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China's Schizophrenic NGO Policy

As far as I know China's NGO sector doesn't have a theme song, but if it did it would likely be the U2 hit single "With or Without You."

Prevailing wisdom says that people in countries with a rising middle class (like China) invariably develop a heightened sense of ownership and demand a greater say in the life of their communities. This gives rise to social organizations as citizens coalesce around various issues of concern. As an Economist article earlier this year pointed out, China's leaders know they need the non-profit sector to address serious gaps in social services left by a shrinking government. Yet a recently revealed municipal document suggesting there is currently a nation-wide campaign underway to investigate foreign-run NGOs, highlights the Party's underlying suspicion of social groups that are not under its immediate supervision.

Despite years of research, advocacy, and experiments by governments at various levels to accommodate China's growing NGO sector, numerous bumps remain on the road to a comprehensive NGO policy. Here is a brief look at the main obstacles:

Control is, not surprisingly, the main issue for the Communist Party. Despite decades of economic reform China is still structured along Leninist lines. Every organization must serve some political purpose, and authority must at some point come back to the Party. The growth of the "GONGO" (government-organized NGO) sector, while giving some appearance of civil society, has effectively kept social organizations under the thumb of the Party. To allow complete autonomy for NGOs while keeping the current structure intact would require some deft political slight of hand, perhaps akin to Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents" policy, which legitimized the role of China's entrepreneurs. In an era of political tightening it seems rather optimistic to expect such a concession, particularly for NGOs that have foreign ties.

Funding (still no surprises here) is a second obstacle. The regime has been loath to allow the majority of China's registered NGOs to raise funds from the public. Doling out government funds selectively to groups it endorses enables the Party to direct their activities toward government priorities while isolating other NGOs whose agendas it may find threatening. The Party will be hard-pressed to let go of this lever. Where grants from high-profile or foreign donors are concerned, government leaders' ability to "suggest" which groups should receive such funds provides significant leverage over both donor and NGO. The government gets its work done for free and the donor, in exchange, is granted privileged access to officials and perhaps to business opportunities in China.

Influence goes along with funding; allowing NGOs to raise money from the public potentially opens the door for wealthy donors to advance social causes the Party does not support. Any hint of foreign funding in such cases would obviously raise official suspicion. NGO work traditionally involves advocacy, but the Party is not prepared to allow advocacy where advocacy involves calling the government to account.

As China's economic growth slows, the regime's legitimacy will depend on its ability to maintain social harmony and meet the needs of an increasingly demanding urban population. Allowing NGOs to step into this space could highlight the regime's own shortcomings.

The question of NGO reform is particularly salient for China's Christians. Many belong to unregistered groups whose lack of legal status denies them a valid platform for social engagement. Creating a level playing field for NGOs in China would require acknowledging the legitimate role these Christians play in society. So far the regime has not been willing to take this step.

"I can't live with or without you."

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio