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Challenges to China’s Civil Society

Yesterday I highlighted some of the exciting developments in Chinese NGOs, and briefly illustrated why they were needed (so far at the conference every speaker has emphasized the growing gap between rich and poor). Today I want to address a few of the challenges.

Recently the gov’t has publicly taken a step away from civil society, but in practice remain strong supporters. I think this is partially because of the problems that are being highlighted, and partially because of scandals and fraud within some of these organizations.

I think one of the major challenges for these NGOs is that the gov’t has already defined what a “harmonious society” should be, but has not actually engaged in any sort of discussion with the people about what kind of society they are dreaming of. This comes to a head when NGOs actually start working towards a future that is not inline with the party’s vision.

At the local level, this can be seen in the arrest and abuse of activists as they try to shut down factories that pollute drinking water but which also contribute to the local official’s GDP targets. Qian Yunhui was one such activist, who was involved in trying to get farmers better compensation for their land, he was “accidentally” crushed by a truck from that company (read more here).

One of the other major problems, is that a few high profile cases of alleged corruption in the last few months have deteriorated the public view of charity organizations and NGOs. There is concern that many of these groups are not transparent, and are using donated money to enrich themselves.

This was highlighted by the Guo Meimei case about a month ago. Guo Meimei claimed to work for a part of the Red Cross, and flaunted her wealth online. Within hours the images went viral on Weibo, and the netizens were furious. I think this was not the cause of the mistrust, but instead exposed what was already there.

This past week exposed a second young woman flaunting her wealth, supposedly gotten through charity, which led to discussion of the NGO practice of charging a 10% management fee.

The reputable Chinese organizations have suffered some from these accusations, but are eager to open their books to the public and show that they are using the money to benefit those with the greatest need. These debates are also helping raise awareness that there are organizations in China that are actually helping people.

These two scandals led one philanthropist to add very detailed criteria to his poverty alleviation grant for Guangxi province. He said that he would give 130 million rmb, but would only allow for a 3% management fee. He also included a clear, and quantitative definition of poverty, that could be used to assess the recipients need. He said if even .3% of the donation was misappropriated, he would require that the entirety of the management fee be returned. When the final audit was finished, it was found that all of the money had been given to truly needy families.

NGOs in China are rising to China’s problems with flexible approaches that give them the agility needed to meet these challenges. This final example shows that with strict oversight, corruption can be controlled, and I hope that the Party is starting to take note.


4 Comments

  1. Chopstik says:

    >>This final example shows that with strict oversight, corruption can be controlled, and I hope that the Party is starting to take note.

    I’m sure the Party is taking note. The problem is that all they’re doing is taking note while failing to pursue the sort of actions necessary to ensure the sort of strict oversight you discuss here.

    Or maybe I’m just a pessimist… *sigh*

  2. Lao Why? says:

    Recall the less than successful visit by Buffet and Gates to try to drum up philanthropic momentum. Although many cultural explanations were offered, I think it is safe to say that most sincere people would agree that the heavy control over such charitable donations and the domination by the government of NGOs influence people not to contribute.

  3. […] 中国见红博客:中国民间社团所面临的挑战——近期“慈善机构”爆出的丑闻,也显示出非政府组织在中国面临的一些困难 […]

  4. yaxue c. says:

    Thanks Tom for the great posts. It’s something I know very little and would like to know more. I am hoping that China’s best-intended and effectively-managed NGOs will serve more purposes as Tom hoped. China does not lack people who want to serve the country and the people (not in the sense the propaganda uses it of course), and their biggest obstacle has always been the Party and the government. For China truly to become a civil society, the party has to change. In fact the party takes care not to refer citizens as “citizens” (公民) in discussing social affairs (passport being one of the exceptions) but as “mass” (群众) because citizen is too civic-sounding, somewhat unsettling and not agreeable a word to their mind-set.

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