Editorial: When public interest organizations run into “hidden rules”

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Introduction: In this Editorial, CDB’s Fu Tao discusses the unwritten rules Chinese public interest organizations have to deal with when operating and discusses the cases of the Shanghai United Foundation (Lianqian) and of the Nanjing NGO Justice For All


“Why do people march?

Because of ideals, because of love,

Because of faith, because of understanding.

No matter how great the disparity in social status or financial power between us, we all walk the same road”.

The above slogans are from the Shanghai United Foundation (Lianqian) charity fundraising activity “an egg’s march”. Participants of this fundraising activity not only need to walk 50 km within 12 hours, but also to promote their “march” to friends in order to collect donations which aim to provide children in poverty-stricken areas with an egg every day. This crazy, fun and touching fundraising innovation sparked public enthusiasm soon after its inception. In the inaugural 2011 event, 122 teams, comprising over a thousand participants, raised a total of nearly 680,000 RMB. In 2012, the participants increased to more than 2,000, in 208 teams, raising more than 2.37 million RMB. Since their second event in 2012, “an egg’s march” has transformed into a platform for various fund-raising activities. Along with its “march” events, it also adopted innovative ways to collect funds for children’s welfare projects and made it possible for donors to participate in decisions over the destination of donations, improving the transparency of projects. “An egg’s march” has quickly become an influential charitable brand.

The third event was due to be held on April 20th 2013, with 400 teams totalling about 2,000 people due to take part. However, before the event, it was revealed by Chinese netizens on Weibo that some of the teams had been disqualified, which sparked uproar.

On February 4th, the Pigu fundraising team completed registration procedures for a total of eight teams, qualifying them to participate in the formal event. The team soon began fundraising and wired the funds into Lianquan’s account. However, in late March Lianquan suddenly disqualified them. For a team that had participated in the past two “march” events and received awards for their outstanding performances, the disqualification was tantamount to a bolt from the blue. The Pigu fundraising team members regularly engaged in “Pigu style” charitable activities, saving their expenses to donate to people in difficulty.

The team exchanged numerous messages with Lianquan, receiving many responses including: “there are too many participants”, “higher authorities found the team name used sensitive words”, “no written notice, and no public explanation,” and “if you really want a reason, it is Lianquan’s hidden rule”.. They were not convinced by these vague responses. In the evening of April 8th, during the final conference with the captain of the Lianquan organization, the team stated their views and expressed their demands, calling for a public apology and asking Lianquan to restore Pigu’s eligibility to participate. They also issued a lawyer’s letter, in which they stated that if Lianquan failed to provide proper explanations and responses, legal action would be taken. As Lianquan remained silent beyond the mutually agreed April 15th deadline for final responses, Pigu proceeded with the planned legal proceedings… Pigu’s “pressing harder and harder” tested Lianquan’s position, as well as its wisdom and ability to deal with the crisis.

Netizens and people working in related fields who have followed the issue hold contrasting views. Some believe that Lianquan is the victim of behind the scenes interference from higher authorities and unwritten rules. Netizens who adopt a “bigger picture” strategy believe that if Lianquan resists it may become a martyr, leading to the end of its activities, and must therefore compromise. A netizen named @ Ping Zhang 9 responded: “Today, you may disqualify us because of pressure; tomorrow you may use unequal procedures to transfer the public’s donations to the Red Cross under pressure; the day after tomorrow, you will find any reason to reshape the rules of charity.”@ Ping Zhang 9 continued:” It is precisely because we too often consider the ‘bigger picture’’ that so many social problems exist now. Let people know that grassroots activists do not compromise or give up under pressure when facing practical difficulties”. User @ Tao also doubted that Lianquan was an ‘independent’, ‘grassroots’ and ‘public interest’, foundation asking “did you fight because of my departure?” The comentators insist fairness, openness and justice are the unbreakable bottom lines for the charity sector.

Members of civil society are a public interest community promoting social change, but when faced with problems that require value judgments, because of different social positions, strategies and values, they may differ in opinion and split

As an important link in the ecological chain of philanthropy in China, Lianquan links the government and grassroots organizations. With the government on the left and the grassroots on the right, it is the basis for trust among both. Enthusiastic grassroots participation adds to Lianquan’s influence, and may bring innovative political achievements for the government in terms of social management. At the same time, as activities broaden their scope and influence, the government may become more worried and cautious. This makes Lianquan a “filled biscuit”, having a “view” that other grassroots organizations do not possess while working “within the system”, creating pressures and difficulties that remain largely unknown. Assuming there are behind the scenes actors influencing Lianquan, when faced with hidden rules it may hope to sacrifice some “details” in order to “focus on the bigger picture.” Otherwise, as rumors predicted, it may mean the complete termination of all activities and the loss of the space already opened up. But tolerance and compromise also mean that Lianquan must confront ’grassroots’ demands and accept that its commitment and credibility will be called into question.

In 2009, Mr Lü Chang, the Director of NPI and the main initiator of Lianqiang, published an article entitled “Pure land and the swamp” warning those who wish to enter the charity sector that NGOs are not a “pure land”, but rather a complicated “swamp”. In this “swamp” there are necessarily both clear rules on the surface and hidden rules that operate beneath it. NGO activists who believe in the ideals of fairness and justice must face this reality.The social environment outside of the NGO circle is an even larger and more complex “swamp” where philanthropic ideals and accepted social norms have to face more challenges from hidden rules. In the public interest sector, pure ideals might be valuable, but they are often not strong enough to survive the reality of pragmatism and compromise. When facing a restrictive reality, some public interest sector values are easily blurred, and therefore evolve differently.This incident reminds people that public interest is a kind of social change – not a dinner party or a garden of roses –, which involves facing and engaging with real, practical problems.

While walking in this “swamp” a transparent ceiling is visible everywhere. In reality, if “behind the scenes” influence is understood as a kind of “act of God”, perhaps Lianquan’s reluctance to engage in discussion will earn people’s sympathy. Faced with this act of God, each institution has its own limitations and can only do as much as it is able. And just as important as the veracity of hidden rules is the principle of confronting them. It’s about wisdom, strategy and courage. It’s about earning respect at the risk of becoming a “martyr”, and using “the bigger picture” to ensure an activity continues. As indicated in the online discussion, different people have different answers, but under the banner of public interest, having different positions and greater diversity will be the norm of civil society in the future.

If supposed “behind the scenes” influences are the cause of this incident, then this has just exposed the problems that the relevant departments have in “maintaining stability” and lawfully carrying out their duties. Precisely because these departments are secretive, their behavior cannot be framed within the transparent rule of law, nor can they take responsibility for their actions, meaning Lianquan must be made a scapegoat. The public interest sector remains fragile, and all parties involved, including Lianquan and grassroots organizations, cannot afford to sustain damage.

In November 2012, the anti-discrimination organization — Nanjing Justice For All — protested an unlawful, unilateral termination of service contracts at a Suzhou hotel. In March this year, the local court ruled against the hotel and ordered the return of deposits and the payment of damages. The court did not accept the hotel’s claim that the police’s “maintaining stability” was the force majeure that led to the termination of the contract. Media commented that this might be the first time a Chinese public interest organization obtained a favorable judgment when the police’s “maintaining stability” strategy led to the lawsuit. It can be predicted that as the public policy environment improves an increasing number of public interest organizations and activities will attract wider public attention. This also means that the relevant government departments will need increased standardization and transparency in their social management campaigns (including “maintaining stability”). Even if the sole purpose is “stability maintenance”, why would being transparent about it so embarrassing?

The actual public interest sector is not a “pure land” built upon faith and ideals; it is a political “swamp” that needs to be clarified.

In Brief

In this Editorial, CDB’s Fu Tao discusses the unwritten rules Chinese public interest organizations have to deal with when operating and discusses the cases of the Shanghai United Foundation (Lianqian) and of the Nanjing NGO Justice For All.
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