Book Review

China’s New NGOs


250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making, Nick Young ed., A Special Report from China Development Brief, Beijing, 2001, 300 pages. To order: Email: <orders@china developmentbrief.com> with “Order for ‘Civil Society in the Making’” in the subject line, and they will send you the pro-forma invoice; or write: 24 Xiehe Hutong, Waijiaobujie, Dong- chengqu, Beijing 100005, PRC. Cost: USD 35 or CNY 290 per copy plus carriage. (China Development Brief subscribers pay only USD 25 or CNY 210 per copy plus carriage.) Carriage is free within Mainland China. Purchasers from Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan should add USD 8 per copy, all other international orders should add USD 16 per copy. For further information see the website: www.chinadevelopmentbrief.com

A review by Jim Nickel

For a very helpful overview of the growing nongovernmental sector in China, turn to 250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making. It is not, nor does it claim to be, comprehensive, but it does list most of the major nongovernmental organizations in China today, as well as a number of smaller ones. Four Mass Organizations and 43 National Organizations are listed, as well as at least one provincial level organization from each of the 31 Administrative Districts of China. Directors, contact information and a bulleted description of each organization are included.

The Introduction, by Nick Young, editor of the China Development Brief, is a relatively complete overview of the current situation with regards to the development of the nongovernmental (and quasi-governmental) sector in China. Mr. Young considers the typical division of society into three parts (public, corporate, nonprofit) to be “a rather dull instrument of analysis,” (p. 10) but acknowledges that it is widely employed in China today. He reckons this is “partly because government, commercial and nonprofit sector activity are so closely interwoven in China that there is an understandable quest for clearer demarcation of functions and roles, and partly because the paradigm appears to validate the notion that autonomous organizations have a natural place in market economies, without directly addressing the more sensitive questions of the relation between the state and private citizens, and the sources of state legitimacy” (p. 10).

He raises some important questions about how much freedom of association the Chinese state can afford its citizens and how much it can afford to deny them. He points out that the government of China “faces a daunting mix of service gaps, increased demand and fiscal constraints,” (p. 11) which it is trying to meet through allowing the development of nongovernmental organizations, while still trying to maintain control over the whole process. He comments: “The Communist Party and government have so far proved unwilling to make the imaginative leap necessary to release fully independent, bottom-up social forces. The initiative and creativity of ordinary Chinese people, that has proven so potent a force in economic development, is still severely constrained in social development” (p. 14).

He acknowledges the legitimate concern the government has about maintaining social stability but points out that using repressive measures to do so will ultimately prove counterproductive. “The longer you keep the lid on, and the more pressure that builds up in the pot, the harder it may eventually blow” (p. 15).

In discussing the various forces driving the development of the nongovernmental sector, Young points to individual activism, religion, and concern about the environment. While Young appears to be a rather thorough-going secularist, he does seem to have a pretty good grasp of the situation concerning religion in China and even makes some comments that could be viewed as friendly towards religion, such as: “For the present, it is not surprising that some Chinese civil society advocates should attempt to “draw a line” between religious activity and the kind of associational engagement they endorse. And yet it may well be that, for the Party, the most compelling argument in favour of liberalisation of religious association would be the capacity of religious organizations to mobilize service delivery by ‘social forces,’ and deliver harmonious, community development” (p. 17).

The Introduction also contains some helpful observations concerning the role of the International Development Community. While acknowledging the universal need Chinese NGOs have for additional funding, Young cautions against drowning them with outside money. “In the interests of both longterm sustainability and of rootedness in (and accountability to) the Chinese community, it is extremely important that these organizations develop local funding bases” (p. 18).

He makes a number of very practical suggestions as to how the International Development Community can help Chinese NGOs develop. He recommends that grants be kept small and that assistance in capacity building be offered.

Apart from project funding, nearly all the organizations listed in this volume have other areas of need, in organizational development, leadership, management, communications, planning and professional capacity” (p. 19).

Each section of the book begins with an overview of the category or geographical area into which the NGOs listed are divided. Four Appendices listing governmental regulations for nongovernmental organizations and donations and an Index complete the book.

This review would not be complete without making reference to the other useful resources produced by China Development Brief. The quarterly briefing itself is a very fine publication, each issue filled with very useful information. The summer issue includes profiles on 30 new Chinese NGOs as a supplement to the book. The website (www.china developmentbrief.org) contains a wealth of resources, including access to back issues of the brief, a searchable directory of international NGOs supporting work in China and a notice board that includes job vacancies and events listings. You can register on the site to receive free e-mail news updates and NGO briefs and can also subscribe to the China Development Brief in both its electronic and print forms.

Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel is vice president of ChinaSource and has been involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for 19 years View Full Bio