Editorial: "GONGOs” are here to stay, but need to reform and open up
Editorial | Civil Society | Corporate Social Responsibility | Governance and Social Policy
Non profit organisations established by the Government of China to mobilise resources for public benefit work are frequently regarded by foreigners as fake, “Government-Organised NGOs.” But the signs are that, as the community of more autonomous, “grassroots” groups mushrooms and spreads, China’s political leadership sees all the more reason to maintain its own stake in the non profit sector. This mirrors China’s management of its industrial sectors and in some ways it makes sense.
China’s first generation of GONGOs included the Leninist “mass organisations” such as the Women’s Federation (which no one in those days thought to describe as an NGO of any kind) as well as groups like the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (人民对外文化协会), established in 1954 to promote international solidarity links at a time of relative diplomatic isolation.
The “reform and opening” era has seen some of the mass organisations try to acquire more of an NGO cachet, and many more GONGOs began to appear in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the state created a number of foundations to raise and deliver funds for public benefit programmes. Most famous and successful was the Project Hope (希望工程) that the Communist Youth League established to help school drop-outs resume their studies and to build or refurbish rural primary schools. This initially looked more like a government fundraising mechanism to fill budgetary gaps than a distinct, philanthropic sector—much less a civil society. Yet, in those highly governmental days, anything as marginally non-governmental as Project Hope was still novel.
In addition, GONGOs were created in some professional sectors as a means for government officials to interact with the outside world in an “unofficial” capacity.
But by 2001, when China Development Brief published its landmark directory, “250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making,” it seemed fair to characterise these state-owned non-profit organisations as constituting a kind of half-way-house to the more “real,” autonomous NGOs that were beginning to spring up “like bamboo shoots after the rain.”
The bamboo shoots continue to appear. There are now several thousand organisations in China that can be described as NGOs without implausibly stretching the international meaning of the term. (And let it be clear that meaning resides in the public realm of ordinary language, not in the lexicons of political scientists.) Some estimates put the number at more than a million, but this is a rather vacuous figure, derived by counting up all sorts of entities that need to be understood in terms of Chinese taxonomy rather than in globalised NGO discourse. Nevertheless, and despite the many difficulties they face, China’s NGOs are growing fast and will almost certainly continue to do so. They could not now be put back in the box without a degree of repression that would risk destabilising the country and frightening away foreign capital.
For that very reason, China’s GONGOs are unlikely to wither away soon. The state needs a loyal and relatively biddable group of agencies to exert some leadership over the burgeoning NGO sector as a whole and to serve as an intermediary between the government and more autonomous civil society. GONGOs are the obvious candidates, and several of them appear keen to assume the role.
The China Poverty Alleviation Foundation (whose staff energetically repudiate the “GONGO” tag), is a good example. This has been led for the last seven years by the energetic He Daofeng (何道峰), who has turned around what was previously a very dull organisation labouring under the ponderous English name “Foundation for the Underdeveloped Regions of China” (and the infelicitous acronym “FURC.”) With He at the helm the Foundation has increased its income more than fourteen-fold and piloted interesting work in rural microfinance as well as diversifying into health and education sectors. Moreover, it has consistently argued for a larger role in poverty alleviation not just for itself but for NGOs generally.
The China Legal Aid Foundation has shown itself equally open to cooperation with “grassroots” organisations and has channelled funds to several such groups working on allegedly “sensitive” issues such as the rights of migrant workers.
The China Association for the Prevention of STDs and HIV/AIDs was, until very recently, seen as the likeliest gatekeeper and dispenser of a multi-million dollar grant, destined for NGO projects, from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. It now seems more likely that the funds will be channelled through the Centre for Disease Control because, according to a statement circulated by the Association itself this month, it lacks the administrative capacity to handle so much money, and so will confine itself to a supporting role. Still, it is noteworthy that the Association was short-listed as a retailer of funds for NGO work, and this may be a sign of things to come.
Close-to-government organisations can also be important intermediaries in policy advocacy. An example is the China Development Research Foundation, established ten years ago “under” the State Council’s own, premier think-tank, the Development Research Centre. Despite its government mandate, this Centre is not quite the lap-dog that might be supposed, and it has published quite searching critiques of public policy in a number of fields. The Foundation appendage enables it to broaden the scope of its researchers’ work, taking on tasks such as the compilation of the UN’s 2005 China Human Development Report and ongoing work on government transparency and accountability. These processes involve engagement with the wider academic community and with those NGOs that have something coherent to say about policy.
Meanwhile, as academic and NGO representatives go out on the international conference, lecture and fundraising circuits, the government of China is losing its monopoly on representation of China on the global stage. There are some signs that this is prompting concern among senior officials, and it may well lead to a revival of the old “international friendship” GONGOs to shepherd Chinese NGO delegations to major, global forums. There may also be opportunities here for newer entities like the China Association of NGOs (CANGOs). This was born in a distinctly governmental stable but has proved eager to establish its independent credentials and to engage and work with the “grassroots” NGO community. CANGOs has a clear, institutional interest in playing an intermediary role, and the fact that it has a foot in both government and NGO camps gives it a certain advantage in doing so.
A disabling monopoly
But if this implies that GONGOs might both provide shelter for and draw energy from citizen-initiated NGOs, it is clear that many still have a leaden, bureaucratic working style; and in some cases they are inclined to suppress, rather than co-opt or encourage, more independent actors.
A case in point is the field of disability activism and the equivocal role of the China Disabled Persons Federation.
This is a field that is generally overlooked by international scholars, aid donors and foundations who find “D & G” (“democracy and governance”) a much sexier way to think about civil society in China and who find it hard to wrest their attention from environmental and labour rights groups, etc. Yet China’s expanding constellation of NGOs run for—and, in a growing number of cases, by—people with disabilities contains quite a rich seam of civil activism, involving otherwise ordinary people who, in China as elsewhere, frequently experience pointless and unjust social stigma and discrimination.
The government’s establishment of the China Disabled Persons Federation in 1988 was a progressive initiative and the Federation has done important work both in service provision and in drafting legislation that, on paper, is also progressive. Like China’s “mass organisations” for women and youth, it includes some dedicated, hard working people, and some branches achieve outstanding results. But other branches, rather than learning from the relative vitality and determination of the smaller, citizen-initiated groups that have grown up since 1988, appear anxious to quell grassroots competition.
For example, the Guangzhou branch has recently opened a free facility for youngsters with learning difficulties in the vicinity of Guangzhou Huiling (广州慧灵), which was established by Meng Weina (孟维娜) more than a decade ago and is largely dependent on fees for the services that it has pioneered in this field. Meng, who had to struggle for years for permission to operate her non-profit service, says she is delighted that the Federation is finally recognising the cause for which she has fought, and would gladly collaborate with the Federation; but she was at no point consulted and she perceives this as a deliberate attempt to drive her out of the market.
Meng Weina is a combative person who does not suffer fools gladly and who pays no attention to advice she does not agree with; but without those battle-axe qualities she could hardly have taken her organisation to where it is today.
If it had any real vision, the Guangzhou Disabled Persons Federation would be trying to recruit her as a senior leader, not put her out of business.
But—rather like the United Nations Organisation—the Federation is largely the creature of the era in which it was born, and is evidently not finding it easy to adapt to a context that has changed quite profoundly. Much the same remains true of the “mass organisations” of earlier vintage who are still trying to find a coherent role in the new, New China.
For the foreseeable future, China’s government-backed and citizen-intiated non profit organisations are likely to continue developing in tandem, with cooperation in some areas and conflict in others. The result will not be very neat and tidy for the purposes of taxonomy; and nor will it look much the NGO sector in Bangladesh, Belgium, or Brazil. But why should it? This is China.