The Unusual Situation of the Chinese NGO Sector as seen from a Newcomer’s Perspective

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This is the first article from CDB’s weekly Column ‘The Frontline Voices’, launched in September 29th, 2015. This column focuses on first-hand personal stories and insights from project officers in Chinese private foundations. Their articles shed light on the self-improvement of the project officers themselves, the operation of private foundations, and their impact on social issues and NGO development. We will be publishing translations of selected articles contained in the column during the following months.

(Editor’s note: The author of this article is a program assistant in his early twenties working at a private foundation. Despite his rather limited work experience, this sharp-minded and engaging young man points out the deeply ingrained flaws in the NGO sector and raises three questions worthy of serious thought – who are NGO practitioners, where should the Chinese NGO sector go, and how should NGO practitioners behave.)

At first I was very hesitant about writing this article. On the one hand, I don’t really have the right to criticize the NGO sector after working in it for only eight months. Such a limited experience might lead to inaccurate observations and biased judgments, and without any supporting data my views might not be adequately convincing. Furthermore my lack of seniority might make my suggestions unadoptable and unacceptable.

On the other hand, I believe that I am the very person who is in the best position to provide some comments on the NGO sector in China. As a new NGO practitioner who joined the sector right after graduating from university, I am able to put my views forward without the taint of career development considerations or of “realistic” thoughts induced by the pressure of the environment.

My uniquely fresh and idealistic perspective can hopefully stimulate a deeper understanding and thinking on the development of the NGO sector in China. This article does not aim to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the whole sector with data or to represent the voice of all young practitioners. Instead, it hopes to provide a brand new angle from which to observe the Chinese NGO sector and expound a new blue print for its development based on my personal thinking.


Since January 19th, 2015 when I joined a foundation in Beijing, the NGO sector has been filled with waves of heated discussions and enthusiastic action spurred on by external factors such as the rise of the “internet mentality”, big data, the draft of the Overseas NGO Management Law and Tencent’s 9.9 Philanthropy Day. Rather than being thriving and inspiring, in my eyes the sector is blundering, confused and shallow. This is due to Chinese NGO practitioners’ self-loathing, caused by their unclear self-identification both as individuals and as a group, their lack of a deep and systematic way of thinking, and their ‘ugly’ behavior that lies outside of global moral standards. All of these bizarre facts result from their incomplete human development.

Who am I—the confused self-identification of Chinese NGO practitioners

My first impression of the Chinese NGO sector is that it suffers from an inferiority complex, compared with the arrogance of the business sector.
During the “Philanthropy +: China Interdisciplinary Philanthropy Forum” this May, one foundation’s secretary general expressed his complete approval of the views of another guest speaker and added quite naturally “you must also have transferred from business to the NGO sector, right?” This was supposed to mean that it is impossible to have such profound opinions without previous experiences in business. I have since met similar people on various occasions. They always started off by expressing their enthusiasm and pride in the entrepreneurial path they had chosen. Then, tired of the profit-oriented and meaningless business world, they turned to the NGO sector to achieve their own social values.

This is a bizarre phenomenon. As an NGO practitioner, I feel that they were unable to abandon their old identities and instead created a new and seemingly superior identity– that of NGO practitioners who used to be businessmen. It is obvious that this behavior is intended to show their stronger professional expertise and moral standards. Professionalization is one of the most important driving forces of the reform of the Chinese NGO sector, while moralization is an inevitable identity curse of the sector. Apart from the fact that not all specialized resources come from the business sector, many commercial approaches are not suitable to the NGO sector. Their enthusiastic advocacy of the moral high ground is also at the origin of the sector’s “moral kidnapping”. Yet their yearning for professionalization and moralization reflects the unfortunate fact that the NGO practitioners’ identity severely lacks certain indispensable elements such as stable values, something that in turn is neither persuasive externally to other sectors nor attractive internally to NGO practitioners.

This confused identity certainly leads to a degree of self-loathing, and the NGO sector is weaker because of it. In a country where freedom is a luxury, the cultivation of civil society suffers from pressure from both government and capital. NGO practitioners should be the builders of Chinese civil society, but in fact they do not even know who they are, what kind of work they are doing and what type of society they are trying to achieve. In this context, NGO professionalization comes solely from the business sector. The mixing of philanthropy with business practices is bound to be yet another “Modernization Movement” that is destined to fail. The blind worship of the business sector can easily render the NGO sector an appendage without any independence and uniqueness.

The underdevelopment of the Chinese NGO sector is mostly due to the fact that it has not developed a sense of identity and independence, rather than being due to its short period of development or its low level of professionalization. An ideal civil society should have an independent NGO sector, something that cannot be built by a business sector or a government that do not identify with it. Thus, before the NGO sector can mature, the Chinese practitioners must face and answer a vital question- who are we? This question covers the values that form a foundation, the standards it should follow and its unique characteristics, namely, the core difference between “us” and “the others”, and our relationship with “the others”. Then, the work “we” do can be identified, that is, our identity can cover our understanding of NGOs and decide how “we” promote the NGO cause. The external environment will be hard to change in the short term. We need to discuss and determine a common identification of NGO practitioners based on personal thinking and self-reflection, at which point the growth of the individuals within it can stimulate the development of the NGO sector, and it will no longer be a mere appendage to any other sector.

Where am I going – the myths of Chinese NGO practitioners on their future direction

My second impression is that the Chinese NGO sector seems to always be in thrall to the latest trends.

In May this year at a forum, I witnessed the secretary general of a foundation delivering a speech on how charities seeking donations should learn from business fundraising, in which he analyzed donor behavior and stated his belief that charity is simply consumption, despite the fact that another foundation’s secretary general had already mentioned that most of the current donation is impulsive, with the transparency and operating capacity of a foundation or public raising organization being of low concern. All the same, none of the NGO leaders present refuted the speech.

The Tencent’s 9.9 Philanthropy Day gave a quick response to the concept mentioned in the speech. All the NGOs made great efforts to encourage donations from the public, catering to the current trend for impulsive donations under the attractive 1:1 matching donation model. None of them tried to change the donors’ behavior. It was not a charity carnival, but rather a consumption carnival in the name of charity.

Similar shallow thoughts and blind actions are quite common in the Chinese NGO sector. Both leaders and project officers turn a blind eye to the wasted opportunities to communicate with the public during these kinds of donation events, and the negative effects this has on an already damaged public life.

When donation becomes consumption and donors become consumers, NGOs, striving to survive, view people as ‘walking purses’. But asking for donations is not the same as just raising funds. It should be a dialogue based on common concern towards a social problem. Rather than igniting charitable hearts and moral concerns, NGO practitioners, employing their expertise, should illustrate the social problems and their possible solutions as well as providing supervision and feedback for donors. This dialogue will raise public awareness of social problems and cultivate a habit of donation, and eventually create a healthier and more rational environment for donations so that the donors can become responsible citizens. Stimulating emotions can be achieved simply by a moving story and the sharing of material in social platforms, while promoting rational behavior requires a far more complex design, stronger interdisciplinary cooperation, and patient waiting and observation.

Facing the choice between sense and sensibility, consumer and citizen, the Chinese NGO sector has proven perfectly its lack of a basic critical thinking ability and of ambition to solve social problems.

From Charity as consumption to the practice of Tencent’s 9.9 Philanthropy Day, Chinese NGO practitioners have embraced utilitarianism, the ideology of consumption and nihilism again and again. This has caused the degradation of the Chinese NGO sector, which has become a puppet guided by the addled trends of contemporary times. The NGO sector, as a significant operator in the public area, should be able to guide the people from its country and even the whole world to a better and brighter future, and correct contemporary faults. Yet, it often serves as a decoration of the business sector or as a tool of government because of its myopia and shortsightedness, which are easily satisfied with the status quo.

When we are furious about the harsh political environment, when we are depressed by the indifference of the public, have we reflected upon the fact that our own actions add to the misery and flaws of this world? Have we ever thought about the direction we are heading towards or where Chinese NGO practitioners are leading China and the world?
It is a shame that none of these questions are being answered.

How should I behave-the moral predicament of Chinese NGO practitioners

My third impression is that Chinese NGO practitioners are always caught in a moral predicament.

After participating in the “Philanthropy +: China Interdisciplinary Philanthropy Forum” this May, I published the article “Critique and reflection: Interdisciplinary Philanthropy without Speculative Values ” on We Thinker (a Wechat public account), criticizing the kind of philanthropy which crosses over into business while lacking any reflection on values, and the tendency of charity to turn into consumption. I did it just to get these ideas off my chest and I did not expect any large-scale attention. A few days later however, a friend told me that a well-known Wechat public account had also published it (the article has since been deleted). Since there is a notification saying “do not reproduce without permission from the author” at the end of the published article, I contacted the editor at We Thinker, who told me that this well-known Wechat public account is not authorized. With a Baidu search, I found the article had three more unauthorized reproductions, one cultural review website and two Cantonese foundation websites, one of which even put the We Thinker editor as the author.

Being well aware of the poor status of intellectual property protection, I am still quite astonished that the first IP infringement I suffered came from NGO practitioners. That is when I understood the difficulties faced by NGOs working in the field of the defense of rights, which are caused not only by pressure from the government but also by the deeply tainted NGO sector itself.

Chinese NGO practitioners object to the idea of moral kidnaping while losing their own moral purpose, acting beyond global moral standards just because it is a common practice in China. Their moral predicament does not lie in being morally kidnapped. They can easily repute this with reason and professional development, namely showing that NGO practitioners are not a group of moral supermen with flawless morals, but just professionals with expertise regarding society building in the public area. Chinese NGO practitioners are a group of people who reject moral kidnapping and then act according to their primitive impulses exactly like everyone else. They cannot efficiently confine themselves to the basic moral values of the contemporary world. The IP infringement and fraudulent donations from some NGOs during Tencent’s 9.9 Philanthropy Day demonstrate the fact that the transformation of the Chinese NGO sector from pre-modern to modern is not yet finalized, and the individual initiatives of NGO practitioners are unable to change this fact. The most undeveloped area of the Chinese NGO sector is its own construction. As mentioned previously in this article, it should start with developing the identity of NGO practitioners.


You may wonder whether my impression of the Chinese NGO sector is entirely negative. Of course it is not. But when the people working in NGOs are wrong, nothing else can be right. Chinese NGO practitioners are not yet a group of wise, learned and determined people with great ambitions. I cannot resist expressing my concerns about the flaws of my fellow NGO practitioners as we strive for a common goal together. A better society is not born out of paeans and a healthier Chinese NGO sector will not prosper through a small circle of insiders just paying each other compliments.
If I have offended anyone, please do not hesitate to refute me.

In Brief

This article discusses some of the flaws and limitations of China’s NGO sector. According to the author, many of those who work in China’s NGOs are unable to clearly define themselves and what they do, they view fundraising as akin to a business activity, and their morality falls well below internationally accepted standards and norms.
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