The Rise and Fall of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network

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Editor’s note: In order to mark the International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, CDB publishes this article on the Anti-Domestic Violence Network, a group that led the fight against domestic violence in China for fifteen years.

On May 18th, 2014, the country’s only NGO that specially advocated against domestic violence, the Anti-Domestic Violence Network (ADVN) / Beijing Fanbao ((Since the characters for anti-violence 反暴 fǎn bào could not be used for registration, the ADVN registered with the characters 帆葆 fān bǎo, in order to keep a similar pronunciation.)) announced to the world that their fourteen years of work had finally come to an end ((The closure notice that they published, read as follows: “To my colleagues from the Anti-Domestic Violence Network and all of my friends, The Anti-Domestic Violence Network/Beijing Fanbao is regarded as the most influential domestic organization for anti domestic violence work. Anti-domestic violence national legislation has been included in the working plan of the national legislative institution in 2014; more and more localities and organizations are implementing capacity building projects involving different departments to improve intervention capabilities and response patterns. We are basically finished with our organization’s stated mission. Therefore, the Anti-Domestic Violence Network / Beijing Fanbao board of directors meeting has convened on May 13, 2014, and resolved that our work is finished. Anti-Domestic Violence Network/Beijing Fanbao Board of Directors, 18th, 2014.”)). At the time, the State Council had already included domestic violence legislation in the working plan for 2014. Currently, the proposed legislation has already been sent to the State Council for recommendation ((see – anti-domestic violence work has been brought to the foreground in China, becoming more recognized than ever.

The confusing thing to the outside world is that the ADVN is viewed as a senior member of the gender equality NGO community and as a widely influential organization, therefore the fact that they decide to call and end to their work when new legislation is just around the corner seems odd. Obviously, if the legislation is enacted smoothly, the future of anti-domestic violence work looks very promising. On the contrary, if the anti-domestic violence work needs crusading advocates to implement the enacted legislation or follow up on the work, why would this organization not do everything in its’ power to transform itself, coordinate the reforms, but instead resign when they are most needed?

Taking this one step further, ADVN had 71 group members that covered the country’s 28 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions (including 37 women’s federations’ rights protection departments at all levels, as well as 24 separate hotlines for anti-domestic violence help, women’s shelters, assorted legal services centers, and other grassroots NGO institutions); more than a hundred members active in the fields of law, psychology, social work, journalism communications, NGOs and other fields. Why would they abandon their mission while gender equality related issues have never attracted as much attention as they are doing today?

The emergence and development of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network

After the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, the fight against violence against women in general and the fight against domestic violence in particular became Chinese feminists’ leading cause. (This historical motivation has already been discussed in previous writings ((see Zhang, Lu. “Transnational Feminisms in Translation: The Making of a Women’s Anti-Domestic Violence Movement in China, Chapter 5.”[J].Doctoral Dissertation, University of Ohio State, 2008.)).) In 1999, led by Professor Chen Mingxia [陈明侠] of the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a group of experts and scholars founded the ADVN in Beijing. Previously, extremely active women’s rights NGOs already existed in Beijing. The ADVN used the existing organizations and experts as a foundation, using the network to bring all of them together. This meant that previously existing gender equality organizations could share resources, and a common response to “domestic violence” could be discussed. Its structure was comparatively relaxed and when it applied for funding from the Ford Foundation, Oxfam Netherlands, the Swedish International Cooperation Development Agency, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and other organizations, it did it as as “teams of experts” or through individual network members. Among these organizations, the Ford Foundation’s was the greatest supporter because of part of its program officers’ specific interest in the fight against violence against women. The foundation also played a key role in coordinating and lobbying for other sources of funding.

In 2000, the ADVN was affiliated under the China Law Society (中国法学会), and in the project agreement signed with the donors, the network stressed this affiliation, in order to show the degree of trust and authority their organization held within Chinese society. But from the organization’s management point of view, the ADVN was always committed to promoting NGOs and professionalization. The Network rented office space from the Legal Society, while staffing and operation costs were categorically independent (but subject to a certain annual management fee from the legal society). At the donors’ request, the Network underwent an external professional audit every year.

The Network’s first phase (2000-2003) came with a project called “Countermeasures Studies and Interventions in the Fight Against Domestic Violence”. This was carried out under the auspices of the “Project Management Committee”. In 2003, after the project’s first phase, the ADVN’s management model changed from the “Project Management Committee” to the more universally used method by international NGOs, of the “Board + Implementation Body” model. The board was composed of women studies experts and feminist movement activists that met once every three months to listen to the ADVN’s quarterly work reports and made decisions on the major discussion issues and strategic planning. The implementation body’s daily management and strategic planning was separate, set up with one director and a few full-time project officers responsible for specific aspects of the project ((网络的力量:反家暴网络十周年.[R].中国法学会反对家庭暴力网络/研究中心,2010.)).

In 2005, the ADVN carried out their first strategic planning meeting to determine the organization’s vision of the future, mission goals, operations management, and defined their work for the five years ahead. In the same year, they repeatedly participated in NGO development training courses run by Winrock International, attending courses covering areas such as financial affairs, team cooperation, board capacity building, and others. The development of the Network’s board was later seen as a success story to be shared.

In 2009, the ADVN carried out their second strategic planning session, reaffirming their organization’s mission and management structure. By that time, the network had taken part in all kinds of advocacy and training projects, and counted 71 group members’ covering the entire nation’s 28 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions (including 37 women’s federations’ rights protection departments at all levels, as well as 24 separate hotlines for anti-domestic violence help, women’s shelters, assorted legal services centers, and other grassroots NGO institutions), with over a hundred members active in the fields of law, psychology, social work, journalism and communications, NGOs and other individual members of the network-based community organizing. In their ten year anniversary publication, the vice president of the China Law Society, the vice chairperson of the All-China Women’s Federation, the Ford Foundation and other donors all wrote earnest commemorative words and expressed their satisfaction for the network’s ten years work and best wishes for the future.

With these kinds of resources, as well as both internal and external approval for the work the ADVN carried out, why did the board decide to shut it down?

A dual Identity and three types of difficulties

As a former project officer for the ADVN and a current observer of China’s feminist movement, I feel that the ADVN evolved into an organization with one foot in the political system and the other in the NGO world and failed because of this dual identity. This identity had a positive impact during the organization’s developmental process, but in the end suppressed the Network’s ability to adapt to changes of social development.

First, this dual identity allowed the ADVN to rely on support inside the system to carry out its NGO work, but the system’s indecision in bringing change led it to lose legitimacy, causing all the projects to face difficulties.

Secondly, because of Chinese social norms, relying on members from the system’s elite to establish the implementation body of the organization, and using the decision-making processes common to international NGOs led to “decision making without responsibilities”, causing many staff to leave.

Third, dual identity is reflected in the ADVN’s financing and working model. It relied on international funding in the long run, and carried out anti-domestic violence advocacy by cooperating with government-related organizations and departments. When the pattern of international funding, the development of Chinese civil society and the public welfare sector started to change, this model began to become problematic.

(1) Identity, Authority, and the Dilemma of Legitimacy

For a long time the Anti Domestic Violence Network did not have an independent Industry and Commerce registration, instead it always relied on its connection to the semi-official China Law Society, making it a “civil society organization with a foot in the political system”. These kind of organizations were common in China at the time, therefore the ADVN can be considered a good example of this trend. This tactic had serious advantages, as the China Law Society is associated with 25 other mass organizations such as the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Chinese Writers Association, among others. Placed directly under the State Council’s leadership, the China Law Society’s president is often a retired leader of the Supreme People’s Court or of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. In the Chinese context, such organization is nearly a government body, but to the international foundations, the China Law Society appeared at least nominally as a mass organization and its governmental ties were trivial compared to the Women’s Federation’s. On the other hand, by relying on the name of the China Law Society, the ADVN’s projects were carried out smoothly, especially within the public security, prosecution and legal departments. Therefore, from 2000 to 2010, the ADVN always stayed on god terms with the China Law Society. However at the end of 2010, due to revisions in the country’s foreign exchange management policy passed the year before, the China Law Society became unable to accept donations from foreign sources. The ADVN had no other choice than to cut ties with it and register with Industry and Commerce as “Beijng Fanbao”.

This shows that the ADVN’s particular tactics emphasized seeking approval within the system, in order to reduce risk and secure authoritativeness and legitimacy for the work carried out. However, due to China’s current transitional period, the changes in and of the political and economic system, as well as the system’s inherent unpredictability, even the most conservative risk taking strategies cannot guarantee a stable future. That is how China’s strict disruption between foreign exchange and NGO management in 2009 led to the passive termination of the previously positive collaboration between the ADVN and the China Law Society. The Women’s Legal Aid Center at the Peking University Law School also met with a similar bitter fate. The Center had been established in 1995 and had always possessed a good reputation and widespread societal influence among donors and NGOs alike. But due to the changes in policy in 2009, it was publicly revoked by Peking University.

Other women’s organizations lost their affiliated identity within the system. Perhaps this was not always a fatal blow to their influence. For example, the Peking University’s Women’s Legal Aid Center (now registered as the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Consulting Services Center) continues to operate to this day, with a great deal of influence among women’s NGOs. But the ADVN and the Center are different, as when the Network launched its policy items, it needed a high degree of collaboration from the Women’s Federation departments as well as public security departments, prosecution and legal departments across the country. Therefore, the loss of its affiliation with the Law Society represented a much bigger issue than the loss of Peking University’s support for the Center, since the ADVN’s works was much more dependent on the country’s political and administrative apparatus, while the Center’s essential mission was to provide legal aid to women.

(2) Problems with methods of management

Since the founding of the ADVN, it was hoped that it would provide a new model for NGO management. Through the high level of separation between decision-making and implementation, organizations could overcome the common problem of having power concentrated in the hands of one person with other members following orders. Overall, the Anti-Domestic Violence Network’s efforts in this regard have been very successful. The image the public has of the ADVN is that of the organization itself, rather than of one particular leader.

But this system of checks and balances also created some problems. Broadly speaking, the board had a tendency to be occupied with the successful completion of projects and their impact on society, while paying little attention to the overall health of the network—namely, the members responsible for implementing those projects. Therefore, the implementation body’s interests were the first to be abandoned, particularly when the organization was under external pressure.

The ADVN’s decision-making branch—the board—had become increasingly elitist. The vast majority of the board members were scholars from the country’s most prestigious schools and from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as well as senior leaders and experts in the women’s movement. They worked mostly in the areas of law, media, and women’s studies. As a gender equality organization that strived to advance progressive ideals, accruing top talent was not a problem in itself, as it provided valuable social capital. However, considering that most of these elite members came from within the system, had various sources of stable income, and high levels of education and social capital, NGO work tended to be merely an activity they did in their spare time. That is to say, the success of the organization was not necessarily each board member’s top priority nor a matter of life and death. My intention is not to question their deep sense of responsibility or to cast doubt on their commitment to gender equality. They were indeed driven by strong convictions, but because of their position in the social system, they personal interest in having the ADVN strive was weak. The spirit of volunteerism of these elites certainly contributed greatly to gender equality and the faith in anti-domestic violence work as well as to the organization’s work. However, no structural mechanism was put in place that ensured that all board members could always be available and ready to contribute the great amounts of passion and energy necessary to the ADVN’s development.

Because of the board’s inability to support the organization’s development, promote its brand, and build its staff members’ capacities, the ADVN had an extremely high staff turnover rate, especially compared to sister organizations and despite its excellent reputation within the women’s movement and its abundance of resources. Moreover, its project funding as well as part of its own resources were sometimes used to support scholarly research, but occasionally, the results would be published as the work of the scholars without mentioning the ADVN’s role. Therefore, these publications could not be counted among its achievements. These malpractices all occurred in the Network’s later stages, when the number of Chinese nonprofits exploded and the need for talent surged: it lost a great amount of talent at the implementation-level and had no way to attract and keep talented project officers.

(3) The Problem of Sustainable Funding and Projects

The ADVN received support from four international foundations since its founding. They provided substantial grants with three-year funding periods, giving stable and reliable support. This funder-recipient relationship on the one hand allowed the ADVN to operate on a large scale, conducting various training across regions and departments. On the other hand, it prevented the organization from seeking funding from other channels and prevented staff from developing their skills in this area.

This problem was finally revealed because of the 2009 global financial crisis and domestic policy changes in that year. In 2009, the global financial crisis caused international foundations to significantly reduce their support for Chinese organizations (For example, the grants given by the Ford Foundation reportedly shrank to what they were in 1979.). The continued support of our projects had already been made more complicated when, for various reasons, policies restricting foreign donations to social organizations were tightened. The ADVN had no choice but to leave the China Law Society and seek independent Industry and Commerce registration.

At the same time, while the Chinese economy “leapt forward”, various government and civil society organizations were getting more and more money, unlike in the funding- and talent-scarce 1990s. In these reversed circumstances, government bodies were less inclined to collaborate with the ADVN. Generally speaking, governmental organizations did not have meaningful motivation to seek collaboration and change with NGOs.

Additionally, some tense moments arose due to the fact that the ADVN’s direction was shaped by the anti-violence theme of the international women’s movement. However, its strategy allowed it to avoid highly politicized minefields. When receiving long-term assistance from international foundations, this was not a problem, since “anti-violence” was precisely what the funders were striving for. But when ADVN had to turn to Chinese society for funding, it was unclear how this topic would arouse the sympathies of domestic companies, whose gender consciousness was still extremely low. After all, because of China’s unique history, topics such as “gender equality” and “feminism” suffer more defamation and misunderstanding than in the West. They lag far behind topics such as the “protection of the environment”, “poverty alleviation”, and “education” in getting support from domestic organizations. How to strategically speak to domestic funders — this is an area in which the ADVN lacked experience and expertise the most.

Having understood the challenges described above, it is not hard to see why the ADVN fell apart soon after the projects funded by international foundations ended and the organization left the China Law Society.

The legitimacy the organization had acquired inside the system was weakened, which meant that the continued translation of the social capital accumulated within the system into resources and action became difficult. The increasingly elitist board did not continue supporting the organization because its failure or success was unconnected with its own survival (a perfectly understandable choice). Because the organization was long directed by international funders, it did not develop the skills necessary for fundraising from domestic groups. After losing its attractiveness to funders, the organization also encountered difficulties sustaining partnerships with governmental organizations. Finally, it faced immense challenges in registering as a commercial organization independent of the China Law Society.

Conclusion: What does the future hold for anti-domestic violence organizations?

The birth and death of the ADVN are not mere blips in the record of Chinese social movements. The curtain has fallen on fourteen years of hard work, raising a serious question: Is this the end of the NGO operating model that, under a particular State-society relationship, combines the social capital of domestic governmental bodies and the financial resources of international organizations? How can the women’s movement and similar social movements develop and be reborn in a new environment and a society that is rapidly changing? These are all extremely practical and important questions awaiting answers from the field.

Finally, having been a project officer of the ADVN, I am not writing this essay to criticize the remarkable record of this landmark women’s NGO. Rather, having great sympathy and understanding of the aims of the organization, my goal is to investigate and bring up a few existing issues which have been difficult to discuss at other times. I also hope that these heartfelt and sincere words will be useful to the women’s movement as a whole.

In Brief

Ex-ADVN program officer Dong Yige analyzes the history of the influential Anti-Domestic Violence Network and the reason for its closing down in May 2014.
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