International NGOs Should Increase, Not Reduce, Their Support for Chinese Civil Society Organizations

Introduction: In response to cutbacks in international funding assistance to China, Yu Fangqiang, executive director of the Nanjing-based civil rights NGO, Justice For All, says that, now more than ever, Chinese NGOs need more funding and support from the international community.

The global economic contraction that began at the end of 2008 has cast a shadow over the rapid growth of Chinese civil society. This shadow, the dark side of China’s outstanding economic performance, has gradually developed into a disastrous trend. This is because more and more international organizations believe that because China is rich, it is therefore entirely able to support the growth of its own domestic NGOs. Moreover, with respect to AIDS, the Chinese government has announced China’s withdrawal from the Global Fund and solemnly promised to pay for AIDS prevention projects itself. As a result, international organizations have reason to believe that the Chinese government will adopt similar measures in other areas of society.

I think this is a standard misconception in Western countries, and does not correspond at all to the reality in China. Snowden and his ilk, for example, are products of American democracy, and perhaps democratic counties will see similar figures become more and more common. In China, however, the situation is precisely the opposite: here, ever greater numbers of people are actively seeking to become the next Fang Binxing (father of the Great Firewall, who helped the Chinese government establish the online censorship system capable of monitoring 1.4 billion people). We will have no Snowden of our own.

This is the “Chinese system” confronting both the international community and Chinese civil society.

Chinese people have always suffered from excessive monitoring by our own government, and we have always lived in fear of that government. I myself, for example, a 28-year-old NGO leader and law school graduate, require a certain amount of courage to write this essay. It is easy for Chinese people living under this system to develop a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Take North Korea for example: when the dictator Kim Jong-il died, the scenes of people weeping bitter tears were almost enough to make one think that life in North Korea must have been the happiest in the world. Of course, life in China in 1976 must have been even “happier”: when Mao Zedong passed away, one billion people grieved as if they wished they were dead.

But, this is really not the life we want, a freedom and dignified “we”.

Why Is It a Disaster?

One principle that the whole world must understand is this: if the international community does not support Chinese civil society, no one will – not unless China experiences some radical event even more unexpected than the self-immolation of the Tunisian peddler Mohamed Bouazizi. This is because self-immolation long ago stopped being a shocking event in China, and increasing numbers of self-immolators and suicide-bombers have failed to bring about any substantive change.

We must also understand that, as long as China’s power structure remains unchanged, Chinese society – no matter how it may evolve – will carry traces of that power structure embedded in its every detail. On the basis of this concept, Chinese companies will never genuinely support civil society. Because their own power derives from the larger system of authority, they must obey the orders of that system. For example, China’s largest economy hotel chain broke a signed business contract with my own organization, Justice For All, after receiving a mere oral warning from the local police. For the same reason, it is impossible for true corporate social responsibility to exist in China. We are left instead with “corporate governmental responsibility”: companies answer only to the government, and need take no note of China’s 1.4 billion people, no matter how loud the voices of protest. The many Chinese milk industry tycoons unscathed by their involvement in the poisoned milk powder scandal, in which each injured child received on average only RMB 2000 as compensation, serves as a typical example.

Since 1949, China has been a society that has over-centralized its resources and power. Before 1978, China’s resources and power were under the absolute control of the central government; since 1978, the government has made conditional grants of resources and power to commercial organizations. Now, with social contradictions on the rise, the government has started to make conditional grants of resources and power to NGOs. But it is clearly much more painful for the government to grant resources and power to NGOs than to commercial organizations. As we can see, China’s first law implementing standards for NGOs, the “Regulation on Registration and Administration of Social Organizations,” was produced in the four months after the Tian’anmen Incident; the law of the same name reformulated by the State Council was born in the nine months before Falun Gong was officially banned. This kind of law is less aptly described as an allocation of power than as the government tightening up restrictions on the area of power formed by spontaneous popular movements. The “Charity Law” that the government has been formulating since 2006 has to this day not been officially launched, nor has a draft been made public to the whole of society; this is an ample illustration that how and to whom power should be allocated is a matter gravely troubling to the government.

Under this kind of system, without the support of the international community, the growth of Chinese civil society can rely only on “accidents.”

Who Will the Chinese Government Support?

Going by the numbers, Chinese NGOs are in the midst of a period of extraordinary growth. By the end of 2010, the official number of NGOs registered with the government according to the law had reached 400,000. But many who researched NGOs, such as former-president Hu Jintao’s advisor Yu Keping, claimed that China in fact had 4,000,000 NGOs. If one follows this line of reasoning to assess the number of NGOs in China, there should be even more today: in 2010, the Chinese government conditionally relaxed restrictions on the registration of NGOs.

Anyone who consequently feels some excitement about Chinese civil society might be said to be too much like Snowden: “too young, too simple, too naïve” (words originally used by former-president Jiang Zemin in 2000 to lash out at a reporter from Hong Kong, and which have circulated widely among young people in Chinese popular society). In 2013, China Development Brief listed 251 Chinese NGOs in its directory, the first public listing of grassroots NGOs. During the same period, the Chinese University of Hong Kong listed 263 Chinese grassroots NGOs in its database. From these numbers, we can get an approximate sense of the number of Chinese grassroots NGOs that conform to international standards.

Equally worth noting, in China Development Brief’s 2013 directory of Chinese NGOs, the number of NGOs in Shanghai was unexpectedly second only to Beijing, making Shanghai China’s second center of NGO activity. This is entirely inconsistent with the perception of the great majority of Chinese NGO workers. This is because the majority of NGOs in Shanghai (as well as in the entire East China region) merely provide social services, and do not voice opinions on behalf of the communities they serve. These kinds of NGOs are enthusiastically welcomed by the government: as long as there is economic surplus, both the central government and local governments will actively provide assistance to these kinds of organizations. In official discourse and the language of recent legal regulations, they are called “public service” organizations.

Looked at from the perspective of their political function, these kinds of organizations are advantageous to the ruling power. Because the government can allocate a portion of its resources and power in the social service sphere to these “public service” organizations, it is able to lessen social conflict. I believe that the government realized this in the course of fighting AIDS: in the past ten years and more of AIDS prevention work, the government’s performance was obviously quite bad. They must have thought, rather than maintaining complete control of resources and power themselves, it would be better to allocate a portion of resources and power to those NGOs that would comply with government orders. Apart from demanding payment, these NGOs would trouble no one, be cost-efficient and do good work.

This kind of interaction between the government and NGOs has produced an interesting model of NGO development: a reliable NGO will serve as the government’s agent, and on behalf of the government it will select other NGOs that conform to official requirements. The government will then furnish its “agent” with a large building free of cost, and permit its agent to recruit a few more NGOs that are just starting out and as yet unregistered to work in this building. These NGOs will be issued certain operational funds (they call it “incubation”); after some time, they will “graduate” and be able to register directly with the Department of Civil Affairs, as well as to find more basic government branches willing to provide them with supporting funds. This model is already flourishing on a large scale in economically developed areas of China.

The false prosperity of NGOs has already placed some scholars on alert. Chen Jianmin, an associate professor in the sociology department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, stated not long ago in an interview that “we must guard against the Third Sector growing ever larger, and civil society ever smaller.” Professor Chen Jianmin has always previously been known for his moderation, and enjoys an excellent reputation with both the Chinese government and the people. But this year, he publically stated that ten years of fruitless communication with the central government had left him disheartened, and that he had decided along with more than ten other scholars to completely cease efforts at dialogue with the central government. Soon after, he joined other Hong Kong scholars of law and sociology in founding “Occupy Hong Kong Central,” a social movement calling on Hong Kong city residents to carry out an illegal but nonviolent occupation of the city center, with the goal of fighting for a general election for chief executive of the Special Administrative Region.

In this social context, we have reason to believe that Chinese NGOs which genuinely fit the definition of civil society will inevitably face a difficult plight.

Who Should the International Community Support?

One sometimes encounters the argument that civil society and civil society organizations are two different concepts, and that because the social power of actions by individual citizens is increasingly great, we apparently have no further need to support Chinese civil society organizations1. I can’t agree.

Due to the characteristics of an authoritarian society, we have no means to express the truth. Once the truth is publicly known, it will place individuals and organizations in an authoritarian society under tremendous pressure to survive, because the truth will prompt an authoritarian government to adopt even harsher measures in its dealings with defenseless individuals and organizations. I can only say, based on my six years of experience with Hepatitis B anti-discrimination policy advocacy, that it is my sense that nearly all activities by individual citizens in the Hepatitis B anti-discrimination sphere are closely related to civil society organizations (CSOs). Without CSOs working to end Hepatitis B discrimination, there would have been no individual participants; without the support provided by CSOs, there would have been no individual citizen actions. Long after individual citizens finish their actions, CSOs will continue to work on the issue. But from the limited information divulged in an authoritarian society, we are only able to see the efforts of individual citizens. And yet we hope that everyone will pay attention only to individuals, because this is safer for organizations like ours. I imagine that the situation must be the same in other social sectors: the overwhelming majority of citizen activities all come about through the work of CSOs. Chinese society has too many unknowable secrets.

I am now speaking openly of these things because Chinese CSOs are facing an unprecedented predicament. The lack of funding from the Chinese government, the decrease in funding from the international community, and the ever more blatant government suppression of CSOs since 2008 (directly shutting them down, restricting the flow of international funds, terminating their relationships with academic institutions, arresting their organizers and driving them out of China, and threatening their workers into quitting) has compressed their space of existence to the point where everyone feels endangered. We have all joked, in ordinary conversation, about just which organization might be shut down next.

For those without a thorough understanding of Chinese NGOs, the simplest tactic for supporting Chinese civil society is this: pick an NGO from the list of those the Chinese government does not support. Or pick from the list of those it barely supports because sometimes, in order to avoid being denounced by nationalists as a “pawn of hostile foreign powers,” Chinese CSOs must obtain some domestic funding as a survival tactic.

These organizations are typically referred to as “policy advocacy organizations.” This is not an official designation, but is merely a way of distinguishing them from the “social service organizations” promoted by the government. International organizations were the first to propose this concept in China, and it has gradually resonated with CSOs. More and more NGOs are realizing that, no matter how persistent they are in their work, they are powerless to affect the unreasonable social system encountered in the course of that work – and so they wish to undertake the responsibility of policy advocacy themselves. A few foundations, founded by entrepreneurs and close to the people, are also attempting to find some relatively “mild” topics to support financially. But under the current system, they do not dare move too quickly, lest they arouse the government’s ire and thereby bring harm to the company itself. Yet when policy advocacy organizations try to obtain donations from the public, they face both severe legal restrictions and the need to expend a great deal of energy cultivating Chinese society’s fundraising culture. It is hard to imagine that these organizations, faced with intense pressure and reduced aid, will be successful in obtaining public contributions.

Therefore, for a certain period of time, it is the international community alone that is qualified and able to support the development of Chinese CSOs.


  1. Editor’s Note: This argument has been made because social media tools like Weibo have enlarged the impact of actions taken by individual citizens. For an example of this argument, see “Have NGOs Been Overshadowed by Microblogging.” For a counterargument, see “The Rise of Individual Activism Does Not Signal the Decline of NGOs.” 

Executive Director, Justice For All. yutake2007@gmail.com

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