View From the Wall

China’s NGOs

From a Bonsai to a Large Tree

If one pictures China as a colorful and beautiful flower garden, then the beauty and color of the garden are reflections of the gardener’s creativity. During the time of China’s “planned economy,” although there were not a wide variety of flowers in the garden, they were, nevertheless, planted by the gardener personally. With the arrival of the market economy, more and more flowers that were not planted by the gardener appeared. While there are now more varieties of flowers, those planted by the gardener are gradually withering away. Furthermore, other weeds, plants and trees that were feared by the gardener now blossom by leaps and by bounds. Among the new plants, there is a little one that has the potential to grow into a large tree—the NGOs of China.


A nongovernmental organization (NGO) is a nonprofit civilian organization. Under Communism, every segment of Chinese society exists to serve the Communist Party. The socalled NGOs in China are special organizations such as labor unions, the Women’s Federation, the Communist Youth League, writers’ associations, trade associations and so on. Although they are not officially government agencies, everyone in China knows what they are and their “semiofficial” status.

As China opens her door to the outside world, her government senses that it is inconvenient for it to be at the front end of every kind of interaction with the rest of the world. Therefore numerous new mass organizations and groups such as “Project Hope” and “Helping the Poor Foundation” have emerged. These kinds of organizations may even have branches all over China. Suddenly, many so called NGOs have appeared on the scene. Despite their connection to the government, almost all claim publicly that they are not government organizations in hopes of earning the trust of the people. In the garden which is China, these NGOs are like bonsai plants—plants whose primary purpose is viewing pleasure.

However, no matter how nice looking bonsai plants are, they are cultivated manually and not grown naturally. So it is with the new NGOs. People gave them a new name: government organized nongovernmental organizations or GONGOs. Even those who work in GONGOs acknowledge that their organizations are not true NGOs as they have heavy political overtones. Nevertheless, GONGOs serve the government as valuable organisms by performing functions that are not appropriate for it to carry out, such as accepting donations—especially donations from overseas. When citizens donate money to Project Hope or Helping the Poor Foundation, it is not the same as giving to the government. Compared to the old days when the party and the government had direct control over everything, a new entity like a GONGO is an improvement even though it is not considered an authentic NGO.

At the same time, many civilian groups are trying to form their own NGOs. In order to obtain legal status, many civilian NGOs have no choice but to align themselves with certain government offices. This process of seeking a relevant government office to “adopt” their new NGO is called “align and adopt.” Through “align and adopt,” many NGOs have found ways to become new, semiofficial NGOs in order to exist legitimately. When things get rough, they can always bring out their government backing in order to protect their own interests and activities. From the structural standpoint, it is difficult to call them GONGOs because they were not related to the government at their inception. Even though they have some affiliation with the government, they normally do not have government officials working in their organizations; they are more dynamic than GONGOs.

On the other hand, many civilian-conceived NGOs and nonprofit organizations (NPOs) that did not have any government backing were purged after the Falungong became a hot issue. Since the purge, there are very few true NGOs in existence. It is clear that as China becomes successful in economic development the government has not let up its tight grip on activities originating from the private sector including the freedom to form NGOs. This is because true NGOs and NPOs may pose potential threats to the government. Given this understanding, many “align and adopt” NGOs are aiming to become completely independent of the government within five to ten years by moving from GONGO to NGO status. China’s NGOs understand that the growth of a bonsai is limited. Healthy growth only comes when a plant is no longer confined to a pot. China’s NGOs want to become large trees.

The Chinese government is currently working on creating laws and regulations that will govern NGOs in the nongovernment sector. These laws and regulations will likely be divided to regulate the public NGOs, that are linked to the government, and the private NGOs, that are not linked to the government. The Government will also introduce policies for income tax deductions for charitable giving. Once these laws and regulations are implemented, there will no doubt be unprecedented “NGO fever” in China. Chinese society will finally have completely independent third party organizations that can legally accept charitable donations and provide legal papers to help relieve tax burdens for prospective donors. Currently, the government is working, along with the academic world and civilian organizations, to establish these new laws and regulations regarding NGOs. What will these new laws and regulations look like? We are watching very carefully.

Integrity: The Key to China’s NGOs

As mentioned earlier, NGOs in China today usually carry a heavy political overtone. Similar to other branches of the government, they are also plagued by serious problems of corruption. For example, one of the largest NGOs in China, the Youth Education Foundation, in 1989 started a wellknown project called “Project Hope” that provides financial aid to students in poor areas of China. Since the inception of the project, it has received donations worth hundreds of millions of RMB. However, several months ago it was revealed that this foundation had misappropriated the funds in high risk stock trading and real estate transactions which caused a huge amount of financial loss. Only a small portion of the donated monies were actually given to needy students. Such embarrassing news received no media coverage—it was as if nothing had happened. Worse than that, it is an open secret among almost all parties within NGO circles that misuse of funds and corruption are not unusual within NGOs. The Youth Education Foundation received no criticism due to its own powerful government backing. Almost all foundations engage in some sort of risky investment schemes and stock trading to boost their portfolio value. Common citizens are not able to see how the foundations account for donated funds. How finances are managed among the foundations is a closely guarded secret. The exposure we have regarding the corruption within the Youth Education Foundation was only possible as a result of the Foundation’s internal power struggle among senior leaders.

There does not seem to be any way for an ordinary Chinese citizen to evaluate a foundation and examine its accounting practices. All efforts and pressure from the society to keep the foundations accountable cannot match the government’s administrative power. When the government controls the media as well as the other nongovernmental organizations, criticism against these organizations is viewed as criticism against the government. Officially, the government permits and welcomes this kind of criticism but, in reality, there is no real voice of dissent in a state-controlled media. For more than ten years, many people have given to charitable organizations in a spirit of love. The reputation and credibility of China’s NGOs has suffered greatly as more and more people have discovered their dark side. This begs the question, “Who is going to keep China’s NGOs accountable?” The answer depends on how much power the Chinese government is willing to share and how much of its control it is willing to delegate to the private sector.

We know that as long as there is no accountability there will be no integrity. No integrity means donors will one day stop contributing. The government can establish many GONGOs, but it cannot force people to accept them or support them. China must establish a system of self-regulation and accountability. Also, it is important to have free competition. The laws and media should also bear responsibility to keep the NGOs accountable. The government must permit freedom for civilian organizations to exist. Until these things become reality, can we talk meaningfully about keeping NGOs accountable and expect integrity from them? We do not know when this is going to happen but we do know one thing: that day is coming.

Image credit: Tong Li Gardens – Bonsai by Wilf via Flickr.
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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio