Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in China

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The School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO), gathered over one hundred Chinese and European civil society scholars and practitioners for the International Conference on Civil Society Contribution to Policy Innovation in the PR China at the Foreign Experts Building in Beijing on May 9-10, 2012.

The conference served as a follow-up to a series of four dialogues held earlier this year, each centered around a major public policy area: climate change and sustainable consumption and production, industrial pollution and environmental health, informal work and migration, and child welfare and left-behind children. The remaining four dialogues in the three-year EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Program on Participatory Public Policy, which will take place in the upcoming year, will touch upon the topics of food safety, freedom of information, rule of law, and finance reform. The European Union, which is funding this dialogue program, hopes to foster greater communication and collaboration between Chinese and European civil society experts.

At the conference, two keynote speakers for each topic, one Chinese and one European, presented previously unpublished academic papers which were informed by participation in the earlier dialogues. These speakers were Dr. Wang Tao (Carnegie-Tshinghua Center for Global Policy) and Dr. Michael Mehling (Ecologic Institute) for climate change, Dr. Jennifer Holdaway (SSRC) and Dr. Tang Hao (Sun Yatsen University) for industrial pollution and environmental health, Dr. Jean-Philippe Béja (CNRS) and Dr. Lu Huilin (Peking University) for informal work and migration, and Dr. Bernadette Robinson (Nottingham University) and Dr. Lin Zhibin (Migrant Workers Home) for child welfare and left-behind children. Each section was followed by a roundtable discussion and comments, which offered a chance to direct questions toward the experts, as well as to address broader concerns in the field. Each segment provided a useful snapshot of the developments and concerns in these various fields, ranging from Dr. Holdaway’s portrayal of the difficulty in integrating non-expert NGO collaborators into the complex technical policies on industrial pollution to Dr. Lin’s frank analysis of the crucial and non-crucial factors of left-behind child psychology.

Combining theory and practice, the EU-China civil society dialogue aims to foster personal relationships between Chinese and Europeans as well as establishing links between different stakeholders, especially in the eight policy areas mentioned above. In addition to the key note speakers’ papers, which will be compiled into an edited book volume to be published in 2014, the dialogue program is intended to contribute to a variety of concrete goals. For each topic, for instance, two 10,000 Euro grants were distributed for proposals drafted during the course of the dialogues.  These included “Closing Gaps,” a comparative study of left-behind children resulting from internal migration and transnational migration, and “China-Europe NGO cooperation for low-carbon city development,” a project dedicated to the design and implementation of low-carbon cities. The program also coordinated with a new-media journalism program through which citizen journalists utilized iPhone technology to produce documentary shorts about the dialogues. (Available at Finally, participants in the program were introduced to dialoguing methods such as “Open Space,” which they may utilize in their own civil society work.

Beyond these tangible results, the conference and dialogues also created a space for analysis and reflection on some of the major issues and challenges facing Chinese civil society contribution to public policy. One such concern was the tension between academics and practitioners that often emerges during this kind of conversation. As one participant explained, academics may feel that practitioners lack the theoretical background necessary to thoroughly comprehend the complex nature of these issues, while practitioners may feel that academics lack any knowledge of these issues that is grounded in actual practice. While acknowledging these shortcomings, participants also recognized the complementary nature of these two groups’ work, and Dr. Tang, among others, emphasized the importance of increased collaboration to achieve goals.

Another issue that was addressed during the conference was the crucial role of networks, both domestic and international, in policy innovation. During the section on climate change and sustainable consumption and production in particular, Dr. Wang discussed fostering “actor networks” such as the Civil Climate Action Network (CCAN) and the US Cap, that brought a variety of players together in order to enact new climate change policy. In conversation about migrant workers and left-behind children, participants acknowledged the need for international NGO networks that can assist migrant workers working abroad, and the families that they leave behind in their home countries.

Additionally, the means by which civil society organizations could contribute to policy innovation were a key concern. Dr. Mehling, referring to his experiences at The Ecologic Institute (a US- and Germany-based NGO focusing on applied environmental research), showed that civil society groups, including those representing corporate interests, possess significant resources to influence and change debates. By transmitting knowledge and experience they can create public acceptance as well as legitimacy for measures that protect the environment.

At the same time, there was a feeling that NGOs are often left to play only a supporting role in policy innovation, due to a lack of opportunity to participate in policy formation or a lack of technical expertise required for the drafting of new policies. Dr. Wang noted some problems faced particularly by Chinese NGOs seeking to contribute to policy innovation. Their reaction is often too slow, Dr. Wang criticized, and often they do not recognize the importance of an issue or provide effective solutions. His suggestions lead in two directions: first, trust between the government and NGOs, but also among NGOs, should be fostered. He then proposed to increase NGOs capacities through offering training that enables them to understand the complex global situation of environmental protection.

The conference also provided an opportunity to consider the structure and nature of civil service organizations, a reminder that innovation may sometimes take on a novel form in addressing public policy goals. Dr. Béja, Research Director at Sciences Po, Paris (CNRS), used the example of labour rights to demonstrate that during conflicts between workers and employers, new forms of organization with very limited structures may evolve. During a case in Guangdong, Dr. Béja  explained, when the Labour Union tried to prevent workers from strike, the workers elected their own representatives. During this conflict, the Guangdong government realized that NGOs serve a mediating role, helping to resolve conflicts and enforce stabilities.

Dr. Béja also discussed the important legal advocacy function of NGO organizations in labor relations, mentioning that the NGOs in the field are often not set up by the workers themselves but by intellectuals or journalists trying to offer mostly legal advice. More generally on the role of NGO in the particular field, he maintained that they tried to influence the law-making processes by participation in the consultation process. Another important part of their work focuses on the implementation of existing laws to prevent discrimination against workers.

The whole conference revealed that there are significant overlaps between the different policy fields and that some characteristics of NGO`s role in policy innovation were shared throughout the entire sector. Dr. Robinson, for instance, commented how crucial the work on informal work and migration is to issues relating to left-behind children. Likewise, participants noted that the discussion of industrial pollution related directly to issues of food safety and climate change. The overlap between policy fields were most apparent during the commentary sections after the talks, when it could be observed that participants were eager not only to share experiences from their own work, but also to contribute to the work of NGOs in other fields. They thereby often claimed that although they lacked formal qualifications in this particular field, they nevertheless could make a valuable contribution. This openness could hint at the fact that the sector is relatively new and the division in different fields that comes with a certain degree of professionalization is not yet fully developed. It also means that conferences such as this present a unique opportunity to foster greater discussion and communication among a variety of players and fields.

In Brief

In this original English-language article, Amanda Brown-Inz and Sabine Mokry report on an international conference held in May of this year in Beijing on civil society contributions to policy innovation in China.
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