Asia Catalyst

[COMMENTARY] Challenges for NGOs in China

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By Yu Fangqiang

This week's blog entry is from Chinese lawyer and rights advocate Yu Fangqiang, who wrote this essay as part of our online colloquium on challenges for civil society in Asia. See the original post in Chinese and English, and responses at Asia Report.

In mainland China it is extremely hard to start up a non-governmental organization (NGO) without a background in government. The difficulties are due to restrictive government policies, monopolization of resources by NGOs with government background, a lack of trust throughout the overall society, the lack of capabilities among the grassroots' organizations, and unrealistic expectations from funders.

Restrictive Government Policies

The Constitution of the People's Republic of China requires that all its citizens have the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to peaceably assemble, organize, demonstrate and petition. However, in order to organize in mainland China (i.e., to establish an NGO), one has to register the organization according to the Social Organizations Registration and Administration Act. If the organization does not do this it is not protected under the law.  It is criminal for such an organization to publicly accept outside donations without a legal status. In addition, to establish such an NGO, they must have a regular business location, full-time staff, a registration capital of more than thirty thousand yuan and official documents with a stamp of approval from the governmental agencies, which have been designated as "supervising offices."

The fact that one non-governmental organization will be co-administered by a civil affairs governmental office and another public administration office represents the unique "Chinese way" of double administration. However, in reality what happens is that few public administration offices actually are interested in bearing the "troubles" of being a "supervising office." Recently the Social Organizations Registration and Administration Act has been amended. It now states that organizations that are disqualified from registering may still get legal status under a separate filing system. However provisions of the amended Act, enacted in nearly twenty provinces and cities across the country, are expected to still be discouraging.

Monopoly of Resources by NGOs with Government Background

Because of the rigorous administration of NGOs, only those with government background are able to register. Some NGOs - such as Disabled Persons' Federation, Women's Federation, National Labor Union, etc. - all have governmental background. These organizations are called "GONGO" in China. Some of the staff of these NGOs are even on the government payroll. These "GONGOs" have long monopolized the philanthropic resources of China, including their funding, human resources, social trust, etc. Take for example last year's Wenchuan Earthquake. Donations from all over the country were only distributed to the stricken region via the Red Cross Society of China or China Charity Federation. Other organizations that publish bank account numbers to solicit and accept donations run the risk of being charged by the court, according to a research report done by the Center of NGOs, at Tsinghua University.

A Lack of Trust Throughout Society

Since the Reform and Opening Policy of 1978, Mainland China has seen tremendous social changes both politically and economically. The past "society of acquaintances" completely fell apart due to the rapid urbanization process. In addition, its traditional social values were devoured by the "money first" principle driven by self interests. In this context a grassroots NGO with no legal status faces harsh and even irrational doubts and a long road to societal acceptance. In general, the public does not believe that one person, with no government affiliation, would do something beneficial for society without a self-interested motive.  Also because of this lack of trust, enterprise sponsorships prefer funding causes or organizations that the government has endorsed.

The Lack of Capabilities Among Grassroots Organizations

Admittedly, many people involved with NGOs are idealists who want to realize their dreams for society. They might not be all that great in dealing with finances, administration and external communication. However, many NGO managers in mainland China are people who were 'failures' in society - they are abandoned by the old system and are forced to this whole new world of NGOs, with enormous limitations in both their capability and their visions. "Administration crises" can easily arise in their organizations because of non-transparent financial records, loss of talent, and an eroding sense of mission. Once these difficulties become public, they are almost always unable to be resolved.

Unrealistic Expectations from Funders

Today, there are already many grassroots NGOs in mainland China. Most of them are unregistered, others are registered as business organizations. Fewer are registered at a civil affairs office. There are increasingly more foundations that support these NGOs, such as the Global Fund, The Asia Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Gates Foundation. Even though these agencies have made tremendous contributions to the growth of NGOs in mainland China, their negative impact can be just as profound. They tend to see these NGOs as tools to accomplish their local projects, so they only fund their own specific activities and ignore the broader reality, which is that these NGOs also need to pay bills, salaries, administration costs, office supplies, rent, etc. Consequently, grassroots NGOs sometimes resort to manipulating their books in order to survive and this leads to very serious financial problems. When this happens, funders tend not to seek better solutions, but instead they severely criticize the NGOs, which creates an even more difficult situation.

One important thing these funders need to know:

In specific areas, these NGOs have critical close connections with vulnerable groups such as Injecting Drug Users (the IDU population), Men who have sex with men (the MSM population), people infected with HIV, and the migrant population. The government or governmental NGOs simply cannot accomplish their projects without the assistance from grassroots NGOs.

Fangqiang Yu is Managing Partner of Beijing Yirenping Center for Anti-Discrimination Law. He focuses on the social development of citizens living in mainland China, and specialized in AIDS-, HBV-, labor-, education assistance-, rare disease-related fields.

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