In May of this year, CDB invited a diverse group of NGOs to share their views regarding recent policy reforms in the NGO sector at both the national and local levels. What they had to say should be read by everyone who is concerned about the impact these reforms will have on China’s nascent civil society.
A number of the speakers provided insights into the fragmented, decentralized nature of the policy process in China and raised questions about how these reforms will be implemented. One major concern heard among many speakers was that the recent reforms lowering barriers to registration and promoting government contracting to NGOs will have the effect of coopting social service NGOs into the system, while excluding NGOs that focus on advocacy and areas deemed more sensitive. A minority view argued that the reforms do provide some space for maneuvering and NGOs need to be creative about exploiting that space. Tang Hao’s forceful closing remarks at the very end is a case in point. In those remarks, he called on NGOs to form strategic alliances to create concepts, strategies and blueprints for future action.
Since 2011, the Chinese government has continued to issue new management policies for social organizations, lowered the threshold for their registration, promoted the government’s purchasing of social services and financial subsidies, and encouraged social forces to provide social services. Of these policies, Guangdong’s stands out for having made several critical breakthroughs, such as easing restrictions on the registration of social organizations, supporting government outsourcing of services, as well as relaxing restrictions on public fundraising by social organizations. Regarding the effective implementation of these policies and their impact on social organizations, commentators in the sector have had mixed reactions. On May 8th, China Development Brief (CDB) hosted a small-scale symposium concerning “The Impact and Effectiveness of Policy Reform of Social Organizations.” The discussions revolved around the background and strengths of the new policies, their outcomes and effectiveness, as well as their long-term impact on the development of Chinese social organizations. Throughout this transcript, the terms “social organizations” and “NGOs” are used interchangeably.
PARTICIPANTS (listed in alphabetical order):
Chen Xuqing, Professor, School of Management, Minzu University of China
Li Wenhen, Director of Brand Activities, Division of Brand Communication, China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation
Lv Pin, Director, Women’s Media Monitoring Network
Lv Quanbin, Beijing Representative, Sun Yat-sen University Philanthropy Research Center
Kang Taihe, Project officer, Misereor Foundation (Germany)
Tang Hao, Associate Professor, South China Normal University, and Vice Secretary-General, Sun Yat-sen University Philanthropy Research Center
Wang Yanyan, Director, Communications Department, YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation
Yu Fangqiang, Executive Director, Nanjing Justice for All, and Board Member, Beijing Yirenping Center
Moderator: Guo Ting, China Development Brief
CDB: Recently, Guangdong Province’s “Guangzhou Fundraising Regulations,” social organization registration reforms, and related policies have been, or are about to be, implemented and have attracted attention from the media and industry insiders about the background behind these policies, predictions about their implementation and effectiveness, and the strength of these policies related to the development and reform of social organizations.
Tang Hao: Of the new laws and regulations proposed by Guangdong, two are of great importance. The first is the “Guangzhou Fundraising Regulations,” which will come into effect on May 1st. The other is Guangdong Province’s reform concerning the registration of social organizations, which will go into effect on July 1st. The Fundraising Regulation’s most prominent trait is that it allows social organizations to engage in public fundraising, which is equivalent to granting social organizations the right to pool resources. The revision of the “Regulations on Registration and Management of Social Organization”, which has undergone revisions since being issued in 1988, underwent major changes. First, it permitted multiple associations in a single sector with the intent of reducing monopolies. Besides this, the reforms also greatly simplified the registration procedures for social organizations. In short, on one hand, these reforms give social organizations the power to pool their resources. On the other hand, in the organizing of resources, it allows for the reorganization of people and organizations from the grassroots. These two regulations are most important to the future of social development and represent a legal and regulatory breakthrough for Guangdong. After these two impediments are removed, I believe that the city of Guangzhou, if not Guangdong Province itself, will come to represent a critical point in the development of social organizations in China.
In addition, at the policy level, from the Provincial Party Secretary to the Director of the Social Affairs Committee to the officials in the provincial Department of Civil Affairs, many statements were issued in the last year urging officials at all levels to take responsibility for implementing these policy reforms ((Editor’s Note: The Provincial Party Secretary is the highest ranking leader in the province. The Social Affairs Committee is a recently established committee set up within the CCP hierarchy to take charge of “social construction” and “social management”. In Guangdong, this Committee was established in 2011, while in Beijing, it was established a few years ago. Its functions appear to overlap with those of Civil Affairs.)).
Of course, this is a positive situation. But the fact of the matter remains that these new policies and legislation still are bounded by invisible constraints. These constraints could include ideology, and the bottom line of stability maintenance. They could also include previously held ideas about social organizations. In short, the proposal and implementation of new policies is faced with a glass ceiling. When you are faced with this moment, you know that you have reached a line. And although there is no formal statute concerning the issue, policies are unable to breakthrough these limits ((Editor’s Note: The speaker here is referring to restrictions on any new reforms that are imposed by the Communist Party’s limits on ideological discourse, its concern for social stability, and its discourse about social organizations which tends to privilege GONGOs that operate within the system over grassroots NGOs that operate outside the system.)).
For example, in 2010, Guangdong Province wanted to propose charity regulations. At this time, Jiangsu Province had already proposed such legislation and afterwards Hunan Province also followed suit. Yet because the two provinces lack the relevant social foundations, after implementing such legislation, the development of social organizations was not as good as expected ((Editor’s Note: At the time, neither Jiangsu nor Hunan were seen as centers of NGO activity)). Guangdong Province’s social organizations situation is relatively good and its strong desire to move forward and grow is without question. In early 2010, Guangdong Province’s Department of Civil Affairs Regulations Office commissioned Sun Yatsen University’s Institute for Civil Society (Sun Yatsen Department of Anthropology’s “Citizen and Society Development Research Center) to create a plan. The direct participation of researchers in the process of creating legislation could be seen as progress. However, after completing drafts of the regulations, it has been almost two and a half years and nothing has come of the project. One sticking point has been that, after handing over the drafts of the legislation to other departments for consideration, some departments have opposed the wording of certain sections. They believe that, if social organizations are given too large a space in which to work, they will become unmanageable and negatively impact their own work.
Additionally, from the perspective of making legislation, the majority of public interest and philanthropy legislation is produced in a closed environment. It is not unlike underground gas that, unbidden, comes suddenly and unpredictably to the surface. Examples include policies concerning public services or legislation regulating the terms of public goods, such as running water and electricity, environmental pollution standards, etc. The closed environment in which legislation is produced leaves citizens without recourse to participate, give suggestions, or ensure the quality of the legislation itself.
The third and most important obstacle is that the differentiation of interests in society is quite serious and makes many policies not only difficult to propose, but also to implement. There are some regulations that are intended to promote public services, but in reality harm the interests of many organizations. For instance, the example just raised about the “Guangzhou Fundraising Regulation” will most certainly touch upon the interests of the Red Cross and similar organizations that previously enjoyed the right to raise funds publicly ((Editor’s Note: Under the current regulatory system, only public fundraising foundations have the right to engage in public fundraising. The Red Cross, which is governed by a separate law, enjoys a similar right. The new Fundraising Regulation in Guangzhou will expand that right to other social organizations and therefore, as the speaker notes below, threatens the previous monopoly that public foundations held over fundraising.)). As a result, when we were asked to draft Guangdong Province’s charity regulation, we originally planned to write in the right to public fundraising. This point is one of the reasons the legislation has been slow in coming. I remember, at that time, representatives from certain large-scale philanthropic organizations in Guangdong coming almost daily to look for us, especially to speak to the head of the provincial Department of Civil Affairs Regulations Office, to tell us what we could and could not do. This perhaps is one kind of vested interest, unrelated to ideological or political considerations, that emerges from the recognition of one’s self-interests and represents another hindrance to the legislative process.
On the whole, I believe that Guangdong Province’s political and legal reforms have made some breakthroughs. However, the three obstacles I have just raised are difficult to overcome. I still have hope though because once these policies begin to take effect, they will mobilize the strength of various social groups, including the power of fundraising. The regulations lowering barriers to registration will also encourage the joining of organizational resources and, when this happens, it will become a dynamic social force. Only then will government policies will be able to move forward and break through the above obstacles.
Chen Xuqing: Last year, I learned from various places that the appearance of new policies related to the development of Chinese social organizations is not single-handedly guided by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and is in reality spurred by reform of the social organization structure on a much larger scale. This reform of social organizations represents a kind of holistic, top-down, experimental type of policy. The reason for these types of policies is that new regulations rely on material support and financial assistance from above. The result is that when many places are looking to propose reforms, they will not necessarily indicate that they recognize the severity of the problem need to improve it, and instead work to adjust such policies in order to gain access to resources from above.
A second issue is that various localities have proposed their own policies for advancing the development of social organizations, but there are differences in their implementation. For example, we often speak of groups in the public benefit, charitable, and social service categories that the government quite clearly supports. The Ministry of Civil Affairs is quite clearly willing to allow these kinds of social organizations to register without a professional supervising unit. But, there are other types of groups that will not enjoy such privileges, and the government’s restriction of such groups is extremely strict ((Editor’s Note: Here, the speaker is referring to social organizations that fall outside the public interest, charitable and social service categories, such as groups that are more explicitly political, human rights, or religious in nature.)).
The third issue is that some of China’s policies are driven by values and interests and do not necessarily have any realistic or operational significance. One source of those values/interests derives from the sensibilities of government departments and their staff which hold up the policy’s actual implementation. Another source derives from the fact that the Ministry of Civil Affairs is not a very powerful department. To advance its agenda, it requires the support of other departments and so, although it will introduce new policies, it is overly cautious in implementing them.
As for the reform of the registration and management of social organizations in Guangdong, the reality of the matter is that several other places have already implemented similar policies, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, Jiangsu, and Guangxi. The policy put forth by Guangdong has been made into a hot topic by the media. What it actually reflects is a problematic method of how the media and the public understand and transmit information about public interest issues. For example, official provincial newspapers and relevant media organs will emphasize what official made an appearance and what that official said, but the organization’s name, where their resources come from, and what their main purpose is, often remain unclear. There is also media that focus on the more sensational points and end up overlooking the substance of an issue. Take for example last year’s “Guo Meimei” and “Lu Meimei” incidents. In reality, these two events are quite different but, because academic circles and media took interest in certain aspects of both, they stole the scene ((Editor’s Note: Guo Meimei and Lu Meimei are two scandals in the philanthropy sector that were widely publicized in the media and social media in 2011.)). We must calm down and think about the substance of a problem and how to work it out. Only then will our actions have meaning and value.
The development of social organizations in China certainly has its peculiarities. It is impossible to forge ahead solely on one’s own or without any social basis, and when the momentum runs out, the development is hard to sustain. China currently has a large number of policies, but when it comes to actually implementing them it is often unprepared. So, its possible that some policies emerge from a need to propagate certain values, and a portion of practical policies make it down to reality, but the current conditions in China are not fully matured. Not only are the government’s management mechanisms not fully developed, but Chinese civil law is also underdeveloped, as is the NGO sector.
Li Wenhen: Reform policies should make gradual advancements. We cannot expect all things to unfold in one motion and to do so in an equal manner. All things in China, once changed, have a series of reactions and require a series of policies. Concerning a single Ministry, it is unable to implement a series of policies on its own and therefore requires assessing a situation, using the most stable methods, and implementing reforms whose pros outweigh their cons. For example, to suddenly completely deregulate the registration process would mean large numbers of new groups would register. The office that manages social organizations, currently managing 100 organizations, would suddenly need to manage 2000 organizations. They would be completely unprepared and fall into disorder. Once in disorder, it could only fall back on old habits and become what is was before, and to make changes again in the future would become even more difficult. So, it is still better to slowly explore the options, try them out, and find practical solutions.
As for the fundraising regulations in Guangzhou, newly established organizations that previously lacked the right to fundraise publicly now have hope for acquiring approval. But, to realistically approach the issue from another perspective, even if they are approved, how will they use their new privileges, and will they use them effectively? This is a problem. There are many reputable organizations that are qualified to fundraise publicly, but they do not necessarily use their privileges effectively.
CDB: After the introduction of relevant policies, some believe that government policies favor formally registered social organizations and civil non-enterprise units (CNIs). They argue that the policies facilitate these organizations’ ability to obtain government resources while having little effect on organizations that are registered as businesses. In fact, to a certain extent, the policies may squeeze the latter groups’ resource space. In practice, what are the effects of policy changes on the ability of formally registered organizations and commercially registered organizations to acquire resources?
Yu Fangqiang: The government’s management of social organizations has been changing since 2008. However, in my opinion, there has been no effect on commercially-registered organizations like ours, because the two most important areas of policy impact for NGOs are fundraising and taxation. If the organization is not affected in these areas, then changes by the government do not concern us.
In terms of fundraising, most of the numerous newly-promulgated policies are concentrated in the areas of government purchasing and registration. At least until now the government will not purchase from organizations like ours ((Editor’s Note: The speaker’s NGO is registered as a business. Because it is not registered as a social organization with Civil Affairs, it does not have the qualifications to accept government contracts.)). Therefore, those policies have no effect on us in terms of fundraising. As for taxation, the current reform measures have made no major changes for organizations registered either as social organizations or businesses. As a result, they have no effect on us.
If one were to consider the issue more extensively, and consider the overall impact of these policy changes on social organizations, then I think the policy changes may create more divisions among social organizations. On the one hand, these policy changes will increase the likelihood of social organizations that are engaged in public interest and charitable work and meet the standards for government purchasing to be coopted by the existing system. On the other hand, more independent social organizations will move farther away from this system. It is also possible that the latter organizations have made many contributions and have their own fundraising channels; therefore, they are not worried about their future direction. As a result, they will not even consider joining the system ((Editor’s Note: This speaker voices the fear of more independent social organizations that see the reforms as a way for the government to coopt and pacify them. The concern is that by lowering the barriers to registration and inviting grassroots NGOs to register so they can become legitimate and apply for government contracts, the reforms will make these NGOs more dependent on the government and more willing to do its bidding.)).
Kang Taihe: Some of our partners harbor tremendous hope for the government to purchase their services. They believe that government contracts can account for 30 percent of their annual budget. However, I think they still face a problem: Do the social organizations select the services to be purchased or does the government designate which services to purchase? For example, if you design a small but focused project, yet the government’s purchase standard indicates that the project must serve a designated number of persons, which conflicts with your design, what do you do then?
In addition, on many occasions, the government only provides funds to implement the project when it purchases services. This is a feasible collaborative method if the salaries of the NGO staff are provided by the state (as might happen in some GONGOs). However, because the staff of grassroots NGOs do not receive a salary from the state, they will need to charge management fees from the projects to pay their staff.
Chen Xuqing: The government is more cautious when it comes to fee management. In some places, wages have already been itemized, meaning that they are allowed. However, there are still limitations in some places. Nonetheless, there should be adjustments in the future.
With respect to taxation, my understanding is that Civil Affairs-registered NGOs in many places, including Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia, are able to get tax exemptions. However, here I feel that there are some issues that should be addressed properly so as to be even more beneficial to the development of NGOs. For example, most of the NGO training sessions center on advocacy, which lacks substance and is impractical. It may be that more training with respect to behavioral norms and project planning should be conducted. As an example, during a visit I discovered that civil non-enterprise units, such as schools and hospitals, were exempted from paying taxes. However, they were still paying utilities according to the rates for small and medium enterprises. One unit of electricity is 1.20 yuan for industrial use, but one unit of electricity for use by social organizations is less than 0.50 yuan. Yet, the leaders of the schools and hospitals were not aware of this fact.
Lv Pin: According to information received from some Guangdong-based women’s organizations with which I am familiar, after the change in the registration policy, the Guangdong provincial Women’s Federation invited some unregistered organizations to register because it believed that it needed to take the lead in this area. However, some organizations will consider whether to accept this offer and whether more supervision will be involved with the addition of a “mother-in-law.” They believe there are still differences, in views and approaches, between some women’s rights organizations and the Women’s Federation ((Editor’s Note: The Women’s Federation are “mass organizations” under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but sometimes self-identify as NGOs. Here, Lv Ping, notes that some local Women’s Federations have offered to sponsor organizations to register with Civil Affairs, but points out that some women’s organizations might be wary of working under the supervision of the Women’s Federation because of its close ties with the CCP.)).
Moreover, there is a relationship between these policy changes and the NGO’s ability to obtain international financial support. Obtaining international financial support is a competitive process. Both registered and unregistered organizations, including those with sound government support, are competing for those resources. Some international donors also consider the legality of its funding partners in China, so they will carry out an informal investigation of the NGO. If as a result of the investigation the NGO is unable to get the funding, then it might be compelled to turn to funding from less legitimate sources, which can bring greater risks to the NGO.
CDB: Within the sector, there seems to be a consensus that NGOs can be divided into two categories in terms of their mission, ideals and work: social service groups and action and advocacy groups. Many policy changes are more likely to benefit social service NGOs, which leads us to ask if action and advocacy groups still have space to develop further? If so, how can they find space to develop?
Lv Pin: Recently, Wang Zhenyao has stressed that NGOs need to be more professional, and move away from the grassroots approach. This professionalization is a way to bring you over to one side, similar to an NGO becoming more like a social work program. Currently, it seems no one really distinguishes between NGOs and social work programs, and both seem to be doing the same work ((Editor’s Note: Here, Lv Pin is making a backhanded criticism of the tendency in China to equate NGO work with social work or charity, rather than with rights-based activism that seeks to change policy and power relationships.)). But social work is simply an extension of the state, and is quite different from the work NGOs do.
I feel that, in the case of NGOs registered as businesses, these social policy reforms are more relevant for social service groups than for advocacy groups. Over the past few years, had our group not adopted several methods from other civil society groups to allow us to continue to exist, our organization would not have the prospects that we have today.
Sometimes our discussion is not so much about survival but more about who is the problem. There are no mechanisms in China to assess government policy. If we want to evaluate policy that is meant to affect NGOs, I believe we should start by looking at grassroots organizations. But, after looking at these optimistic policies, how many grassroots organizations can we truly talk about that have truly benefited? Support for these policies is really nothing more than embracing overly optimistic hopes. The original concept of NGOs embraced different types but those differences are lost when we talk about NGOs now. In the past, some NGOs did do advocacy work, however, when we talk about NGOs now, it is frequently in reference to social service groups which play a supporting role in the system.
Lv Quanbin: I very much agree with what Lv Pin said, that social work and NGO public interest work are not the same thing. But what are the differences and where are the boundaries between the two? I feel that social service groups are creating many GONGOs, and establishing many social work agencies, a development that is a form of stability maintenance. It offers social work college students the chance to obtain residence permits, and thus better treatment, and then sends them to work in communities to play a stability maintenance role similar to the role of those elderly women who keep a daily watch in the community ((Editor’s Note: The speaker here is referring to a push by local governments to promote social work in communities by contracting services to social work agencies. The emphasis in these efforts is using service provision to maintain harmony and stability in communities. In other words, it is more about pacifying communities than empowering them.)).
In addition, several disaster relief NGOs in Sichuan have been leaving, specifically nongovernmental public interest organizations, because they cannot find a way to survive. The space provided by the government is shrinking. This trend, along with the difficulties of reconstructing after a disaster, is causing groups to withdraw. On the other hand, after the withdrawal of many NGOs, the government began contracting services on a large-scale, supporting the transformation of some NGOs into social work organizations. In short, it is only social service organizations that are better able to survive.
Chen Xuqing: In fact the government is not only outsourcing services to social organizations, but also enterprises. Restrictions on government procurement are inevitable, and lead us to wonder if advocacy groups are actually needed. If not, their services will naturally not be purchased. But this is dependent not only on government procurement, but also on the larger social environment. In this respect, I believe advocacy groups have no room for development.
Li Wenhen: Now there are a variety of needs, but the most pressing need, especially at this stage, is service providers that solve real problems. Advocacy can then be carried out on this base. In fact, including the advocacy work done by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (中国扶贫基金会), it should be said that various groups each do some grassroots advocacy in their own field, although there may be a question of scale. For example, poverty alleviation first helps some impoverished people and then uses resources and energy to do advocacy work. This advocacy work includes holding events with similar organizations, offering forums, produce various publications, and other programs. This is also advocacy. This approach can also minimize the risk of appearing confrontational, and make advocacy more acceptable to the government and recipients.
Wang Yanyan: During the Chinese economic reform, there was a very famous saying, the central government enacted a policy, each local government would also enact the same policy. Those localities on the southeast coast said: “Ah, this policy is good! It allows us to do anything,” because the policy did not say what you cannot do. However, some inland, more conservative, localities said: “My God, this policy is not very good, it does not let us do anything!” because they only saw what the policy said they can do ((Editor’s Note: The speaker is referring here to the southeastern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian which took advantage of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policies to move ahead of the rest of the nation by interpreting the policy more flexibly. In contrast, other provinces played it safe by reading the policy more literally.)). I feel social organizations are in this position now. Whether you think there are opportunities depends on how you interpret the policy.
On April 28, YouChange Foundation organized a seminar entitled “Social Management Innovation – How Can Social Service Organizations Better Participate in the Public Service Sector?” They invited various experts to discuss key points, and the seminar summarized various points discussing recommendations for social service groups and our expectations for these groups. One was that social organizations should preserve their own values. When certain government policies come out, they offer an opportunity but also a temptation. Organizations should stick to their own beliefs and values, that is very important. Of course, we also need to continually improve our beliefs and public interest nature. Second, we want to actively act and not passively wait. Third, we want to strengthen our own ability, focus energy on development; but we cannot be too eager for instant success, since anxiety and speed will not bring results.
There are also those who argue that the biggest part of government outsourcing of public services is service-oriented. We cannot expect the government to outsource advocacy-type or innovative projects because the government has its own functions and position. Public service groups need to diversify their resource channels. Apart from the government, these groups need to consider getting funding from private businesses and foundations.
CDB: What impact will the reforms of social organization policy have on the development of the civil society, and even society in general? How can different types of NGOs participate in this process to push, design or even change the policy?
Yu Fangqiang: I think this series of policy changes only constitutes a technical change in the management style of NGOs, rather than a reform of the larger environment for civil society. For organizations registered with the Civil Affairs office or the Industry and Commerce office, or for unregistered organizations, the government now only provides a kind of technical solution for them, but it doesn’t create a free and diversified environment ((Editor’s Note: The speaker here is referring to recent reforms lowering barriers to registration which are intended to allow more NGOs to register with Civil Affairs. But the reforms do not provide other ways to register for those NGOs that might still be unable to register or unwilling to register because they address more sensitive topics. Nor do the reforms lessen other restrictions that make NGO work difficult, such as restrictions on NGO fundraising and on freedom of speech and media)). For example, the only way for NGOs to obtain legal status is to register with the Civil Affairs office; they are not allowed to register with the Administration of Industry and Commerce, as foundations, or find another way to survive.
Why are these changes not known to society? Because the general public doesn’t know much about NGOs. The new regulations focusing on management and registration are too specialized for the public to understand. The events that received more public attention are not addressed at all in these reforms ((Editor’s Note: The speaker here is referring to events like the Guo Meimei scandals of 2011 that raised issues about the government’s monopoly on fundraising and the lack of transparency in the sector.)). I believe these policy reforms will give rise to a government-guided, commercialized model rather than a model in which commercial society, civil society and the government play equal roles.
Wang Yanyan: we talked about some suggestions to the government in our seminar, and someone mentioned the importance of a top-level design. As the division of labor among government departments becomes pronounced, there has to be a high-level design so that the government can carry out a systematic course of action. Ideally, social organizations should participate in the design ((Editor’s Note: The term “high-level design” refers to designing a policy with backing from top leaders and agencies that have the authority to coordinate the work of different government departments in carrying out the policy. The need for “high-level design” is seen as critical to effective policymaking given the growing strength of different interests within the government and society.)).
Take disaster relief as an example. Social organizations are not yet part of the national rescue system. The only social organization present at the Emergency Management Leading Group of the State Council is the Red Cross, which is not a non-governmental organization in real terms ((Editor’s Note: The Red Cross is a GONGO. Governed by its own law, it does not need to register with Civil Affairs like other social organizations and has close ties to the government, particularly at the local levels.)). During the Yingjiang earthquake, we received a phone call from the National Disaster Relief Center. They wanted to talk to a local organization to find out how serious the situation was, and about the casualties and the damage to schools. So we put them in touch with the disaster relief network of YouChange. The government is aware that there are things beyond its capacity, and it needs the participation of social organizations. This is an opportunity for social organizations. As long as we have the right mentality and channel, there is an opportunity for NGOs to participate in this top-level design, and in government decision-making.
Tang Hao: In the long run, these reforms may pose some serious problems. I believe those problems are not intended by the government, but they may have a negative impact.
First, the reforms reflect the idea of a government-run social sector. What will happen if the government absorbs social organizations or pushes public institutions into the public interest sector, and transforms them into powerful GONGOs ((Editor’s Note: The speaker here is referring to recent plans to carry out a reform of public institutions (also called public service units) such as universities, research institutions and hospitals by changing them into social organizations, essentially privatizing them. These social organizations, because they came from the public sector and have close ties with the government, would however act more like GONGOs than independent NGOs.)). Perhaps we can take a look at what happened to the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the past decade: as SOEs monopolized more of the resources, the private sector faced an environment of cutthroat competition. As we all know, excessive competition in the food industry has caused many social problems. The same could happen with NGOs. If GONGOs dominate the most profitable and promising areas in the social sector, the remaining NGOs could be facing vicious competition in a crowded field. NGOs will start to attack each other. All kinds of issues may come up.
There is another potential problem. When the government interferes with the market, we see the marriage of power and capital. The same story will happen to the social sector. We invest huge amount of money in buying services. Where does the money go? Our supervision mechanisms are still immature. Will there be a new round of corruption? I think it’s possible.
Now what should NGOs do?
They need to develop in the following areas. First, as I have said, they must reach out to the local community. Second, they should establish themselves in the areas where the government is unwilling or unable to enter. In the process, they will find spaces to develop. This is completely possible.
In addition, I feel it is necessary to form a strategic alliance among NGOs. I am not suggesting a merger since that is not the nature of NGOs. A strategic alliance means they can design something together, using a division of labor to support each other in terms of resources, and achieve a win-win situation.
Many of the problems that NGOs face are because they are not strong enough, not only in resources, but also in research. Concepts proposed by research institutions (One Foundation Research Institute ((Editor’s Note: One Foundation Research Center is now called the China Philanthropy Research Institute.)), Beijing Normal University and Tsinghua University) are very limited, and their theoretical studies haven’t been transformed into strategic resources. NGOs should produce concepts, strategies and blueprints for the future. Now the public interest sector’s development is at the same stage as the market economy in its initial stages. The government has no experience and does not know what to do. Our practical and theoretical contributions will decide the path of civil society in the next 10 years, so there are many things we can do.
Lv Pin: I think what Tang said about NGOs and the future of China’s society is very interesting. NGOs are weak. Do you hear any voice from NGOs in the public debate today? They are too weak to participate. However, I believe that if you have ideals and ideas, and the values of an independent NGO, and if you want to do something meaningful, you still have to adhere to the special characteristics of NGOs, otherwise there’s no way to be productive. Some organizations abandon these special characteristics in their discussions. One example is the argument that NGOs are only a supplement to the government. Of course, everyone has their own view, but I have to disagree with this argument. If you think of NGOs as occupying this subordinate position, then we will never be able to change society.
(Transcript Recording: Wang Chunmei; Editor: Guo Ting; The transcript was reviewed by some of the speakers.)