Liu Youping: China’s Social Organizations Need to Break Free from their Bubble

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Editor’s Note

This is CDB’s translation of an article originally published by the Shanda Network (善达网) on April 15, 2020. You can find the original here. The piece was written by Ma Guangzhi (马广志) based on an interview with Liu Youping (刘佑平). Mr. Liu is the deputy secretary general of the China Charity Alliance and a commentator on Chinese philanthropy.


Some experts and scholars in the field of philanthropy have already provided their reflections and views on the performance of Chinese social organizations during the fight against COVID-19. What are the thoughts on the matter of Professor Liu Youping, who has been immersed in the fields of charity and philanthropy for over ten years?

Liu Youping currently serves as the Deputy Secretary-General of the China Charity Alliance (CCA). In his early years, he was engaged in historical and cultural studies, after which he shifted to the media by becoming the editor-in-chief of the China Philanthropy Times. Since then, he has been working tirelessly for philanthropic causes, and has contributed a significant number of independent views on the construction of a system for charity and philanthropy and on the development of this field in China.

Professor Liu Youping gladly accepted my interview. In his reply, he said: “Since the pandemic started, after I had agreed to give an informal interview for the China Philanthropist, I made a rule for myself: during the pandemic, I would not add my voice to all the noise. I declined more than ten requests for interviews. On April 8, when the lockdown of Wuhan was lifted, the first phase of the epidemic ended, and so I did not have to restrict myself anymore.”

“The education I received emphasized “restraining yourself and observing propriety for the sake of benevolence” (a quote from Confucius), said the professor. I know he had no intention of sounding pretentious, but he has always had keen observations on the changing trends in the affairs of charity and philanthropy. His reflections go beyond a superficial analysis; he provides a deeper analysis of the gains and losses of social organizations during the fight against the epidemic. This deep concern for the bigger picture gives his observations a certain piercing timeliness and sense of history.

When this article was about to be published, professor Liu Youping sent me a message with a reminder: “First of all, I have to state that in this interview I only represent myself. Everything I say is just an opinion of a charity practitioner with over ten years of experience; it does not represent my organization, and it has nothing to do with any of the organizations I work with. This has to be particularly emphasized.”

That is why, in the heading, I refer to him as “charity research expert” rather than by his professional title. I believe the readers, too, will understand.


“Social organizations have done remarkably well this time”


Ma Guangzhi: When was the first time you realized the gravity of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus? How did you feel at the time?

Liu Youping: The outbreak started at the end of December last year. After that the country undertook a series of measures, and I, too, noticed the reports. However, I didn’t really think much about it at the time. On January 12, the China Charity Alliance even organized an annual gala and invited many members from Wuhan to attend.

As we approached January 20, when Zhong Nanshan announced on CCTV that “there have been cases of human-to-human transmission, as well as cases of infection among the medical staff, therefore we have to become more vigilant”, I still hadn’t developed the sense of danger. This was because Dr. Zhong said one sentence: “The novel coronavirus infections are on the rise, but its infectiousness is not as strong as that of SARS.” And I had been through SARS in 2003. All the same, when I saw the news, I did request several dozens of masks from a colleague. This was the first time in my life that I had stocked up on that many masks.

After Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23, I cancelled my high-speed train ticket to Changsha which was reserved for the third day of the Chinese New Year (January 27), because the high-speed train would be passing through Wuhan. I was worried I could get infected. On that day, however, I still took my chances by inviting friends over for a gathering and dinner. We thought that the novel coronavirus was still far away from us.


Ma Guangzhi: What kind of actions did you undertake at that point?

Liu Youping: On the day of the Wuhan lockdown, I contacted our members in Wuhan on behalf of the CCA. At the same time, my colleague Han Xue and I started coordinating the Zhejiang Provincial Charity Federation’s aid for Wuhan.

I reached out to Tan Guanghua, the Secretary-General of the Hubei Charity Federation, and said: “the people of Wuhan have really been dragged into this, I hope you and the colleagues from the Hubei Charity Federation are all well!” When I heard him say that “currently, the Hubei Charity Federation has received 650,000 masks in donations, and the colleagues in the Secretariat are all doing well”, I replied immediately: “This is the best news I have heard today, thank you for sharing! Please pass on the greetings from the CCA and send our most sincere wishes for happiness and peace to everyone.” That day, we also contacted the Vice-President of the CCA, the president of the Wuhan Dangdai Group, Ai Luming, and the Hubei Modern Charity Foundation, in order to better understand the situation.

Not long after, we at the CCA were among the first in the philanthropy sector to make a call to our members and all philanthropic forces to fight against the epidemic. We received a broad response.

From the day when Wuhan went into lockdown, my colleagues from the CCA and myself entered into what has extended into a more than two-month “epidemic containment period”, one that is still ongoing. Our main anti-epidemic work has been focused on communicating and transmitting information about Hubei’s anti-epidemic needs, the coordination of resources, the collection and dissemination of information about anti-epidemic donations and projects, providing initiatives and recommendations, reflecting and summarizing experiences. Especially important was the work we did during the initial period of the national anti-epidemic mobilization, and the release of the statistics on donations during the epidemic. We played a role which could not have been taken on by any other social organization, and we received the leaders’ approval. However, I think we have done far from enough to meet the needs of our members and the sector at large.

What I have to emphasize, though, is that the members of the CCA, some vice-chairmen and members of councils in particular, have performed amazingly well during this fight against COVID-19, be it through generous donations, or raising money for charities, or global sourcing, or by providing technical support. Social organizations have been organizing all kinds of activities against the epidemic. They have contributed immensely to claiming victory in this all-out war. I personally once participated in the process of deciding how to deploy donations with vice-chairman Huang Tao. It moved me deeply.

The original plan was to donate 100 million RMB, but in the course of discussions, after hearing the reports about the severity of the epidemic, I personally called the shots to increase the target to 120 million RMB. You must realize that their businesses are among those that have been hit the hardest by the epidemic. Amidst this great catastrophe, they have shown unprecedented commitment and corporate responsibility. Just as someone said: “in the veins of China’s current private entrepreneurs runs the ‘blood of virtue! ”

Apart from that, there were the generous donations of the Tencent Foundation, the Guoqiang Foundation and the He Foundation, the international sourcing of Dang Yanbao, Lu Dezhi, Yang Lan… There is a long list of board members and leaders of the CCA that are the true representatives of the organization and the true heroes of this war on COVID-19.


Ma Guangzhi: After the outbreak, various social organizations launched all kinds of aid operations. Which ones of those left the deepest impression on you? What is your assessment of them?

Liu Youping: This outbreak has been a major test for social organizations in China. Luckily, in comparison to the 2003 SARS, 2008 Wenzhou earthquake and 2013 Ya’an earthquake, social organizations have performed remarkably well this time, and their progress is really obvious. On the whole, their response was quick, their reactions were timely, and their contribution was immense. They have demonstrated the strength of China’s social sector to the whole society. These are my basic observations.


Ma Guangzhi: There have also been some voices saying that social organizations had a deep sense of powerlessness regarding their participation in the fight against the epidemic.

Liu Youping: The response setting for this Covid-19 outbreak has been very complex, it has by far surpassed any other disaster we have encountered in the past.

Firstly, in terms of the timing, the beginning of the outbreak happened during the Spring Festival, right at the time of the holidays, when the circulation of people is very intense. Secondly, Covid-19 is a major public health emergency, with a long incubation period, the presence of asymptomatic carriers, and fast transmission. The people we rely upon to counter the virus are medical staff, and social organizations generally cannot enter, otherwise they would only be adding to all the trouble. Thirdly, on January 26, the Ministry of Civil Affairs explicitly announced a list of five charity organizations from Hubei province that were designated to accept all donations, materials and funds against the epidemic, further causing misunderstandings.

Looking at the matter from these three angles, it is true that social organizations would have had a certain sense of being powerless to act. However, looking at the performance of many social organizations, their swift and timely response has been quite praiseworthy. For instance if you take those designated charity organizations in Hubei, even though the Hubei Red Cross has been called into question, in general their contribution to the fight against the epidemic cannot be denied, especially when you look at the pretty successful efforts of the Hubei Charity Federation to become more of a “social” force. They have performed extraordinarily well. They have taken on a huge workload in a very short period of time. The hardships they have endured are far from anything that those of us distant from the epidemic’s epicenter could comprehend.

Apart from the local charity organizations, many social organizations across the country have been carrying out aid operations, for example the Zhejiang Provincial Charity Federation, the Shenzhen One Foundation and others. They proceeded with social mobilization, public fundraising and project design at the very beginning of the epidemic. For the most part, the system of Charity Federations across the country got into anti-epidemic mode; they have played the role of the main channel for mobilizing the public, and raising funds and materials.

Some foundations also took on the role of leaders in the response to the pandemic, for example the Alibaba Foundation, the Jack Ma Foundation, the Tencent Foundation and the Han Hong Love and Charity Foundation – not only did they provide significant financial funds for the fight against the epidemic, but more importantly they set an example for their sector. They inspired and encouraged people.

In addition to the fast and timely response, I was also deeply impressed by how spontaneously social organizations initiated inter-disciplinary cooperation with the government, businesses, and even with the worlds of technology and academia. They have also had very good interactions with society, including the media. At the same time, they have been conducting a lot of self-reflection, which is very important for the future development of the sector.


“The absence of pivot organizations is the biggest issue”


Ma Guangzhi: One of the objects of self-reflection is that in responding to this serious public health crisis, social organizations have revealed a series of weaknesses and shortcomings. Which problems do you think social organizations have experienced when participating in the fight against the epidemic?

Liu Youping: There are four prominent problems, related to different aspects. The first one is that social organizations are still faced with an overall lack of capacity. Although some organizations are playing an important role in the fight against the epidemic and have shown great leadership, they still appear to be quite inadequate from a professional point of view. The second problem is that the majority of social organizations are not independent, and they rely too much on the government. Thirdly, the integration among social organizations is inadequate and, in particular, industry associations are lacking. This results in the fact that internal response, mobilization and coordination mechanisms, as well as integrated and public external communication systems with the state and business sectors and international organizations have not been established. Finally, public health and medical organizations are too few and unprofessional, meaning that we are not paying enough attention to human life.


Ma Guangzhi: You have been working for the China Charity Alliance for many years and have previous experience in the media covering the charity sector. Therefore you have a deep knowledge of the development of the whole Chinese charity sector. What do you think are the sources of the problems above?

Liu Youping: In this respect we need to take into account both the external and internal circumstances. From an external perspective, the first reason is that the role of social organizations in the construction of society and in the governance of the country still needs to be further promoted. Although a broad layout for the top-level design of the development of social organizations has been taking shape since the 19th National Congress of the CPC, we will have to wait a long time for it to be implemented and show some effects. The second reason is that a cultural environment for social charity has yet to take shape. The foundation of the survival and development of social organizations is the trust of the public. In a context where China is faced with a trust crisis and social anxiety triggered by the lack of social integrity, the degree of confidence of the public towards social organizations is not high enough, and their development and expansion are therefore barely satisfactory.

From an internal point of view, the main problem is related to the very nature of social organizations. The whole industry is still fragmented and atomized and, although there have been some changes over the last few years, no radical transformations have yet taken place. Given that social organizations are not aware of their potential for integration and suffer from a serious lack of collaborative spirit and coordinated development, they are by no means able to meet the needs of contemporary social governance and the masses in terms of charity and the public good. Moreover, another important factor is that there is not enough of an “élite” within the sector. By “élite” I refer to people who are passionate, highly specialized, highly skilled, very influential and have the power to rally supporters, while also being willing to invest their energy. When compared to the government and business sectors, these people are indeed too few.


Ma Guangzhi: Some scholars have suggested that rescue work in the aftermath of disasters and calamities requires the creation of a platform that would enable a connection between governmental and civil society forces. Do you agree with this view? How should a platform like that be established?

Liu Youping: Pivot organizations are to a certain extent the result of the development of social organizations: a modern entity in the ecology of the public welfare and charity sectors. The role that such pivot organizations play in the governance of the country and society, in particular when there is a need to respond to a sudden public crisis, appears to be very important.

In the fight against this epidemic, the lack of pivot organizations is the biggest problem. I participated in many online discussions of social organizations on the struggle against the epidemic, and every time I heard the same reactions. Frankly, as a charity worker dedicated to the promotion of the development of industry associations (行业组织), I feel a deep sense of regret. The role of pivot organization could be taken on by many leading organizations or semi-official groups, but the best option would still be industry associations. The Charity Law includes an article specifying that “in conformity with legal provisions, charitable organizations can set up industry associations”. The creation of this kind of pivot organizations can follow both a bottom-up or top-down model, there is no fixed standard. The best suited for the development of the sector is the winner.

The creation of pivot organizations requires a joint effort in several aspects. First of all, the currently existing industry associations should adjust their positioning, without overstepping or taking on challenges by themselves. Most importantly, they must be present, since it is their turn to step in and mobilize, organize, coordinate, connect, provide services, supervise and promote their causes.

Secondly, each organization should have a sense of how to coordinate within the sector and a willingness to unite without engaging in heroism. The era of “fighting alone” is gone: especially during an expected public crisis, we must stress the importance of a coordinated fight.

Finally, the government should consciously cultivate pivot organizations and industry associations. It should empower such entities and allow them to undertake part of the functions originally assumed by the authorities. Moreover, the government should also work as a guide, not as a leader: in terms of specific business, it should allow the sector and social organizations to learn how to be more autonomous, to create alliances by themselves and carry out coordinated operations. Pivot organizations, industry associations and cooperation platforms can be set up according to a top-down or bottom-up fashion. It is necessary to allow the exploration of different models, based on whether they can meet the needs of the people.


“We must emphasize cooperation, never confrontation”


Ma Guangzhi: The relationship between the state and social forces is one of the focuses of the sector during this pandemic. What have you observed? Not long ago, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said it would improve the government’s ability to regulate philanthropy. How will this affect the relationship?

Liu Youping: The discussion on the relationship between government and social organizations is a sensitive topic. During the epidemic, government departments issued nearly forty separate policies to support philanthropic and charity work and encourage the development of social organizations, sending many positive signals. A vice minister of the Ministry of Civil Affairs went to the epidemic area in Wuhan to guide the work, admirably putting himself in harm’s way. The director of the Department of Charity and Social Work is still standing firm in Hubei to fight the epidemic. At this critical moment, they are not only showcasing their own passion and sense of responsibility, but also representing the attitude of the government.

Of course, different departments in different places have disparate attitudes towards social organizations. Some try their best to serve social organizations, while others are indifferent or even distrustful. We can’t ask too much, we can’t ask officials to be these “perfect robots” in charge.

There is still a long way to go to build a good relationship between the state and social forces. Social organizations, in particular, need to learn how to fully appreciate the decision-making spirit of the central government and how to deal with all departments and governments at all levels. Since the two sides share the same goals and both aim to deliver benefits to the people, we should emphasize cooperation rather than confrontation.


Ma Guangzhi: Actually, as early as the report of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, it was proposed to “accelerate the formation of a modern system for social organizations with a separation between government and social organizations, clear rights and responsibilities, and autonomy according to law”, but up to now the boundary between the state and social forces still hasn’t been clarified.

Liu Youping: The modern system for social organizations formed in the 18th CPC National Congress, especially the third plenary session of the 18th CPC central committee, and the modernization of the national governance system and governance capacity proposed at the 19th CPC national congress and the fourth plenary session of the 19th CPC central committee all emphasized the role of social organizations in the social governance and national governance systems. However, as pointed out by experts such as Ma Yili, former director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, during the fight against the epidemic the “social” element within social organizations has been insufficient, and a dependence on the government has been formed, with the two worlds sometimes becoming inseparable. While the government departments have some responsibility here, there is an ever bigger issue with the social organizations themselves.

For many years, the central government pushed to deeply reform the social system, but some government departments, especially some of the related management departments, have not yet fundamentally understood the central government’s shift from “managing the country” to “governing the country.” They do not have the mindset of switching from “managerial government” to “service-oriented government”, still holding on to their little bit of power and even trying to overstep their authority. They reach their hands where they do not belong, even trying to micro-manage social organizations, deeply hampering their self-governance. This depresses social vitality and is unfavourable to social innovation.


Ma Guangzhi: The government is one of the stakeholders of social organizations, but social organizations still have many problems in dealing with the government.

Liu Youping: Yes. If at present the government and social organizations are not separated, much of the responsibility lies with the social organizations themselves. Many social organizations are like babies that refuse to grow up, and completely rely on the government. They lack a sense of independence and even become bureaucratic, administrative and subordinate of their own accord. While they understand that “all activities must follow the commands from above”, they do not understand the meaning of “social organizations’ self-governance in accordance with the law” as stated in the central party document.

Therefore, I personally believe that Chinese social organizations are born with less “substance” in their genes. For a long time to come, Chinese social organizations will have to be supplemented with more “substance”. Self-governance in accordance with the law is an urgent requirement of social organizations for the modernization of China’s social governance and national governance capacity. Of course, self-governance in accordance with the law will be under the leadership of the CPC. This is a Chinese characteristic, a requirement of the constitution, and a prerequisite for charity and social organizations in China.


“A special primer into Charity”


Ma Guangzhi: At present, the prevention and control of the epidemic has entered a new stage. In the post-epidemic period, what do social organisations need to do the most?

Liu Youping: In the new stage, social organisations need to do three things.

First of all, the pandemic is so severe internationally that social organisations which previously enjoyed the benefits of openness to the outside world, or that in any case come from a big and responsible country, should continue to make their due contribution to the global fight against the epidemic. During this recent period, China’s social organisations have already performed well in the global fight against the epidemic. Now they need to more actively match the country’s overall diplomatic and international strategy, bring the power of China’s non-governmental charity into play, demonstrate China’s spirit and values and contribute the power of Chinese charity and social organisations to a community of shared future for humankind.

Secondly, they need to actively engage in reflection, especially regarding the question of how to establish a mechanism for China’s social organisations to respond to sudden public disasters and take remedial actions. If another disaster occurs, are we prepared?

Thirdly, social organisations need to break free from the thinking of their narrow circles and consider problems from the perspective of the entire social and economic development of humankind and of constructing a community of shared future for humankind. How will China’s social organisations respond to the worst crisis in human history? How will they help restore social prosperity and security and promote the welfare of the people? On this point, Guangdong’s He Foundation is ahead of many organisations, having launched the RMB 200 million emergency support plan “Working together for a common cause”, aimed at small and micro enterprises. This has provided strong support for small and micro enterprises in riding out this crisis and in alleviating their survival dilemmas. Doing this type of charity means breaking out of the little bubbles that many people cling to. Considering problems and social issues from the standpoint of social and economic development is of great demonstrative and inspirational significance.


Ma Guangzhi: The Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008 brought the development of charity in China to a peak. 2008 is therefore referred to as the “First Year of an Era” for philanthropy in China. In the future, looking back on this public health crisis of early 2020, how do you think it should be evaluated?

Liu Youping: Following the introduction of the “Regulations on Foundation Management” in 2004, the Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008 was the first large, national and comprehensive explosion in non-governmental charity in China. It would not be an exaggeration to call this the “First year of charity from the whole population”. The impact of the Covid 19 epidemic on charity in China deserves a high level of attention and evaluation. But from a global perspective, the incident is still in progress and it is still too soon to draw conclusions. We can try and make some analysis and predictions, but we will have to wait and see in the future if these are accurate or not.

First of all, a “charity enlightenment”. 2008 was a year of enlightenment for charity. In the same way, 2020 is a special primer into the enlightenment of charity. Enlightenment means changing people’s ideas, opinions and awareness. The epidemic has brought the ideas of charity and social organisations further into the public eye. This then increases people’s trust and support for charity and social organisations in their daily social lives.

Secondly, this is also the first time that the overall strength of China’s non-government social organisations has been revealed to the international community. I won’t elaborate on this here but it can be discussed next time as a special topic.

Thirdly, going through this big test and trial of the epidemic, together with continuous reflection, should have quite a significant promotional role for China’s social organisations. If lessons can be learned and experiences summarised, this should also be a good opportunity. Throughout the world, when a major crisis occurs, we can often see the shortcomings of our sector, and, through a process of “market” elimination, we can promote a complete reshuffling of the sector and create a new structure for the ecosystem of social organisations as quickly as possible. If we can force changes in the mechanism and system, this will be an even more unexpected benefit.


Ma Guangzhi: Due to the social, economic and political impact caused by the development of the epidemic, some scholars think that this is a major event which will change the course of history. As a charity research expert, what expectations do you have for the future of charity in China?

Liu Youping: This epidemic is a big test for all of humanity and for China too. It is also a big test for China’s social organisations and even for all charitable institutions. Although many problems have been exposed within the charity sector in the process of fighting the epidemic, I particularly look forward to our social organisations drawing their lessons and self-reflecting, thereby using this as an opportunity to improve the overall mechanism and ability to respond to sudden public emergencies; to improve the ability of social organisations to interact, unite and cooperate with the government, enterprises, the media and the public; to accelerate the modernisation process of the entire charity sector; and to make due contributions to charitable forces and social organisations in order to promote the modernisation and capability of social and national governance and the welfare of humankind.

In Brief

An interview with a keen observer of China’s charity sector, discussing how Chinese philanthropy can best contribute to the struggle against COVID-19 both within the country and worldwide.
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