Feng Yongfeng: Non-Government Organizations Are Not Anti-Government Organizations

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This article was originally published on Feng Yongfeng’s column on the Sina blog here. It is has been translated, abridged, and re-published by CDB with the author’s permission. Feng Yongfeng is a prominent Chinese environmental journalist and activist.


In the Spring of 1979, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Chinese-Foreign Equity Joint Ventures” (中国人民共和国中外合资企业法). In the Spring of 1986, the State Council released the “Provisions for the Encouragement of Foreign Investment” (关于鼓励外商投资的规定). In 1998, and again during the Spring season, the State Council and the Central Committee of the Communist Party jointly released the “Opinions on Further Expanding Opening-up and Improving the level of Utilizing Foreign Investment” (关于进一步扩大对外开放,提高利用外资水平的若干意见).

However the Spring of 2015 went against this trend in a bizarre manner. The Overseas NGO Management Law (境外非政府组织管理法), put together by the Ministry of Public Security, started its preliminary review, and was publicly released in May to solicit comments to contribute to further drafting. However the consensus was that this law was very difficult to make right (一个无解的法案). If implemented in its current form it would bring harm to all parties. The damage it would cause to grassroots Chinese NGOs, China’s burgeoning “overseas philanthropic investment”(公益外资), and to the overall development of China’s public sector, would be beyond measure.

Personally, I didn’t have much time to participate in the discussion, but I’d like to take this opportunity to express my opinions on the law.

All organizations outside the government can be categorized as “non-governmental organizations (非政府组织)”

Several years ago, I met with Mr. Du Shaozhong right after he had retired from the position of Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Environmental Bureau. Half jokingly he told me: “Remember that non-governmental organizations (非政府组织) are not anti-government organizations (反政府组织).”

I never had a chance to respond to that, but I completely agree with what he said. I was even more excited that those words were coming out of his mouth because the message is much more easier to spread if it’s coming from a high-ranking official. However, I was never quite sure about the reasons why he made such a remark. I can only assume, after years of pondering, that the following thoughts might serve as answer to my question.

Governments are not omnipotent and they make mistakes. In ancient China, our society was always controlled by the ruling classes. This has affected the modern perception of government to the point that we lose sleep and appetite if the government is absent or ignored. But as a matter of fact, the government has always been just one part of our society. It’s just one type of social institution according to the theory of social classification (社会分类学). If a government becomes too powerful, it’ll devour the world around it (独霸了天下所有人的心思耳目).

Social classification is a science, and like any other types of scientific studies, it is cold and emotionless. According to the theory, the government sector (政府业) is equivalent to the sectors of politics, commerce, military, justice, science, literature, philosophy, history, mathematics and so on. In common with other places around the world, it is only in the last century that China has started to talk about the “philanthropy sector” (公益业). Every type of sector has its own cycle: from growth to decline. In between it becomes an established, integral part of society.

The industry of government has, to some extent, now become this established default setting. It’s functions have been absorbed into the societal ecosystem. In plain language, a government is a combination of laws coming from social consensus and variety of departments that safeguard public order and provide public services. Laws can be distorted, and a government can be formed and reformed at any time.

It is true that historically ruling classes have always preceded governments and laws. Doctrines to justify the myth that the authority of a government was approved by some higher power, were always created after the formation of a government. But things are different today. No matter how good a government is at political “spinning” and falsifying, or how powerful its conduits to spread lies, it can not bury one fact: a government must abide by the law.

However, law is not the entirety of social consensus (governments are never committed followers of laws anyway). Governments are therefore destined to fail to benefit from society’s creative impulses and dynamism.

Other than negligence, governments are inevitably slow and indifferent. Their slow speed means that the formation of the social consensus that informs government laws and policies is always greatly behind social trends, in some cases it could lag by hundreds of years. And it can take even more time for social consensus to be converted into laws, and even more time to transform those laws into executive powers and eventually to government actions. As a result, governments inevitably often fall behind in dealing with emergencies and correct wrongs.

Slowness also inevitably leads to indifference. Governments will try to escape their obligations when laws are clear about their responsibilities, and even more so when they are vague. Many government officials fear the shackles of potent laws and are secretly pleased every time they find a legal loophole.

The areas where governments are incompetent or ill-equipped are the exact areas where non-governmental sectors can thrive. Commerce will develop when a government is incapable of doing business; military becomes dominant when a government loses control of its armed forces; literary and art industries prosper when a government is inept in related departments.

Lots of things in this world are not government-related or “non-governmental”. Commerce and military, as well as literature, have been and should always be non-governmental. The government should silently support the development of those non-governmental departments rather than controlling or censoring them, and the governmentalization of those sectors will only lead to the death of them. Likewise, philanthropy shouldn’t be government-related either. Government intervention, which is the main reason why the Chinese philanthropic world has been “frozen” for thousands of years (冰封几千年), will only result in the extinction of philanthropy.

Therefore, any type of non-governmental institution can not possibly be against government because they are fundamentally separate and unrelated. There is no confrontation. Governments are just a small part of a huge societal ecosystem, inside of which exist many other equally vibrant parts.

Has a government ever written a novel? Has a government ever stopped a novel being written or prevented a scientific breakthrough? (哪一个政府,能生产一部小说?哪一个政府,能阻挡一部小说的产生,又能阻挡一个科学发明的闪现呢?)

China needs more foreign philanthropic investments

What the government needs to do now is to return what once belonged to the market, society, literature, and philanthropy. It’s not a big problem if it doesn’t do this. Nowadays the internet is always a few steps ahead of the government and produces innovations that neither the public or government ever expected. The internet is probably the most unstoppable philanthropic power. Established conventions of the world are collapsing around individuals: religion, politics, militaries, business, learning; all entities that millions of people once worshipped. Through the internet individuals learn that they can be the centre of their own world. When that happens, the framework that we already have in our society will become a powerful supporting system for each person. Hungry? No problem, you can stay at home and people will deliver food to you. Tired? That’s okay, because the nearest hotel is always ready for your visit. Running out of money? You can start a business just by clicking on your phone. You want to publish an article? The minute after you upload it your writing might have already been read by people from the other side of the world. In a new age like this, no one will be able to stop the globalization of philanthropy. Old rules and new policies that are blocking philanthropy to further globalize will be destroyed by the internet.

To achieve its own globalization, Chinese philanthropy will have to connect with the world in all areas such as financial capital, academia, and experience and ideas. This globalization is very different from China’s reform-era strategy of attracting foreign investment. The internet is bringing endless new opportunities to develop philanthropy. Funding and experiences are important, but interaction and interconnection are even more important. Philanthropy is thriving locally inside of China and, separately, outside of China. Local Chinese NGOs have already armed themselves with knowledge and courage, and to move forward, we need to open up and welcome outside resources to come in. We need to borrow philanthropic forces from all over the world and encourage foreign philanthropic investments to come in to further strengthen China’s own philanthropy.




In Brief

In light of the upcoming new law on “overseas NGOs”, well-known Chinese environmentalist Feng Yongfeng speaks about the relationship between government and non-governmental organizations.
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