New Problems for the Chinese Public Interest Sector

China Development Brief no 57 (Spring 2013)

中文 English

This is a revised version of a paper presented by the author at a workshop on effective networking organized by CANGO (the China Association for NGO Co-operation, 中国国际民间组织合作促进会) in early 2013

Since 2008, China’s civil society organizations have been developing rapidly. This growth is not only the result of nation-wide mobilization efforts after the Wenchuan earthquake, but also of a changing international context: China’s global rise after the 2008 financial crisis coupled with changes in support from the international community to Chinese nonprofits. Direct assistance to nonprofit projects, once common, has been replaced by a more multifaceted kind of support, such as assistance for networking and capacity development, as well as a wider promotion of China’s integration with the international society.

Both domestically and abroad, an obvious tendency has recently emerged: the rise of the public massively participating in public interest activities through the Internet. In China, the rise of Weibo has lowered entry barriers and enabled Chinese citizens to spontaneously participate in civil society. For the first time in China, civil society development is being favored by individuals acting out of formal organizations. On Weibo, citizens can express opinions on their own initiative. They can choose to approve, oppose, advocate for, appeal, or ridicule any given view. This space for individual expression is unprecedented and encourages a pluralism of views: Chinese citizens have at last been given a channel to freely voice their opinions and that channel is Weibo. The inventors of Weibo must have been aware of this technology’s potential. For our purposes, Weibo is also a channel through which users can both gain an understanding of the public interest sector and donate to it. Weibo can even be seen as a sort of ballot box – netizens can choose the projects they think best and “vote” for them by making donations.

These trends that shape China’s public interest sector present new challenges that call for increased awareness and caution.

Lack of understanding and caution about this new “Great Leap Forward”

In the last two years, many local governments have eased registration requirements for grassroots organizations as well as the procedures to obtain the right to call for public donations for part of them. A huge number of organizations that had, until recently, operated under a business registration are submitting their applications to be registered as social organizations. Furthermore, several national organizations, such as the Red Cross Society of China (Red Cross) or the China Charity Federation, want to develop affiliated, grassroots organizations with roots extending to the township and village levels. At the same time, more than 200 non-profit incubators have sprung up across China, based on the Shanghai model of NPI and are now replicated by local governments at various levels. Despite these efforts, the actual number of officially registered nonprofits has not increased significantly over the last two years. This poses a question: what measures are needed for the healthy growth of the public interest sector?

Blind pursuit of public interest sector efficiency— what I call the “public sector’s great leap forward”—is also causing serious problems. The decimal point incident at the China Charity Aid Foundation for Children (CCAFC) is a good case in point1. At that time, the CCAFC had only ten people on its staff, consisting mainly of retired government officials. Most of the employees handled their job with an amateur, volunteer mentality and salaries were kept significantly lower than the market rate. The team was not professional and the lack of a clear division of roles and responsibilities resulted in a situation where a zero was added in financial numbers without anyone noticing. Furthermore, nobody on the board of such a rich foundation was able to identify and react to mistakes and management malpractices, as there were no professionals on the board either.

Contrary to the opinion of some critics who have blamed the decimal point incident on the fact that the CCAFC is government organized, the organization actually has a grassroots background and was highly regarded by other nonprofits. The real reason behind the incident was a combination of the “great leap forward approach” – the blind and rapid pursuit of efficiency—and a nonprofessional approach to managing a nonprofit. Despite exponential growth, a disregard for professional rules had resulted in less effective social services, a phenomenon all too common among other NGOs. Too often, such organizations dismiss criticism based on the excuse that their work contributes to public good.

Government interference in charitable activities is on the rise

While some observers point to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake as the beginning of government meddling in charitable activities, the origins of these activities can be traced to 2006. That year, in order to incorporate charitable activities as a component of social security, some local governments started to pass official documents requesting that donations be allocated to local branches of the China Charity Federation. In reality, this meant using charitable organizations as a government purse. In some places, local governments have even required charitable donations to first pass through the fiscal authorities, to be released for charitable projects only after an application has been submitted and approved. Another, more recent, example of government control over charitable fundraising involves concerns over faith-based organizations. In February 2012, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, together with other government departments, issued an “Opinion on encouraging and regulating faith-based charitable activities”. In September that same year, a “Faith Based Charity Week” was held, which raised over 250 million RMB in public donations. However, the funds were promptly deposited with the financial department of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and still wait there for another official document specifying, in detail, how the money can be used. In another case of government-led charity activities, the Ningxia provincial government established a “Yellow River Charity Valley,” a special economic development zone in which business enterprises were given tax breaks on the condition of making charitable donations in return. In this case the local government added a fiscal regime based on “charity (collecting funds from the public for “charitable” causes) to a land-centered fiscal regime in order to promote economic growth.

Another dubious practice, mandated by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), is the adoption of poverty stricken villages by State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). On the surface, this is done in support of the government-sponsored “building new rural areas” program. SASAC made China Resources, a state-owned holding company, spend 5-6 hundred million RMB on six “Hope Townships”. The population of each township is about 200 households, totaling roughly 1000 people. This begs the question: how can a hundred million be effectively spent on such a small population? Wouldn’t it be more effective to just distribute the money directly to the households? And now China Resources has been made a model for other large SOEs, required to study from and replicate that model. Therefore, in the last two years, collaborations between SOEs and local governments to construct model villages have sprung across the country and have become a model for Chinese SOEs engaging in philanthropy because the government is convinced that driving SOEs to engage in charity is its responsibility. The examples above demonstrate that philanthropy in China is on a wrong course. The civic and autonomous character of the charitable sector are increasingly substituted by the mandatory, administrative nature of government-led charity activities. Gradually, charity is becoming another government instrument of economic and social management.

The resources of Grassroots NGOs are stretched thin

While numerous grassroots NGOs have emerged in China, sources of funding are extremely limited. Foreign funding is increasingly scarce and funding coming from government procurement of services is very difficult to obtain and so is funding from Chinese foundations. While the government has been purchasing services from social organizations at an increasing rate in China (for example, the Ministry of Finance invested an addition 100 million yuan in social services from 2012 to 2013, totaling 300 million), these purchases are plagued with problems. Rules for fair access to these programs are non-existent, resulting in projects being granted to government-backed organizations and not genuine grassroots NGOs. Even more worrying is the fact that government funding does not include the payment of NGO staff’s wages therefore “making the horse gallop without letting him eat grass”. As a result, as more and more organizations receive social funding from the government, the salary gaps and economic constraints faced by the charitable sector grow. Until now, neither the problems associated with this policy nor the issue of evaluating it have been addressed. Should the current situation persist, these problems will only escalate as this policy is expanded.

New issues in overseas aid

The Chinese government has already started to engage social organizations in delivering foreign aid. For example, the government has requested the Red Cross Society of China to work with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to engage in “grassroots diplomacy” with countries in Africa. Other examples can be found in the China Youth Development Foundation implementing its “Project Hope” in Africa and the China Poverty Alleviation Foundation constructing hospitals in Sudan. However, questions remain about the methods of aid delivery in this grassroots diplomacy. Currently the model is administrative: aid focuses simply on delivering goods or infrastructure. No consideration is given to the sustainability of the assistance provided. Local communities, such as poverty stricken farmers or herdsmen, are not empowered to set up their own social organizations nor stand up and organize. The successful experiences, practices, and methods of Chinese nonprofits are not brought to these regions through our foreign aid programs. As China’s global status rises, so will its grassroots diplomacy. If our foreign aid continues to deliver assistance in this old government-led, bureaucratic way, its effectiveness will undoubtedly suffer greatly.

The issues described above are the result of tremendous economic and social changes in China and abroad in the last two years, and have favored the emergence of new problems in the growth of civil society in China. They must be taken seriously.

  1. At the end of 2012, after only two years and ten months of operation, a logarithmic discrepancy was discovered between the billions of RMB that the CCAFC had declared present in its bank account and the millions of RMB it declared to have received in donations. After the discrepancy had been discovered and widely discussed, the CCAFC explained that the inconsistency had been due to an accounting error, for details on the “decimal point incident” see 



2008年以来,中国公民社会组织发展很快。这不仅来自全民抗震的推动力,也有国际的因素。2008年国际金融危机以后,中国在国际上的地位大大提升。这 地位的提升也投射到公益领域,加之国际社会对中国非营利组织的支持,也从一般的项目支持转向更广泛的多方支持。例如网络建设、能力建设等,推动中国更快地 融入国际社会。这都是在近几年公益界的新现象。

国际、国内还有一个明显的趋势,那就是大众公益网络时代的到来。微博的兴起,引起中国公民以个体为单位、无门槛地自发进入公民社会的建设浪潮。中国公民社会的建设首次出现非组织化的人自为战的方式。公民在微博上主动表达自己的意见,无论赞同、反对、倡导、呼吁、鞭挞,都是自己的自愿选择。这种前所未有的开 放空间导致一呼万应的事情少多了,多种声音、多种观点出现了。这是非常好的态势。中国公民终于有了一个自由释放自己的思想观点的出口,这就是微博。公众用 微博自由发声,这大约是微博的发明者没想到的吧?还有,通过微博了解公益,通过微博捐赠,甚至用捐赠作为选票,捐给谁,就是投给谁的票。这种现象也是以往 从来没有出现过的。



近两年,多个地方政府开放对民间组织的无主管登记注册,并且将公募资格也放开给部分民间组织。大量的民间非营利组织纷纷提出登记注册申请,原来以工商登记 方式以及未正式注册的组织,都随着政策的开放而冒出来;还有一些全国性组织要发展基层组织,例如红会、慈善会这种大牌组织,纵向发展的链条很长,甚至乡、 村都有红会和慈善会。特别要提出的是,即上海恩派创造的公益孵化器模式后,全国各地的政府纷纷学习,建设了200多个各级政府办的公益孵化器,大有公益界 进入大跃进时代的势头。其实,从近两年登记注册的非营利组织数据看,增长率不算高,不过,在公益事业发展上,到底用什么方式才能促其健康成长,却是一个需 要认真对待的问题。

我所说的 “公益大跃进”,指的是对公益事业发展的客观规律陷入盲区,盲目追求公益生产的效率,对于因此而产生的问题缺乏认识和警惕。例如,2012年发生的儿慈会 (中华少年儿童慈善救助基金会)小数点事件。事件发生时,儿慈会成立才两年零10个月,却有了好几亿捐款,而工作班子才10多人,还是以退休老干部为主。 无论退休者还是年轻人,都以志愿者心态去工作,工资拿得比市场水平低不少,几乎没有专业团队,却要管理这么多的钱。而且,缺乏层级管理的规则,高级管理人 员做初级工作,结果就出现财务数据多敲出一个零的状况。还有,管理这么多钱的一个大基金会,理事会结构不科学,没有专业人员,导致出了问题也无人发现。

儿慈会事件反映了以“公益大跃进”和以志愿者方式管理专业组织这两种错误思路共同作用的后果。有批评者说儿慈会是官办机构,真实的情况恰恰相反,儿慈会才 真是个民间NGO,在业界有很好的口碑。但就是因为“公益大跃进”,快速、超常规地成倍增长,又不按照专业规律办,才出了这些问题,这使得它为社会服务的 有效性大打折扣。不仅儿慈会,难道其他的组织就没有同样的思想和做法吗?不要以为只要我是做公益的,我做的所有的事情就都是对的,别人一批评就觉得很委屈。


政府之手伸向慈善组织是从2006年全国掀起慈善风暴开始的。为了体现慈善是社会保障的组成部分,各地政府以下文件的方式推动慈善捐款工作,要求将捐款汇 缴到各地慈善会。结果,地方慈善会成为政府直接募捐的收银袋。有的地市的政府甚至还要求慈善会收的捐钱要先交回给财政,用钱时再写申请下拨。有人说政府直 接插手慈善是源自2008年汶川抗震,其实比这还要早两年。现在这个模式已成昨日黄花,最近又出现新的情况。2012年2月,国务院宗教事务管理局联合其 他部门出台了一个宗教慈善方面的文件(《关于鼓励和规范宗教界从事公益活动的意见》)。同年9月发起了一个“宗教慈善周”活动。这个慈善周募集2.5亿 元。而这些钱现在放在国务院宗教管理局财务那里。据说要等他们出具体办法才能使用。还有,这两年宁夏政府做“黄河善谷”,以慈善的名义做开发区,给企业免 税,而后要求企业给慈善捐款,这是在土地财政的基础上加上一个慈善财政,来保经济增长。

还有一个听起来像天方夜谭的做法,但实际上真有那么回事。国有资产管理局让国企用认领贫困村的方式支持新农村建设。让华润集团认了六个希望小镇,大约花了 五六个亿。而一个小镇也就是一个新农村,它有多少人呢?大约200多户,千把人。这就花掉一个亿?那可能还真不如把钱分给农户的效率更高呢。而华润成为全 国典型,国有资产管理局要求所有大型国企都向华润学习,都要认领农村。结果,这两年就出现国企与地方政府合作建样板村的新模式。这就是国有企业的公益慈善 事业。而政府认为要求国企做慈善是自己的责任。显然,中国的慈善公益事业照这个思路做下去,方向就走偏了。慈善的民间性、自主性越来越被政府的强制性、行 政性所替代,而越来越趋向于成为政府进行经济与社会管理的有力工具。


目前看,草根NGO虽然长出来一大群,但是资源来源困窘不堪。原来的“洋奶”吃不上了,而政府购买服务的资源又难拿到,本土基金会的支持也很苛刻。尽管政 府购买社会组织服务在2012年有了不少的进展,比如中央财政拨了两亿人民币,2013年增加到三个亿,但是政府购买服务中存在着非常多的问题。不仅在机构、项目的选择上没有一个真正公正的规则,有政府背景的组织拿得到,真正的草根没关系拿不到,还有很要命的一条,是政府的资助里几乎没有人工成本,真是只 让马儿跑,不让马儿吃草。结果拿项目越多的组织和机构,人工成本的缺口就越大,经济就越拮据。政府资助中的苛刻性以及评估中的问题,迄今还没有很好地梳理,这种情形下,政府购买服务越扩大,问题就越严重。 


中国政府的对外援助已经开始考虑启用社会组织,比如对于非洲的援助,已经对红十字会提出要求,红十字会也主动与商务部、外交部联系,以民间外交方式援助非洲。中国青基会做中非希望工程,扶贫基金会在苏丹建医院,都已经开始做。不过,其中的一个方向性问题是民间外交大都用的是行政化方式,捐物资设备,把东西 往那里一放就算完了,没有在当地社区、在贫困的农牧民中间建立起真正帮助他们的可持续的做法,没有帮助他们建立当地的社会组织,帮助他们自己站起来。中国非营利组织的有效的经验、做法和方式并没有通过对外援助进入这些地区。随着今后中国国际地位的提升,民间外交的分量将大大增加,如果我们的对外援助还是过 去那种政府化、行政化的方式,中国对外援助的有效性一定会大打折扣。


Deputy Director of the Center for Policy Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Translated by Marta Jagustyn

Reviewed by Jeremy Balch

Edited by CDB Staff

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