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.