In Defense of the Grassroots

China Development Brief, No.54 (Summer 2012)

中文 English

Yu Fangqiang, executive director of Justice for All, uses a blend of sarcasm and argument to defend grassroots NGOs from those who feel grassroots organizations need to be more professional and move to the mainstream of society. He contends that NGOs should be proud of their grassroots identity and that grassroots-ness and professionalism do not need to conflict. NGOs can be professional while also maintaining their independence and close ties with the communities they serve.

On May 6th, Wang Zhenyao, dean of Beijing Normal University’s China Philanthropy Research Institute, said in Shanghai that NGOs and those running them should stop considering themselves “grassroots” and should start introducing “professionalism” into the sector if they want to win the trust of both the government and society.

Recently, many friends have asked me, since registration channels for NGOs are now open to the public, will I register as well? Those who have asked include young NGO dilettantes of my age, professors in their 60s or 70s, and even more policy researchers.  In response to their question, all I can do is laugh.

Because “words” simply don’t come out. Are NGOs free to register? Do you even have to ask. New and bold policies are rolling out in Guangdong Province, one after another, in the hopes of eventually reaching the central government. Even the often timid Ministry of Civil Affairs (MoCA) says that it is eager for the introduction of the new registration and management regulations. Every now and then they spout out propaganda through the media. Minister Li from MoCA even stated that, “political and human rights civil society organizations can all officially register.” All types of civil society organizations are indeed very eager to do so – they are forming various associations, groups, and centers in the name of NGOs to service needs in society not addressed by the government.

But another thing to remember is that NGOs take this news of reform with a grain of salt. In fact, this is not the first time such “good news” has emerged in the history of the development of NGOs in China. But every time we hear this news, we start out hopeful and invariably end up disappointed. Of course, some things do change. For example, the government’s promises keep getting bigger.

We cannot deny that each high-profile reform does indeed improve the environment for NGOs. But we also must acknowledge that during previous reforms, the government had no real intention of changing but was rather forced to change. This helps illuminate why the government makes a huge fuss over every small reform, and yet makes little real progress with the occasional regression.

I do not want to overemphasize the opposition between civil society and the government, but the living space for NGOs in China has always faced resistance from the government and GONGOs.

Think about it; if there was no Wenchuan earthquake, how would we have known about the strength of NGOs? Without the Guo Meimei incident, who would have known GONGOs such as the Red Cross could cause so much disgust in people? The government has to some degree loosened its grip in order to save itself. Compared to its former agenda that sought to maintain total control, the government has now chosen to forgo some of that power to be able to remain in power.

This is totally understandable. It is just at this juncture that Dean Wang has urged us to talk less about NGOs in “grassroots” terms and more about professionalization. The grassroots cannot serve as “food”; after all, there are real problems to solve1.

So during the Wenchuan earthquake, who was more professional? Of course it was the soldiers and the government-run rescue teams, but it was those “lowly” grassroots NGOs that earned more respect from society. During the life-or-death situations, who was more professional? It was of course the Red Cross, but ever since the (Guo Meimei and other) scandals, people have been unwilling to donate money to the organization.

Chinese have much more money now than they did a few decades ago. But people are not stupid. Soliciting donations from the Chinese people no longer works as well as before. After decades of donating to an organization with abundant resources yet murky business dealings, the Chinese people invariably made a difficult decision based on nonviolence and noncooperation: to stop donating. I believe there is a reason behind that.

So many NGOs prefer to call themselves “grassroots” organizations that some older folks who are highly respected in government, academia, media and business . This is because even the “conservatives” in the public interest sector (referring to people like Wang Zhenyao) are inclined to believe that, in the current public interest marketplace, trust comes more from your (grassroots) positioning than your skills and capacity, even though this thought makes them deeply uncomfortable. But the truth is that even as the general public’s interest in charitable donations suddenly declined, more and more NGOs believe strongly that regardless of whether you are professional or not, “grassroots-ness” always comes first because it relates to their legitimacy. Moreover, those who are recipients of NGO services are more comfortable receiving services from those with similar grassroots background. Let me ask: who would want to hire a government official or retired government official as a housekeeper, however “professional” he/she might be?2

Civil society does not exist in a social vacuum. This is an era in which professional organizations have been dealt a blow while grassroots NGOs have been developing rapidly.3 The government is like an old parent, painstakingly trying to preserve the quickly disintegrating social fabric. In fact, Xue Yong, a history scholar, predicted several years ago that grassroots organizations would become mainstream. Even on the internet, with the Sina model widely known for the effect of its celebrity blogging, we can now less mention of “elites.” There are currently over 2 million registered “celebrities” and “pundits” on Sina’s microblog, whereas during the period when blogging was first in vogue, there were only a couple of hundred famous bloggers. This several hundred-fold expansion is due largely to a “grassroots” movement.

In the end, so-called “grassroots” and “professional” are not diametrically opposed. They both have aspects that are entirely consistent with each other. Grassroots organizations can absolutely be professional, just as much as non-grassroots groups. Why should we go to such pains to avoid mentioning the word “grassroots”? The socialist economic market theory tells us that to have a purely profit-driven market is both illegal and dangerous (i.e. excessively concentrated investments leading to overcapacity…), thereby requiring the government intervention. But in reality, only a small fraction of the public benefit NGOs registered in the Civil Affairs system are qualified to receive government funding for services.4

So, to the nearly 3,000,000 grassroots organizations out there, please continue calling yourself “grassroots.” There’s no need to fear. Your existence comes from the demands of the people; it does not come from not experts or the media, and most certainly not from the government. As for your meager income, do not worry; money comes and goes.  As long as you have the will of the people on your side, it will ultimately be yours.


  1. Editor’s Note: The author suggests that Wang Zhenyao and others who stress professionalization believe that the grassroots approach is not a sustainable way to address society’s problems. The assumption here is that the grassroots approach, which values independence, will lead to marginalization, while professionalization will allow NGOs to enter the mainstream of society and thereby do more to solve social problems. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The author is making two arguments here on behalf of grassroots NGOs. The first, which is debatable, is that having a grassroots background provides a NGO with greater social legitimacy and trust, especially given the last few years when GONGOs have been hit by scandals.   The other, more defensible, argument is that grassroots NGOs are closer to the communities they serve, whereas government agencies and GONGOs run by retired officials are less likely to understand the needs of their target communities. 

  3. Editor’s Note: By “professional organizations,” the author appears to be referring to GONGOs which have been hurt by a number of scandals in the last two years. 

  4. Editor’s Note: This is a veiled criticism of many of the GONGOs that are registered with Civil Affairs. The author implies that they are not “professional” enough to meet the qualifications for government outsourcing. 

在草根的立场专业

于方强
中国发展简报2012年夏季刊
【背景】5月6日,北京师范大学中国公益研究院院长王振耀在上海表示,公益组织和公益人不该总以"草根"自居,而应当自信打出"专业性"的招牌,赢得政府和社会的信任。
最近有很多朋友来问我,NGO开放注册了,你们去不去?这些人里面,有和我年纪相仿的NGO小文青,也有六七十岁的老教授,更多的是一些政策研究人员。对于他们的关心,我多半笑而不语。
因为"语"不出来。NGO开放注册了吗?——这还用怀疑?广东新政一波又一波地袭来,看来真的已经"北伐"到中央了——连一向含蓄的民政部也等不及新的登记管理条例出台,隔三差五地对着媒体喊话,李部长甚至已经说出"政治和人权类民间组织都可以登记注册"的话来。民间各类NGO也的确是摩拳擦掌的状态,准备以各种协会、各种社、各种中心的名义占领政府顾及不到但又不得不放手的边边角角。
但在NGO另一隅,却是"淡定"一片。无他,类似的"好消息"在中国NGO的发展史上并不是第一次出现,但每次都以希望开始,以失望告终。当然,还是有不同的。比如,每次画的"饼"都比上一次要大。
我们不能否认,每次高调改革的确改善了NGO环境,但我们也不能否认,历次改革中,政府本意不想改,但是不得不改。这样我们就能理解为什么每次改革都是喊了一大声,却走了一小步,之后走走停停,偶尔还后退一米。
我无意于强化民间和官方的对立,但中国NGO的生存空间从一开始就是自下而上,一步一步从政府和官办机构手中争取来的。
想想吧,如果没有汶川地震,谁会知道民间的力量如此之大;如果没有郭美美,谁会知道红十字会等机构是那么的惹人生厌。政府为挽救自己而放权,在它求全求大的陈旧理念中,无异于断腕逃生。这种犹豫和痛苦是极难想象的。即便大脑理性地认为应该这样做,与胳臂相连的身体细胞总是一万个胆怯,并想方设法要阻止。
完全可以理解。只是,在这当口,王院长出来劝大家:不要老谈草根啦,还是多谈些专业性罢!草根不能当饭吃,终归还是要解决实际问题的嘛!
那么——汶川地震中,谁更专业?当然是军队、政府及官办救援队,但草得不能再草的草根却获得了更高的社会声誉。救死扶伤事,谁更专业?当然是红十字会,但从此以后人们就是不愿再把钱捐给它。
与几十年前相比,中国人的确钱多了,但人并不傻,叫他"速来"也不那么管用了。在连续几十年把钱捐给一个要钱有钱要人有人要什么有什么但是姿态高端贪腐不清的专业机构之后,他们不约而同做出了一个艰难的决定:非暴力不合作捐款。我觉得这是有原因的。
那么多的NGO更愿意以草根自居,以至于在"官"、"民"、"学"、"媒"、"商"界共受欢迎的老前辈不得不出来劝慰,就是因为公益保守党也深刻体认到,在现阶段公益市场的竞争中,立场比技能更容易获得信任。这让他们从内心深处难以接受。但事实是,即便当前公众的捐助兴趣骤减,越来越多的NGO也敏锐地感 觉到,无论你专不专业,"草根性"是第一位的,因为它关系自己存在的合法性。而且,单从服务对象角度来看,只有首先了解到对方是草根,和自己出身相似,才会宽心。试问,谁敢请一个现任县官或退休县官来做自己的保姆呢?再专业也不行。
无他,公益环境不能脱离社会现状而独立存在。这是一个专业机构大溃败的时代,也是草根机构大发展的时代。政府像一个大家长,苦苦维系着这行将撕裂的社会。其实,历史学者薛涌几年前就已经断言:草根才是主流。至少我们可以看见,就在互联网上,以名人效应逆潮流发展著称的新浪模式,也不得不降低"精英"色彩。 现在新浪微博已经认证了总数超过200万的"名人"和"达人"。而在新浪博客时期,名博才几百人。草根化扩大了几百倍。
话说回来,所谓的草根与专业,原本就不该对立比较。因为两者在内涵和外延上,都有完全重合的部分,本就不是一对反义词。草根机构当然可以专业,专业机构当然也可以草根——非草根机构同样也如此。为什么又要刻意不提草根,只提专业性呢?社会主义市场经济理论告诉我们,只有市场的逐利方式是违法的和危险的(比如投资过度集中导致产能过剩),因此需要政府的掌控。但事实上,目前有资格获得政府购买服务的机构,仍然只是民政系统公益机构中的极少部分。
所以,近30万的草根组织,继续以草根自居吧!不用怕,你的存在来自民众的需求,不是专家,不是媒体,更不是政府来的。至于你们现在紧缺的钱,这玩意儿可以随时来,也可以随时走,有民众的认可,最终还是你的。
(作者为南京天下公执行主任)

Executive Director, Justice For All

Translated by Lizzie Fulton

Reviewed by Ming Hus

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