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Non-governmental Organizations with Chinese Characteristics

[Editor’s Note: This article addresses the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China, the Chinese government’s control over NGO’s, and how the NGOs in China are different from those in the West. The article was published in the October issue of the Hong Kong based Open magazine. The following is a translation of the article.] [1]

The Situation of NGOs under the Authoritarian Regime

NGO stands for non-governmental organization and is also translated as “civil society organization” or “social organization” in Chinese. Beginning in 2007, the Chinese government officially started using the term “NGO” directly. The term was first used in Western sociology concepts and studies in the nineteenth century, and became popular after World War II. NGO refers to those non-profit organizations that are not established or operated by the Government. These organizations form a third force in society apart from the government and the capital market. They share, as well as supervise and influence, the functions and responsibilities of the government and the capital market. They can also strengthen civil society’s healthy development. Therefore they are seen as a crucial component of a democratic society.

With these basic concepts, in order for NGOs to exist, the first condition is that the social environment must be relatively free. Otherwise the NGOs would not be able to play their role and might even be suppressed. This is exactly the situation of the NGOs in China today.

Historically in China, except during rare periods, when emperors tried to crack down on dissidents, civil associations usually received little interference. In rural areas there were family clans and squire’s organizations, and all fields, including business, academia, and religions, could freely form their own organizations. At the end of the Qing Dynasty and into the beginning of the Republic of China, China’s civil society organizations reached a golden period of development; both local and foreign non-governmental organizations were very active.

The “Beijing Spring” movement and the World Women’s NGO

Since the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949, Chinese society has fallen into a highly centralized autocracy. People are living under strict control and there is no space for civil society organizations. Those NGOs that existed before were either banned or were turned into a part of the bureaucratic system (such as the Red Cross). This situation lasted until Mao’s death in 1976, after which the Chinese Communist government had several major incidents, and there were some turnaround opportunities in society. Though it was just a tiny bit of the “wind of freedom,” it immediately generated some light for civil forces. The beginning of the “Beijing Spring” movement, and the emergence of some underground publications and organizations (such as Ren Wanding’s formation of the Chinese Human Rights League), could be said to be the first wave of contemporary Chinese NGOs.

The “Beijing Spring” movement is still politically taboo under Chinese Communism. Chinese scholars have yet to be able to touch it. Thus they generally think that in China, the studies of the NGO concept began in the 90s. In 1995, the World Women’s Conference was held in Huairo, Beijing. NGOs from around the world joined the conference. The World Women’s NGO Forum was also held in 1995. After that, Chinese society was gradually able to recognize what NGOs are. The foreign NGOs held activities in China and local NGOs also began to form, one after another. In 1998, a bureau level agency, the Management of Nongovernmental Organizations, was formed under the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In October 1998 and March 2003, to regulate the NGOs, the State Council came up with three administrative regulations. They are “Regulations on the Registration of Social Organizations,” “Provisional Regulations for Registration of Private Non-Enterprise Units,” and “The Ordinance on Foundation Regulations”.

As Many As 8 million NGOs in China?

According to the statistics given by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, as of the end of 2009, about 430,000 NGOs were legally registered. Among them, there were more than 238,000 social groups that had a membership system, 190,000 private non-enterprise units, and 1,843 foundations (991 public-offering foundations, including the Red Cross from each province, and more than 800 non-public-offering foundations, which state policies encouraged, and which grew in number from only one in 2004). However, the actual number of NGOs in China is far more than the numbers mentioned here. Researchers from the Research Institute of NGOs, Tsinghua University, estimated that the actual number of NGOs is between 2 million and 2.7 million. There are other scholars who believe that China had as many as, or more than 8 million NGOs at any one time. Why is there such a big difference in the numbers? The reason is that the NGOs that have been able to register are not true NGOs. They are either related to the government in some way or other, or their leaders may have a strong Communist Party background and a good relationship with current government officials. Out of those true private NGOs that were formed voluntarily, some cannot meet the stringent requirements to register, and some fear official constraints and therefore have not registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Most of these NGOs have only registered as companies with local Trade and Industry Bureaus or they simply did not do any registration, which put them in an “illegal status.” Their funding comes mostly from foreign NGOs and Foundations.

Wang Ming, the Associate Dean of the School of Public Management, Tsinghua University, said frankly during a media interview that currently in China, 90 percent of the NGOs cannot register. All kinds of government limitations have turned citizens’ freedom of association, which was originally a citizens’ right, into a privilege subject to government approval. Whenever an NGO obtains a legal registration with the government, it is cast with a heavy government color.

China’s government is very utilitarian with NGOs. It just wants to use them for poverty and disaster relief, or, through cooperation with them, to attract foreign investment for economic development. However, NGOs do not always follow the wishful thinking of the Chinese Communists. When they work for poverty and disaster relief, although the NGOs have to work very carefully and pay great attention not to touch on sensitive matters, in the course of their work, they try to bring universal values such as freedom, equality, fraternity, fairness, and justice to the Chinese people, not to mention that the sole purpose of a lot of NGOs is to fight for the rights of the underprivileged, to introduce the concept of modern citizenship, and to promote civilized governance by law. Any thoughts of exposing the corrupt authoritarian regime are precisely what the Chinese Communist regime, which practices obscurantism on its people and worries about being overthrown, actually fears.

The CCP’s Dual Management of NGOs

For the past ten years, the Communist regime has been using a dual management system with NGOs, and has been unwilling to relax its restrictions. If a civil society group wants to register, it first must find a governmental department that is willing to sponsor it. This is commonly known as finding a “mother-in-law.” Once the “mother-in-law” is found, the civil society group can apply for registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. If an NGO does not get registered, it can easily become the target of a government crackdown. If an NGO registers as a business, it cannot justifiably raise funds, but also has to pay a 5.5 percent sales tax, which places it in a very tough situation. This chaotic situation also gives some ill-intentioned people the opportunity to fish in troubled waters. They can use the name of a civil society organizations to cheat and deceive others in order to make money. This has allowed the Chinese authorities to have further justification to crack down on civil society organizations.

In fact, in addition to the dual management system, the National Security Ministry and the Public Security Ministry also monitor NGOs. If the actions of a certain civil society organization touch the regime’s bottom line, regardless of whether it has or has not registered, it will suffer suppression, ranging from warnings and fines to bans and even tp sending the leaders to jail on trumped up charges. There are many instances of this. In recent years, the most striking one happened in July last year. Beijing authorities used tax evasion as an excuse to jail Xu Zhiying, who was the legal representative of the “Alliance Center for Legal Studies,” for nearly a month. Then they banned the organization.

As another example, after the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, in order to manage the disaster and create a good image, initially the Chinese government authorities had a tolerant attitude and allowed NGOs and other volunteers to come give support. However, if they found that any NGOs tried to assist victims in investigating jerry-built school buildings (as a result of which, many school buildings collapsed during the Earthquake, killing countless numbers of students) or investigating the officials’ corruption, they would turn nasty and detain or expel these NGOs or volunteers, while completely ignoring voices of international condemnation. During this time, activists such as Huang Qi, Tan Zuoren, and others were charged and then sentenced to prison.

As for foreign NGOs, because many of them have a project that requires cooperation with the Party and with government institutions, and also because they provide financial and technical support, dealing with them may involve the diplomatic level. Thus on the surface, the Chinese Communist regime treats these foreign NGOs with great courtesy, and they are allowed to work without registering. In fact, the CCP has put many lines of defensive in place. An article titled “How to look at foreign NGOs in China,” published in 2006 by Study Times, a newspaper that is sponsored by the Central Party School, clearly showed that the authorities are concerned that (the presence of) foreign NGOs could eventually lead to “peaceful evolution” or a “color revolution.” As the Communist regime has grown more and more worried about the stability of the regime, its tolerance level for foreign NGOs has gotten lower and lower. Starting this year, in Yunnan Province, where many foreign NGOs are located, the foreign NGOs must register with the provincial Civil Affairs Department. In addition, in March this year, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued the “Notice on Accepting Foreign Exchange Donations,” making it difficult for the local NGOs in China to accept foreign donations.

In China, there is nothing that does not involve political issues and this is the same with NGOs. As long as China’s political plate does not loosen a little, the NGOs can only be “NGOs with Chinese characteristics.” Despite these difficulties, in some areas, where policies are relatively more relaxed, or people’s minds are more open, or the economy is very poor, there is still considerable room for NGOs to develop. How can these little bits of space be used to make them as effective as possible in order to enable China’s civilization to progress? This is both a test of wisdom and a test of endurance for all NGO participants. This is also the direction of their joint effort.

[1] Source: Open magazine (based in Hong Kong), October issue.