POLICY BRIEF NO. 4: Coopting Chinese NGOs?

Several news articles during this period offer a more sobering assessment of developments in the nonprofit sector, or the “charitable” or “public welfare” sector as it is commonly referred to in the Chinese press and official documents. These articles highlight an effort by the Chinese government to maintain close ties to, and control over, social organizations.

One example is a recent initiative by the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau asking civil servants to gradually withdraw from the charitable, public welfare organizations to ensure the voluntary and social nature of these organizations. A number of civil servants currently work in GONGOs that operate in the charitable sector, and would gradually withdraw from these organizations through different measures though no specifics are given. This initiative can be seen as an effort by the government to cultivate “safe” charitable organizations that look like NGOs or nonprofits, yet retain close ties with the government.

Another example comes from an article about a meeting at Tsinghua University attended by two officials heading the NGO Management office within the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The officials are not optimistic about new national regulations for registration and management of NGOs that have been expected to be issued for some time, and proposed another tack by calling both for direct registration of NGOs and establishing party groups within NGOs. The latter measure, which has been attempted before without much success, would help to reassure conservative interests that fear losing control over NGOs.

A third example comes from a 2011 document issued by the Central Committee and State Council that calls attention to the government’s effort to encourage public institutions to join the public welfare sector as social actors. Public institutions are part of the “system”. While they lack the coercive power of government agencies, they do receive financial support from the government budget and their staff enjoy administrative rank and privileges in varying degrees. This document shows that public institutions are now being encouraged to compete as quasi NGO-like organizations in an increasingly crowded public welfare sector with GONGOs and grassroots NGOs.

Taken together, these three examples, along with the recent push to promote approved social work agencies that can bid on government contracts, show that the government is making a concerted effort to cultivate a group of coopted social organizations that appear on the surface to be voluntary and independent, yet in reality enjoy close ties with the government. Chinese civil society scholars have also come up with a term to describe this government strategy: “administrative absorption of society”. To quote from Emerging Civil Society in China, a book published in 2011 by Brill and edited by Wang Ming of Tsinghua’s NGO Research Center, “…the government has nurtured a ‘controllable’ civil organization system and used it to meet social needs. These organizations thus replace ‘autonomous’ civil organizations and eliminate the need for the existence of ‘autonomous’ civil organizations. This then avoids the appearance in society of civil organizations independent of the government and in the end accomplishes the dual goals of eliminating competing powers and meeting social needs.”

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