POLICY BRIEF NO. 6: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

This month saw more policy changes emanating from the provincial governments in Beijing and Guangdong as the central and local governments adopt various partial measures in the absence of more up-to-date, comprehensive, national laws and regulations.

The latter would include the Charity Law, and the revised regulations governing the management and registration of social organizations and foundations, which have been held up for years. In June, the Beijing Civil Affairs Department announced its “Measures for Managing Seminars, Forums and Activities Organized by Social Organizations”. According to the Measures, organizations must not pose as “social organizations” to organize seminars and forums, or charge fees. Legal social organizations should also report to their professional supervising units the content, goals, size and scope, place, time, source of funding, etc. of seminars and forums they intend to organize. At the end of May, the Guangdong government issued “Provisional Measures for Government Procurement of Services from Social Organizations” to encourage social organizations to bid for government projects to provide social services.

Whether these local policy changes will really benefit the more grassroots, independent social organizations such as NGOs, however, is still an open question. There are small signs of progress. For example, Guangzhou reported that 24 social organizations have already been able to take advantage of the new registration policy that went into effect on May 1, and register directly with the city’s Civil Affairs bureau. Guangzhou also reported that four social organizations have taken advantage of the city’s new fundraising regulations that also went into effect on May 1, and have applied and received permission to engage in public fundraising for their projects.

But many NGOs are still waiting on the sidelines, raising a number of questions and concerns about the new policies. In the report on Guangzhou’s new fundraising regulations, it was noted that many grassroots NGOs may not be able to meet the fundraising requirements, let alone the registration requirements.  Similarly, the reports on government procurement of services from social organizations in Guangdong cautioned against being too optimistic. They asked whether grassroots NGOs will be able to compete on a level playing field with GONGOs, when government departments are the ones deciding the bids and evaluating the projects.  Moreover, for grassroots NGOs to be able to compete, they will need help from supporting organizations that can help these NGOs build capacity in order to meet the government requirements. One social activist suggested setting up a unified procurement system in which government departments are not directly involved in the bids, and that the government entrust a few foundations to manage bidding to smaller NGOs, and open bidding to both registered and unregistered NGOs.

There is also a concern that the emphasis of these policies will be more on “social management” and less on serving and supporting social organizations.  One article in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship paper, drove this point home when it argued that making it easier for social organizations to register does not mean the government should relax its supervision over these organizations. One example of this position might be found in the Beijing Civil Affairs Department’s “Measures for Managing Seminars, Forums and Activities Organized by Social Organizations” mentioned earlier.

For some observers, these developments may seem to reflect that old maxim “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. But we prefer the slightly more optimistic formulation of “two steps forward, one step back.”