Chinese INGOs: mostly still absent

Over the past few decades, China’s economic development has benefited from the global governance system. As the country’s influence on the international order grows, how China will continue to participate in the global system has become an unavoidable question.

The mechanism of global governance is mainly composed of international organizations and multinational corporations. International organizations are divided into inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). These three sectors restrain and promote each other, and jointly contribute to the development of globalization.

Recently, some Chinese multinational corporations have begun to play an increasingly important role on the global stage. However, the country is home to very few INGOs.

  • What are INGOs? What is their role in global governance?

The Union of International Associations (UIA), an institute specializing in the study of international organizations, defines INGOs through certain indicators, such as whether the name and activities seem international, whether an organization operates across multiple countries, and whether an organization has obtained consultative status from the ECOSOC.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has established a system to allow INGOs to apply for consultative status. However, it does not clearly specify what an INGO needs to qualify for this — only that it should not have been established by an intergovernmental agreement.

In brief, an INGO should refer to a social organization that plays a role in the process of global governance.

For example, in 1983, Defence for Children International (DCI) established a working group to promote the protection of children, lobbying UNICEF and many governments before eventually pushing the UN to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Davos Economic Forum is another example of INGOs’ influence on international politics. In the 1980s then-chairman Klaus Schwab brokered talks between Greece and Turkey, eventually getting both countries to sign the Davos Declaration, averting an imminent war.

In addition, industry and standards associations such as the International Organization for Standardization, the Association for Mobile Communication Systems, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, contribute to the development of the world economy and affect the culture of multinational corporations, through the formulation of industry standards and the promotion of corporate social responsibilities.

  • Absence of China-based INGOs

Twenty years ago, the Cardoso Report on the UN and Civil Society pointed out the imbalance in the development of NGOs between developed and developing countries:

  • The NGOs active in the United Nations are mainly from developed countries;
  • The headquarters of these NGOs are also mainly in developed countries;
  • In the United Nations system, NGOs in developing countries are very underdeveloped,
  • The voices of NGOs and people in developing countries are easily ignored.

In China, people are used to referring to NGOs as social organizations, and INGOs as international social organizations. As the largest developing country, China also faces the above-mentioned problems.

Among the 6,155 INGOs that have obtained consultative status from the ECOSOC, only 86 are Chinese, including 19 from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan, three from Macau, and 63 from mainland China.

According to UIA’s Yearbook of International Organizations (2021-2022), the total number of international organizations worldwide is 74,250, including 66,425 INGOs and 7,825 IGOs. However, the number of social organizations officially approved by the Chinese government as INGOs is just over 40.

Not only are there few Chinese INGOs, but their participation is also very limited. Even those with consultative status have not played much of a practical role in global governance.

Take the UN Human Rights Council as an example. In 2015, I participated in its 30th session, and no Chinese INGOs hosted a side event then. Improvements have been made in recent years. More organizations have applied for consultative status, and more have taken the initiative to speak and hold side events. However, the participation of Chinese social organizations in UN mechanisms is still in its initial stage.

  • A way forward?

First of all, the Chinese public should be made aware of the importance of the global system to China’s development, so that society will be more welcoming to INGOs in the future.

Secondly, it is urgent to formulate regulations on the registration and administration for INGOs, to simplify areas such as registration procedures, and to strengthen services and support in taxation, funding sources, overseas personnel recruitment, and daily project management.

The government should also support the development of social organizations in all aspects, including capacity building, personnel training, international exchanges and cooperation, and fundraising.