Happy New Year!
As we inaugurate 2018 and contemplate how we at Asia Catalyst – both as individuals and as an organization — will advance into it, I take a lesson from our recent past. In 2017, our organization faced some of its most significant challenges, both external and internal. It was clear that not all of the strategies we so successfully employed over the previous decade were going to be feasible in the future, where uniquely hostile political, legal and financial realities loomed. As a team, we were able to transform that stressful reality into a satisfying opportunity, first by holding up a mirror the organization and reflecting honestly what we saw. We recognized that we had become something different from what we were at a younger time in our history, and that this new thing we had grown into had even more to offer.
We documented this process through a six-month “theory of change” exercise, and came out with a new skin and renewed sense of purpose. We recommitted to many of our founding principles, such as, being consultative and transparent, ensuring all of our projects and advocacy are community-driven, and making security even more of a priority. We also developed new partnerships and effectively worked with groups and on issues beyond our comfort zone, finding that our tools were applicable well beyond what we had originally imagined. Most of all, we spent time thinking about our China strategy. Please read below for some insights from our Director of Advocacy, Research, and Policy, Shen Tingting.
It is with a sense of resourcefulness and imagination that we enter the Year of the Dog, and a dedication to remaining open to new ideas and opportunities. We hope you will join us on this journey, as we will need communities of strength to overcome the hurdles ahead.
A New Era for International Organizations in China
By Shen Tingting
2017 marks the tenth year of my career working in the non-profit sector in China– five years with a Chinese AIDS non-governmental organization (NGO) and five years with Asia Catalyst. Over these past 10 years, China has witnessed an NGO “boom” — thousands of grassroots organizations were established by passionate leaders advocating for the rights of people with HIV, disabilities, migrant workers, women, LGBTI+ and so on, while international NGOs (INGOs) poured into China with funding, resources and support. With technical support from Asia Catalyst, the Chinese NGO I worked for back then established the first project in China to provide legal aid for people affected by HIV/AIDS. I was a new staff member, and was learning from Asia Catalyst all the necessary skills for an NGO to survive, such as strategic planning, project and financial management, and fundraising. As a young idealist, I naturally embraced the values that Asia Catalyst brought into China: human rights, public participation, and empowerment of communities to have the space and capacity to advocate for structural change.
In those years, Asia Catalyst grew together with our Chinese partners. We trained hundreds of leaders working in various fields, documenting and advocating to remove the legal and policy barriers faced by marginalized groups when accessing health and public services. However, like many of our partners and other INGOs, Asia Catalyst worked in China in a legal “grey zone,” without official registration status, which posed challenges. it was difficult for us to win the trust of some Chinese partners; we were unable to conduct activities in some provinces; we couldn’t provide a proper visa for our foreign staff, and so on.
The development of civil society in China required a supportive legal and policy framework. Recently, local governments have eased the procedures for NGO registration. We’ve noticed that more and more Chinese NGOs have been able to obtain formal NGO status, and to contract with the government to provide social services. Last year, the Chinese government issued one of the most important laws for the non-profit sector— the Law on the Management of the Activities of Overseas NGOs. The law imposes legal requirements on the flow of foreign funding and the operation of INGOs. It requires that foreign NGOs that wish to fund or operate in China must register with Public Security Bureau (PSB) with sponsorship by a Professional Supervisory Unit (PSU), or file for a “temporary activities” (TA) permit. It means that it is no longer “business as usual” for INGOs working in China.
After working in the “grey zone” in China for a decade, Asia Catalyst urgently needs a new strategy for our work in China. We studied the law in depth and widely consulted with our partners, board members, staff members, legal experts, and other stakeholders. The whole organization is very supportive of the China Team, allowing time and support for us to figure out next steps.
The new law imposes complicated bureaucratic procedures and greatly increased the administrative cost of working in China. Many ponder whether to pull out. We decided to stay in country, not only because we still see a need for steady professionalization of Chinese NGOs, but we see it as an opportunity to upgrade our work.
China is a different country than when we first landed ten years ago: its GDP is the second largest in the world; previously a receipt of aid grants, now China is a primary donor to the developing world; its nascent civil society, which used to function in legal limbo, is now recognized by the government and equipped with a pack of legislations—the government claims that it intends to govern NGOs according to the law. Can we adapt to the new environment without compromising our values? Can we respond to the needs of civil society in this new China? Can we establish relationships and build trust with the government? We decided to take on the challenge while retaining our principles and commitment to community driven projects.
In 2017, in response to the implementation of the new INGO law, Asia Catalyst temporarily suspended our in-country activities, while pursuing legal registration and TA permits. These take significant time and effort. As Asia Catalyst has never worked directly with the government before, part of our work is to promote an understanding of our work among the authorities. We were able to establish communications with the PSB in Beijing. We were skeptical when we first learned that the PSB is responsible for the implementation of the law. But, we found the public security officers we have dealt with approachable, helpful, and responsive. They regard “regular” and “honest” communication as key in building trust, and we have always been transparent about our historical work, taking security considerations into account. However, AC still struggles to find a suitable PSU for our work, which is required by the law.
We are also trying to work with several of our partners to apply for TA permits. China-Dolls Center for Rare Disorder is a leading organization in China advocating for the rights of people with rare diseases, who face extreme social and economic difficulties. They approached us for specialized tailored training for rare diseases CBOs in their network. We hope to secure TA permission be able to equip these groups with essential organizational management capacities and advocacy skills to thrive.
Asia Catalyst is also dedicated to sharing its experiences from the ground with other international organizations and donors, to help them understand what is happening within the NGO sector in China. In January 2017, we worked with International Human Rights Funders Group to organize a webinar to provide diverse perspectives on the law. More than 70 donors working in China participated. We shared our experiences in China, especially the (anonymized) concerns, reactions and strategies of Chinese CBOs, and encouraged the international community to continue to find ways to support communities and engage with Chinese policy makers and their counterparts, and advocate for space for a stable, well-functioning civil society.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, by the end of 2017, 305 INGOs obtained registration and 487 TAs were approved. These organizations largely focus on economic, poverty, education, environment, health, and science; however, there is a stark paucity of registered groups working on human rights and the rule of law. Also, most of the registered organizations are large and well resourced and we feel smaller groups like Asia Catalyst should also be supported. This would be an indicator that the law is working effectively. We also hope that the current PSU list can be expanded beyond Ministries and Federations, to include more organizations that already have experiences of working with INGOs, such as the Chinese Association of STDs and AIDS Prevention and Control, and that the registration process can be accelerated; the longer INGOs have to halt their work for registration, the more likely that the law will have negative impact on Chinese society.
Asia Catalyst is committed to functioning within the framework of the law in order to provide the highest quality, long-term, tailored support to local groups. Last year, we worked tirelessly with our partners to explore TAs and pursue registration. In 2018, we hope we can obtain registration and continue to implement our work alongside our new and long-term local Chinese partners.