NGOs Come of Age

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China must work in tandem with government for effective social stability


An expert in non-profit organizations and demography, Dr. Deng Guosheng, Deputy Director of the NGO Research Center of Tsinghua University, recently gave a lecture on the past and future development of China’s NGOs. Extracts from the lecture follow:

HELPING SURVIVORS: Staff of the China Charity Federation prepare to send relief items to an earthquake affected area in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on February 26, 2003

Looking back on the development of China’s NGOs over the years, we can divide the whole process into four stages, each of which reflects the historical background of that period.

First stage. During the period between the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, numerous NGOs were set up for political needs, such as the youth federation, women’s federation and federation of industry and commerce.

Second stage. From 1966 to 1978 there was almost no NGO activity, as the Cultural Revolution brought almost everything to a standstill.

Third stage. From 1978 to 1995, China started to gradually open up to the outside world. During this period existing NGOs resumed their activities and new NGOs emerged to represent different industries.

Fourth stage. From 1995 to present, these organizations have experienced substantial changes, playing a new role in both economic and political life.

Removing Government Influence

When talking about NGOs in China, we are actually dealing with two kinds: One started and funded mainly by independent social forces, the other set up by government in order to get international aid or facilitate international cooperation.

Since 1995, both kinds have been taking an obvious step to get away from government influence, especially those NGOs with close government relations in history. They used to have leaders appointed by the government, who often took official positions as well. When initially established, these organizations claimed to be “NGOs” to outsiders but actually functioned as government organs.

Things began to change when China opened up and international cooperation became more and more frequent. Leaders of these organizations, historically government officials, were exposed to many successful cases of independent foreign NGOs in numerous exchanges with foreign counterparts. Equipped with a different mindset, these leaders started to transform their organizations when the economic reform of the entire country continued to proceed, altering the organization and functions of government in many ways.

On the way to becoming authentic NGOs, these organizations have special advantages to make this transformation smooth. On the one hand, they are legal entities funded by sources other than government. On the other hand, the fame and recognition that these leaders have accumulated over the years of international cooperation means they are qualified to attract financial aid, which in turn brings independent human resources and decision making powers to these NGOs.

Among all the government-started NGOs, various funds, although not completely the same as those in developed countries, are the most independent in terms of demand and financial foundation.

These funds were established to collect financial aid from various sources, including indirect government support and direct financial investment from the public, companies and the international community. Financial advantage gives these funds some degree of freedom in operating their own projects and in daily management duties.

But it is also this financial advantage that makes these funds the focus of government attention. Most of these organizations get appointed leaders from relevant government departments and official approval is required concerning important activities.

Trade associations, mostly composed of businessmen of the same industry or trade, are also a kind of government-initiated NGO, often discussed due to their reform program. Shanghai, for example, stipulated in early 2002 “trade associations should be separated from relevant government organs and have their own elected leaders, who should be company managers rather than government officials.”

There are many reasons that have made the reform possible. In the first place, the government itself started the reforms to reduce government spending and improve the efficiency of these NGOs. In the early 1990s, a new policy was announced, prompting these NGOs to “raise funds, recruit personnel and organize activities” all by themselves. Although the policy was not effectively implemented, it pointed out the trend of NGO development in China.

First, decades of economic reform have in many ways changed the functions of the government. In many public affairs, the government is gradually giving out controlling power to these organizations.

Second, it is the market economy and entry of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that have further promoted the reform. WTO entry in particular, requires these NGOs to follow international conventions when carrying out activities. The market economy has made it possible for NGOs to benefit from outside resources.

Finally, the advanced management modes of many foreign NGOs have set a good example, showing that it is possible to seek more independence when maintaining sound operation.

But challenges still exist. The government also hopes that the reform will not have a negative influence in social and political stability. Certain government organs, considering their own benefits, are unwilling to give up their control over NGOs.

NGOs are also suffering from an imperfect charity and volunteer environment, along with a lack of public prestige. Moving away from the government, which means getting less official financial support, these NGOs have difficulty in finding new funding and volunteers.

Emerging NGOs

Besides the reform of government-run NGOs, those without a government background have been booming since 1995. In their early days, these NGOs concentrated on areas like Beijing and Yunnan Province, focusing their attention on such fields as women’s rights and interests, environment protection, and poverty eradication. In recent years, these organizations have spread to many more municipalities such as Shanghai and Tianjin and provinces like Hebei. Their focus has also broadened to include migrants, AIDS, legal aid and disabled children. Statistics show that China now has about 300 reputable NGOs.

MAKING THEM HAPPY: More than 30 disabled and orphaned children are given the New Year’s treat of their young lives when they tour Beijing’s Sun Dong An Shopping Mall on January 1, 2004. The visit was organized by the China Charity Federation and the Beijing Charity Federation

The supply and demand theory can be applied here to explain the fast emergence of these NGOs. With the whole country transforming from a planned economy to a market economy, local governments find great difficulty in financing and managing numerous public affairs, resulting in the need for assistance with public services.

The demand for these NGOs is complemented by the public’s ability to finance and manage these organizations to ensure the supply of such public services. In a market economy, people have more resources and freedom to do what they like. With greater financial support from international organizations like the United Nations, these NGOs have also benefited from the development of higher education in China in recent years.

More Capable

On the whole, NGOs in China, what-ever their background, have become more capable and influential over the past decade.

Before 1995, there were few NGOs that enjoyed both good reputation and great social influence. The China Youth Development Foundation and the Friends of Nature might be two NGOs widely known, but there were not many others. After 1995, we see the rapid development of many NGOs, such as the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, the Children’s Foundation of China and the China Charity Federation. Some of them were collecting less than 10 million yuan ($1.21 million) every year before 1995, while now they are able to raise over 50 million yuan ($6.04 million) annually.

These NGOs used to be disconnected from each other, but are now meeting up to improve their efforts through cooperation.

While providing many training opportunities to their members, they are gradually upgrading their management expertise and operation procedures. Their leaders are also getting younger, with the average age being 30.

With all these advantages, NGOs are playing an increasingly important role in formulating government policies and social opinions. In 1998, Green Volunteer Association of Chongqing successfully aroused public concern about forest protection in Sichuan Province, through a TV program on China Central Television. It finally caused an urgent decision of Sichuan provincial government to ban natural forest felling completely.

Future of China’s NGOs

Government-run NGOs will go through even greater reform in the next few years. It is widely acknowledged among Chinese scholars, that NGO development will enjoy greater independence and benefit from the monopoly positions granted by the government in certain public affairs. Government will in turn require the cooperation of these NGOs.

Those NGOs without government background will see their development affected by elements in government policy, social demand and resource supply.

It seems that in the years ahead many existing social problems will not disappear. Combined with new challenges like unemployment and immigration, they could form a grave situation, which calls for the combined efforts of NGOs to resolve them.

They can have a better environment to support their development. China’s WTO commitments have put the registration of foreign NGOs on the agenda and more international cooperation is in sight. And for those domestic NGOs, a new generation, with education and training in volunteer work and non-governmental activities, is coming through to supply abundant human resources.

In terms of government policy, it is impractical to think that the old system will disappear overnight. But under the pressure of social demand and facilitated by a growing resource supply, the government is bound to take some measures to respond. A possible way is to maintain government control over most NGOs, while gradually giving special registration approval to NGOs in certain areas.