协,也意味着联劝需要面对草根的诉求,承担质疑并损 伤部分公信力。

联劝的主要发起方,恩派公益组织发展中心主任吕朝在2009年曾发表文章《净土和江湖》,告诫希望进入公益圈的新丁们,NGO并非净土,NGO是个江湖, 泥沙俱下,鱼龙混杂。在江湖里混,必然是台面上的明规则与台面下的潜规则并行。信奉理想和公平正义的NGO人,需要直面这个现实。

而NGO圈外的社会环境,是一个更大更复杂的江湖。公益的理想和普适规则,更会受到社会潜规则的挑战。在公益的江湖,纯粹的理想情怀尽管可贵,但往往被现 实的江湖,被变通、妥协和周旋之举碾得支离破碎。一些公益价值的是非原则和底线,面对现实的逼仄,很容易被模糊化,并演变为不同的应对方式。这次事件提醒 人们,公益是一种社会变革,不是请客吃饭,不是鸟语花香,公益是面对现实问题的真切触碰和冲撞。

行走在江湖,透明的天花板随处可见。在现实的环境下,如果将“幕后操纵”理解为一种“不可抗力”,也许联劝的难言之隐能够让人产生同情。面对不可抗力,每 个机构都有自己的局限,只能做力所能及的担当。与潜规则背后的真相同样重要的,是面对潜规则的应对原则。这关乎智慧、策略、勇气和担当。是冒着成为“烈 士”的风险赢得尊敬,还是“顾全大局”让整个活动得以继续。正如网上讨论所表明的,不同的人有不同的答案。在公益的大旗下,有不同的角色,不同的站位,多元化将是公民社会的常态。

假设“幕后操纵”是这次事件的起因,那么这恰好暴露了有关部门在“维稳”和依法行政中存在的问题:正是因为有关单位行事诡秘,不能将自己的行为置于透明法 治的框架下,担当起自己的责任,才让联劝背负这个黑锅。初生的公益事业还很脆弱,事件的关联方,包括联劝与草根机构,谁都伤不起。

2012年11月,反歧视机构——-南京天下公起诉苏州一家酒店违约,单方终止会议服务合同。今年3月,当地法院判决酒店方败诉,向天下公返还定金并赔偿 损失。法院并未采信酒店方所称,警方“维稳”是导致终止合约的不可抗力的理由。媒体评论说,这可能是因警方“维稳”导致酒店违约官司中,中国公益机构获得 的第一份胜诉判决。



CDB's Chief Editor

Translated by Dawn Wang

Reviewed by Adam Moorman

Edited by CDB Staff

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