The Guo Meimei Incident and Grassroots NGOs

China Development Brief, No. 51 (Fall 2011)

中文 English

This essay by Yu Fangqiang recounts the various scandals that hit China’s philanthropy sector in 2011, and takes grassroots NGOs to task for remaining on the sidelines during this period and not taking a more public stance in promoting transparency and accountability in the sector. Yu’s message is reminiscent of another recent CDB article that criticizes NGOs for staying on the sidelines during environmental protests.

The soon to be over summer has not been as hot as in the years before. Three months ago, those people in Benghazi were still ‘rebels’, Shaxian Xiaochi was planning a master game and Biden was lying in bed trying to decide if he really wanted to try local delicacies in Beijing. On Weibo, Miss Guo Meimei was quietly exhibiting her Maserati and Hermes. Unfortunately for her, the posts were reposted tens of thousands of times.

Following that was the story we all know now. The Guo Meimei incident has caught more attention than that of Lai Changxing and the CRH train accident, and was accompanied by the story of her ‘good sister’ ‘Lu Meimei’, which dug up some dirt on the China Youth Development Foundation (中国青少年发展基金)1. These events were then followed by the exposure of the charity hoax of the China Charity Federation (中华慈善总会) and the scandal involving loans worth billions of yuan by the Henan Soong Ching Ling Foundation (河南宋庆龄基金会). The summer temperature has fallen to freezing – public donations have only been at ten percent of the level of the previous quarter2.

If it were the stock market, then it would be either hitting the bottom or bouncing back by this point. Nobody with large amounts of cash or stocks would leisurely light a cigarette and watch the stock indicies.  Yet with regard to NGOs, it was quite a different situation. GONGOs worried that they would be the next targets, while grassroots NGOs were sitting in the stands ready for a show. One side was panicking yet reluctant to sell while the other was secretly enjoying the scene yet with no intention to buy. It was quite a harmonious scene unprecedented in a market economy.

It seems that all of these events never occurred. First, I’ve never seen any of those disappearing donations anyway. Second, I was too busy making ends meet myself. After all, we are just second-class NGOs.

The intellectuals and media couldn’t keep their cool though. In the media, no effort was spared in replaying the whole thing, headline after headline, commentary after commentary.  Yet, as it is said in Chinese, different professions are worlds apart. When talking about the World Eminence Chinese Business Association (世界杰出华商协会), the intellectuals and media said ‘it’s actually a private company’3.  When talking about charitable organizations, they said all charity organizations in China are government organizations. When talking about information transparency, they said ‘that’s hard to guarantee through internal self-discipline and moral regulation alone’. When talking about donating to charities, they said ‘I don’t care if you donate or not, I definitely will not!’

Despite all this chatter, we grassroots NGOs exist in a happy and peaceful state, posting job announcements (with specific salary unmentioned because it’s too low at the risk of being penalized by the Labor Bureau), hiring volunteers (they are practically free anyway), and holding conferences (nobody knows what good comes out of those countless so-called training and exchange seminars). It seems that grassroots NGOs are a tight-knit group, closed but neither excluding nor embracing the outside world.  It’s like a monastery; all you see are the monks.

There were some media who listened to voices coming from the people. They interviewed some organizations and scholars. Those who were interviewed, however, were either NGOs registered with Ministry of Civil Affairs or scholars having close ties with GONGOs. Therefore, it became obvious that during the reporting of the Guo Meimei affair, these commentators were laymen trying to speak like insiders.  They were people within the system reflecting on the system itself4. As a result, the total four million NGOs received a black eye due to the actions of a mere 400,000 NGOs that are officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs5.

Perhaps, this is just the normal state of being for Chinese grassroots NGOs because we have always been passive, negative and easy targets for bullying. We had to wait for an event like the once-in-a-hundred-years earthquake to be able to show a good collective image in front of the public.  [Editor’s Note: The author is referring to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which provided a public stage for grassroots NGOs to show their worth.]  Not willing to, not knowing how to, and not daring to speak up has always been our weakness. When we are right, we don’t often speak. When we are wrong, we don’t want to speak. In public, we talk as if facing a CCTV camera. In private, we talk like shrews.

Speaking is indeed an art, but it’s about how to speak.  Lying is undoubtedly bad. Not speaking is definitely an attitude, and an altitude that is against the basic ethics of NGOs, whose responsibility is to give voice to groups of people when the government or legislator cannot. If you don’t speak up, it means you don’t want to represent their interest, or you actually represent the silent majority. Given the tripartite social governance model of ‘government-market-civil society’, not speaking up would be tragic.

Therefore, when nobody spoke, like everything else that happened in China, the athletes retreated to the locker room and the judge came onto the field. He took out the draft of “Guidelines for Disclosure of Charity Donation Information” 《公益慈善捐助信息 披露指引》(Guidelines henceforth). He cited a few paragraphs and said they were going to straighten things out—just like what some government office said about the real estate market a few years back. Then he patted the heads of the people from the Red Cross and left the field.

Tianxiagong (天下公) has suggested raising the legal status of the Guidelines, but it is actually a dilemma. On one hand, whether donation information should be disclosed to the public should be determined by the market and NGOs themselves. The Ministry of Civil Affairs  inappropriately played the role of an athlete6.  On the other hand, the charitable sector has indeed reached a critical moment. If there is no collective response and if the enforcement of the Guidelines is not enhanced, once the public finds out it’s no more than just a fancy façade, the charity sector that four million NGOs have been devoted to will be on the verge of complete collapse7.

Tianxiagong chose to do the latter by trying to promote collective action. But unfortunately this view was not heard in public.  Only when different voices from NGOs are heard by the public, can the public start to question and think. Public discussions can also help answer questions such as ‘can NGOs be private firms’ and ‘are there non-government NGOs in China’. I believe that, in this transitional time of Chinese society, an NGO’s most important role is to make the public think.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said later that the Guidelines only received 200 pieces of feedback—with the word ‘only’ added by me. Yet Miss Guo Meimei, now extremely well-known, took the opportunity to enter into the entertainment business, and claimed to donate her future income to charities. What a ridiculous situation.

I think, this is both the best and worst time for Chinese NGOs, but by no means a time to stand by and watch.

  1. Editor’s Note: Lai Changxing was a private entrepreneur from Fujian who bribed more than 300 officials during the late 1990s in what became the biggest smuggling ring in the history of the People’s Republic of China.  “Lu Meimei” (or what some call Guo Meimei II) is the name used tongue-in-cheek by netizens to refer to Lu Xingyu, the 24 year old daughter of billionaire Lu Junqing.  Lu Junqing is founder of the World Eminence Chinese Business Association (WECBA) and acting chair of the China-Africa Hope Project which works with the China Youth Development Foundation (a GONGO with close ties to the Communist Youth League that started the well-known Project Hope in China) to build 1000 Project Hope primary schools in Africa.  The Lus, WECBA and the China-Africa Hope Project caught the attention of skeptical netizens and the media in the summer of 2011 when it was revealed that Lu Xingyu was made the executive chairwoman and secretary general of the multibillion dollar Project.  Allegations of nepotism and the status of WECBA and its raising of funds for charity quickly followed.  For more about the WECBA, see below. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The China Charity Federation was accused of mishandling 15 million yuan in corporate donations in August of 2011.  The Soong Ching Ling Foundation was reported in November of 2011 to have embezzled donations to invest in a real estate deal. All of these scandals involved high-profile GONGOs with close ties with the government.  As the author suggests below, this gave grassroots NGOs a reason to celebrate. 

  3. The WECBA is a Chinese organization registered in Hong Kong whose income came from management fees for charity fund and membership fees from people that desire access to government leaders.  A portion of these fees were to go to charitable purposes such as the China-Africa Hope Project of which the WECBA is a founding organizational member, but WECBA was criticized in the Chinese media for not being registered in China; and (2) not being registered with Civil Affairs as a social or charitable organization.  The comment “it’s actually a private company” refers to this criticism that the Association was not so much set up for charitable purposes but for profit-making purposes. 

  4. Editor’s Note: The  term “within the system” (tizhinei) is sometimes used by Chinese to describe those who are inside the government-supported system, such as universities and GONGOs, whereas grassroots NGOs are “outside the system” (tizhiwai). The author here seems to be suggesting that those “within the system” cannot speak for those “outside the system”. 

  5. Editor’s Note: The author is obviously adopting the perspective of grassroots NGOs here in arguing that the voices of China’s four million grassroots NGOs have not been heard in the public’s respond to the scandals.  The contrast between the four million grassroots NGOs with the 400,000 legally registered NGOs is also overdrawn.  The number four million is a very high estimate of the number of grassroots associations in China and includes many self-help, mutual-aid associations that engage in cultural, recreational, technical and professional activities on behalf of their members.  In other words, the vast majority of these grassroots associations do not engage in charitable or philanthropic activities.  In addition, just because a NGO is legally registered does not mean it is not independent.  A number of the 400,000 legally-registered NGOs — including well-known NGOs such as NPI, Friends of Nature, and Facilitator – have a strong grassroots pedigree. 

  6. Editor’s Note: The author seems to be saying here that Civil Affairs should not be involved in regulating information disclosure in the charitable sector. 

  7. Editor’s Note: The author argues that the Ministry of Civil Affairs faces a dilemma.  Given the scandals in the philanthropy sector, Civil Affairs felt it had no choice to respond by issuing guidelines encouraging greater transparency and accountability in the philanthropy sector.  But, as the author notes, these guidelines are only guidelines and are not legally enforceable and thus will not have the desired effect of strengthening the public’s trust in the philanthropy sector.  At the same time, the author questions whether Civil Affairs should be in the business of setting financial disclosure guidelines for NGOs.  Is this an area that should be left to the marketplace and to NGOs to address?  Finally, the author goes a bit too far in suggesting that four million NGOs are engaged in the charity sector, and that the charity business will collapse.  As mentioned above, most of China’s grassroots associations are not engaged in what we could think of as “charitable” work. 











如 果是股市,这个时候,不是该触底,就是该反弹了。绝不会有人拿着大笔资金或者股票,眯着眼点上一根烟,悠闲地盯着满眼绿色的大盘。但在NGO,却是一股怪 现象。官办NGO为自己是否会成为下一个而揪心,草根NGO却早早地备好小马扎和瓜子坐在看台下。一方面战战兢兢却又不肯抛售,另一方面心中窃喜却又丝毫 不肯买入。真乃市场经济之未有和谐盛世。




倒是书呆子急了。新闻一个接一个,评论一个接一个,油墨纸上挥斥方遒,恨不得要把这盘棋推倒重来。只是隔行如隔山啊,说到“世界杰出华商协会”,就是“其实是工商注册”;说到慈善机构,就是“中国的慈善机构都是政府机构”;说到信息透明,就是“单凭内部自律和道德规范很难保障”;说到给公益机构捐钱,就是 “不管你捐不捐,反正我是不捐了”!


就在这样的一个嘈杂的环境下,我们草根NGO还是在欢乐祥和的气氛中发发招聘信息(工资少到宁愿冒着被劳动局惩罚的风险也只敢说“面议”),招招志愿者(反 正几乎不要钱),搞搞联欢会(数不清的所谓培训会和交流会也不知道交流出了啥)。似乎草根NGO永远是一个小圈子事业,封闭,不排外,但也不拥抱世界。像 个寺庙,看到的都是出家人。


有些媒体倒也还尊重民间的声音,于是采访了一些机构和一些学者。但,这些人呢,要么还是民政注册NGO,要么还是和官办NGO关系密切的学者。所以,很显然 的,你会发现,整个郭美美事件,不过还是外行人说内行话,体制内反思体制内。结果就是,整整400万的NGO在为40万民政注册中的“一小撮”官办NGO 背黑锅。




说话的确是一门艺术,但这只是对于“怎么说”而言。说假话,当然是腹黑。不说话,绝对是一种态度,而且是违背NGO基本伦理的一种态度。因为,NGO存在的 合法性就是在政府及议员无法准确代表一部分群体的时候,它可以代表这些声音。如果你不说话,也就意味着你不愿代表这些利益群体——或者,你代表的只是沉默 的大多数。依据“政府——市场——公民社会”三足鼎立的社会治理模型来看,这是最令人伤感的结局。



虽 然,天下公建议提升《指引》的法律位阶。但这其实是个两难选择。一方面,捐助信息公开其实是个市场选择,应该由NGO业内自律,民政部事实上是不恰当地当 了一回运动员。另一方面,公益事业捐赠的确到了一个危急的时刻,在没有其他共同行动予以集体回应的情况下,不加强《指引》的法律强制力,一旦公众发现这不过是个幌子的时候,400万之众的中国公益事业极有可能毁于一旦。


天下公选择了后者,很遗憾没有在公开场合听到另一种声音。其实,NGO向公众释放出不同的声音之后,公众才会有疑问,才会开始思考,才有可能进一步去了解, “工商注册到底是不是NGO”,“中国有没有不是政府的NGO”的问题才能得到解答。我以为,在这个社会转型时刻,NGO的重要价值之一,就是引导公众思 考。







Executive Director of Tianxiagong

Translated by Kening Li

Reviewed by Andrew McDonald

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