China’s growing civil society

I’m at a conference focused on Charity and Education in China, so this week we’ll be focusing on these two issues.

One of the biggest misconceptions in the west about China is that “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is anything like “Socialism”. From the 1970’s China has maintained only the State owned enterprises, which are incredibly profitable, but has done away with most of the social programs.

For nearly thirty years many of these holes grew larger, and are now reaching a point that is beyond rescue even for the party. The Central Government has mandated a “Harmonious Society”, but has left the details to local governments. So in the last ~5 years these gov’t bodies have encouraged the growth of a civil society, finally admitting that there were many needs left un-addressed by the party. Now NGO projects are sprouting up all over China, some like beautiful flowers, and a few like dangerous weeds (more on that tomorrow). These NGO’s are often very small, many employing only 2 or 3 full time staff. China has a total of around 350,000 of these organizations (America has over 2 million), but many lack the structure and management to have much of an impact on their towns/cities.

Popular efforts include: improving the environment, caring for the elderly, helping disabled people, and preserving culture. You’ll notice that most of these topics are ones that I highlighted last week when talking about the gov’ts efforts beyond GDP to promote stability.

These NGO’s are one of the bright spots I see for China’s future, and I would like to highlight two of the more exciting projects I have recently learned about:

One was an environmental project aimed at cleaning up the Huai River. The group realized that even though there was a lot of garbage, and other pollutants in the river, the majority of the problem was a single MSG factory. So after registering with all of the relevant departments, they made contact with this company. Through their own research they discovered that many of the waste products could be converted into fertilizers and sold. Once they presented this to the company, who realized that this was an obvious win for themselves, a problem was quickly solved that the gov’t had been unwilling to address.

The other project was started by a graduate who was interested in special education. He realized that for the most part, schools for disabled children did little to educate the families about their children’s needs. His new NGO provides in home care for these children, allowing the parents some help, but also teaching the family new ways of meeting the challenges their children face. His project is currently being reviewed for a grant from the US gov’t, and I sincerely hope that they recognize the value of his work (for further reading check out my post: The plight of the mentally disabled and China wasn’t built for wheelchairs).

One of the most important developments is that NGO’s are becoming increasingly transparent, which may eventually convince the gov’t to open its books as well.

China’s NGO’s are starting at a crucial time, and are benefiting from relaxed standards, and increased funding as local gov’ts scramble to address the rapidly changing society.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a few of the challenges NGO’s face in China.

9 responses to “China’s growing civil society”

  1. Ji Xiaodong says:

    In some places like Beijing and Dongguan (Guangdong), some NGOs (or, social organizations) don’t have to go through the dual registration. In Beijing they are in the categories of industrial and commercial, social welfare, charity and social service.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for clarifying, this is what I was referring to when I said that they were relaxing some of the restrictions on NGOs.

  2. Chopstik says:

    How many are religiously-based NGO’s? What is their status within China? I would presume that they’re considered ok so long as they are not proselytizing but I would be curious to know more. Especially in light of the fact that many NGO’s have now been kicked out or denied access inside of Russia in recent years due to Russian government concerns that they were interfering in internal Russian affairs – a concern that I can also see parallels to in China.

    And when you are talking about these NGO’s, are these foreign-influenced or foreign-run NGO’s or are they native Chinese NGO’s? Thanks.

    • Tom says:

      I believe that almost all NGOs operating in China are Chinese run, or are partnered with foreign groups, but that foreign groups do not operate (with consent) without a Chinese connection. I tried to ask this question at the conference this morning, but I didn’t get a straight answer about how difficult is to found or operate a religious NGO. I know there is one very large one that is 25 years old (which has foreign volunteers, and is partially foreign funded), but I do not know if others are allowed, and will try to get you a better answer.

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  5. john book says:

    Boy! I hope China is smart enought not to tie in too closely with USA NGOs… Osha will start mandating what can or can’t be done. Then American politics will spill over and drown whatever good the NGO was trying to do. Soon then, Chinese NGOs would be forced to admit illegal aliens and provide them with free housing, jobs, education, health-care and of course, give them the vote.

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