40 Years of Chinese Charity in Different Phases

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Editor’s Note

This author of this article, Huo Weiya (霍伟亚), worked for years in environmental protection and started the Hongzhi Cafe’, a social enterprise in Beijing that regularly hosts events linked to the charity sector. The original article was published on CDB’s Chinese website, with the title 如何划分公益领域40年? You can find the full original here. Below is an abridged translation.


This year is a suitable one for reflection, since it has been 40 years since 1978 and in the charity sector we are also looking back at the past and towards the future.

On the 14th of October I attended a lecture at Tsinghua University entitled “the 20th anniversary of the Forum of Testimonies and Prospects from Chinese social organisations and NGOs”, where students, former government workers, and service professionals gathered together for commemorative activities. In the morning each person took it in turns to give a review for 3-5 minutes, and with more than 30 people it took over four hours; in the afternoon, there were two parallel research discussion forums about the next twenty years of research for NGOs. The day’s schedule was a tight one with many points of view expressed, drawing many people.

How should we look at the charity sector of the last 40 years? There were those who tried to divide history up into stages, and one speaker said that people who research NGOs can be divided into two generations, and the actual NGO workers into three generations; there were those who looked at the “ondulations” and “cycles” of the last 40 years, there were people who reflected on the references to and research on the term ‘NGO’ up until now and how the concept is frequently changing, asking whether this was because the research paradigm had lost its explanatory ability, or whether there were other reasons.

When we refer to the cycles, peaks and troughs, we are concealing a concern over 40 years of historical changes and divides.

How can we divide up 40 years of Chinese civil society? In books I have seen two schools of thought, one is that of the Nandu Foundation Director General Xu Yongguang’s ‘Three-point Theory’, which comes from his 2017 book “Civil society towards the Right, Business towards the Left”, and whose details I heard in an activity at the Shenzhen College of International Charity; the other is the Three Point Theory of Professor Gao Bingzhong of Peking University’s Civil Society Research Centre, which comes from his 2016 book ‘Citizens’ mutual trust and organisational structures in the sphere of society’. But their Three-Point Theories are not the same.

I will first explain their Three-Point Theories, and also try to make a fourth point. Before I begin, I will clarify that the object we are trying to divide gets called by many different names, the field of social organisations, the social field, civil society, the third sector, the charity or philanthropic sector and more. In this article I will mainly use the term “charity sector” to refer to it.

The concept of “charity” has many different definitions. I quote the Chinese Poverty Alleviation Foundation’s Former Executive President He Daofeng’s words, as they are easily understood – the voluntary involvement of private forces in public affairs.


Xu Yongguang’s three-stage theory

In his book “Civil society towards the Right, Business towards the Left”, Mr. Xu Yonghuang divides Chinese charity since the eighties and nineties into three periods, stressing the changes in the space available for social action that appeared in the midst of “state-society” relations.

The first stage is from the 80s until 2004, when reform of the charity sector began and the “state lets the private advance” (国让民进) setting arose, and “the government moved from high levels of centralised power to opening up a space, and supported the development of non-governmental and charitable ventures”. In 1998 the State Council passed the “Foundation Management Law”, after which some hundreds of Foundations with a government background were set up and carried out newly launched public welfare activities in the spheres of  education, healthcare, poverty relief.”

The second phase started in 2005. As Mr. Xu recalls in his book, this year was the first time Prime Minister Wen Jiabao proposed “Supporting the Development of Charitable Activities” in the Government Work Report in the National People’s Congress, and it was thought that the springtime was coming for China’s charity and philanthropy, but it didn’t even occur to us that afterwards a few local governments would turn “supporting the development of charitable activities” into “supporting charitable activities to develop a second source of taxes”.

After this and right through to around the time of the 18th Congress was considered to be “the state advances and the private retreats” (国进民退), but advancing to where? According to Mr. Xu’s argument, this period was one of “using one’s position for personal gain”, when public power tossed aside its identity as a referee, rolled up its sleeves and entered the charity sector that was the preserve of private volunteer activities, took the social resources and donations and did the work itself. After the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake, and the 2011 earthquake in Yushu, the government put social donations into its own bank accounts. This was an important sign that created a negative social impact, of which a notable consequence was the Guo Meimei incident in 2011.

After the 18th Congress, the next phase begun: “the state and society cooperate and compete”. “The phenomenon of seeking donations through power had basically stopped. In contrast, the government put forward funds towards social organisations for the procurement of public sector services, and this improved the efficiency of the services. The implementation of the “Charity Law” furthered clarified the dividing line between the state and the private sector within charity, and non-governmental charities received legal protection.


Gao Bingzhong’s three-stage theory

Professor Gao divides the development of China’s legal social organisations after the Reform and Opening Up into three phases, and he puts an emphasis on the influence of institutional changes on the number of social organisations.

The first phase in 1978-1987 was that of social organisations’ convalescence. During this period academic organisations recovered and flourished, and there was a surge of many kinds of social associations.

The second phase was from 1988 – 2001, when the social organisations where in a phase of complicated development during a process of consolidation. During this time the state set up the management office of social groups under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and it established the “Double Supervision System”. The Ministry of Civil Affairs was mostly focused on restrictive management, leading two rounds of “cleaning up and consolidation” (清理整顿) and re-registration.

The first round of re-registrations happened through the “Foundations Management Law” and the “Regulations on the Management of the Registration of Social Groups” of 1988 and 1989. In the second half of 1989, the re-examination and registration of foundations and social groups took place in the whole country. Following this, from June 1990 to June 1991 the first national clearning up and consolidation was launched. This re-registration did not bring about a decline in the number of social groups, on the contrary it opened up opportunities for a large number of existing social organisations to register as legal persons.

The second “cleaning up and consolidation”, which brought about a decline in the number of social organisations, went from 1997 to 2001. On the 8th of April 1997, the State Council published a document by the Ministry of Civil Affairs about cleaning up and consolidation; in October 1998 the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued new “Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Groups” and “Provisional Regulations on the Registration and Management of Citizen-run Non-enterprise Units”; in 2000, the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued the “Provisional Methods for the Suppression of Illegal Civil Society Organisations”, and the restricting and delisting of social organisations that failed to re-register led to a decline in the number of social groups.

The third phase was from 2002 until now, when the development of social organisations persisted and grew steadily. From the beginning of 2002, the number of social organisations started to rise again, and from the beginning of 2003, social organisations started to be classified as social groups, foundations and citizen-run non-enterprise units, and the total number of social organisations showed a trend of stable growth.

“In conclusion, after the high speed development and the twists and turns from 1988 to 2001, in the 10 years after 2002 the growth in the number of registered social organisations became an irreversible and stable trend. The growth had slower periods, but most years it stayed at a level of 8-11%, and the growth in 2015 was 1.7 times more than in 2002. This reflects a kind of ‘normal state’, and it reveals the relationship between society’s self-organising and the steadiness of the politics, economy and other factors at the macro level.”


An attempt at a four-stage theory

The ways in which Xu Yongguang and Gao Binzhong divide the charity field into different phases reveal the changes in the institutional environment in the sector and emphasize the role of government regulations and policies and administrative interventions in bringing changes with regards to the space for action and the number of organizations.

Nevertheless, questions such as which social forces should participate and how they should do so since the country “gave” space to them in 1978 remain undiscussed in Xu and Gao’s stage divisions analysis.

From a relatively neutral perspective, taking institutional changes and crucial events into account, I try to make a four-stage division spanning 40 years (1978-2018), and emphasize the sequence of social forces.

The first stage lasts 15 years, from 1978 to 1992, and it is the recovery and consolidation period.

After the state gave space, the first kind of organizations to debute on the charitable stage were charities with a government background and international NGOs (re)entering China, and they cooperated with each other. The earliest state-backed public fundraising foundation was the China Children and Teenagers Foundation, which was established in 1981 and is affiliated with the All China Women’s Federation.

Why could charitable organizations take the stage at this point? As Mr. Xu explains in his book: “at the beginning of the Reform and Opening-up, the government was quite poor and public participation alleviated the deficiency of government public service investment to some extent. ”

Due to the state’s approach of total management, where all should be arranged by the country, the international NGOs active during the Republic of China period were extinct by the 1950s. They started returning to China in the 1980s, but the peak was in the 1990s.

When introducing its work, the environmental organization WWF often mentions that its work in China dates back to the protection activities for the giant panda and its habitat in 1980, and “(it) was the first international organization invited by the Chinese government to operate protection activities”. The Ford Foundation established its office in 1988 in China, “becoming the first international NGO to obtain a special operating license in China.” ( The Roles and Challenges of International NGOs in China’s Development; Dr. Shawn Shieh (谢世宏); Signe Knutson (柯思林); China Development Brief Fall 2012 ). Of course, some international NGOs have not yet obtained any legal status, but they have already undertaking a fair amount of work in China.

According to The Roles and Challenges of International NGOs in China’s Development, there were 221 international NGOs in the country and 48 of them entered China during the period from 1978 to 1991, accounting for 22%.

The second stage lasted 11 years, from 1993 to 2003, ad it was the start-up period for grassroots organizations. There were also more international NGOs entering China during this period.

The middle class, such as media workers and intellectuals, became a new force in the charity field in this period. In the field of environmental protection that I have experienced, the first generation of grassroots environmental protection organizations such as Friends of Nature, the Green Home, and the Global Village were established during this period. This trend started in 1993, with the emblematic launch of Friends of Nature, and all four of the initiators had intellectual backgrounds, marking a difference from the origins of previous charitable organizations.

After the disturbances of the late 1980s, people with public concerns found in the environmental cause a new social opening. After all, environmental topics have the least ideological flavour. In August 2003, the news of the Nujiang dam construction came under the spotlight of the media and environmental protection NGOs. Civil society environmental organizations got involved in the discussion on a major national construction project for the first time, completing their overall coming out.

During this period, the hosting of the UN World Women’s Conference 1995 in Huairou, Beijing should be highlighted. Even though the conference’s location was shifted to the outskirts of Beijing, away from the crowds, the conference still played a significant role in introducing the word “NGO” to China, and it became an enlightening lesson for the first-generation of civil society practitioners in China.

The World Women’s Conference 1995 also brought in its wake the peak for international NGOs entering China. According to the statistics in The Roles and Challenges of International NGOs in China’s Development, there were 78 international NGOs entering China in 1996-2001, accounting for 35% of the total statistics (1978-2008).

The third stage went from 2004 to 2010, approximately seven years. In this period, capital and the strength of the public entered the stage of philanthropy.

The Foundations Management Ordinance, which was put into effect in June 2004, firstly divided foundations into public fundraising and non-public fundraising foundations. According to this ordinance non-public fundraising foundations could be established by social wealth, proving that capital had entered the philanthropic area. Henceforth enterprises and entrepreneurs, who benefited a lot from the reform and opening up, entered the philanthropic field in abundance. By 2010, there were more non-public fundraising foundations than public fundraising foundations for the first time.

Capital not only brought funds, but also a confident mindset and belief, and the advantages of its scale and objective effectiveness quickly spread to the whole sector.

The symbol of the strength of the masses entering the stage was the mass participation in the events of 2008, including the ice and snow disasters in southern China, the Beijing Olympics and the Wenchuan Earthquake. This year is often referred to as the first year of Chinese philanthropy (or civil society).

Capital and the strength of the masses entered the charity sector built up by NGOs with government backgrounds, overseas NGOs and public figures from the outside. While enriching and remodelling the sector, they also provided many hot topics in recent years, including the Ice Bucket Challenge, the 9/9 Philanthropy Day, the Free Lunch project, Chen Guangbiao’s “violent philanthropy” and more. This reminds us that reformation always come from the outside, bringing both pleasant surprises and worries.

At this point social forces with all kinds of background, including the authorities, international forces, capital, the elites and the masses were all present, and the charity sector had become a colorful, diverse and complex field, but it was also about to face a structural adjustment.

The fourth stage has been from 2011 to 2018, also approximately seven years. The charity sector entered a period of reconfiguration led by political authority, which still isn’t over.

In 2011, civil society turned into “the trap of civil society”, became a sensitive word, and finally retreated from the charity sector. After the adjustment of the discourse system, the resource structure and the legal system in the charity sector also readjusted in succession.

In September 2013, Guidance on the government purchase of services from the social forces was launched. The government would no longer take away social resources, but provided resources, purchase nongovernmental services and influence philanthropic development using resources.

In 2015, the general office of the CPC central committee launched “Opinions on Strengthening the Party Building among NGOs”, aimed at enhancing the leadership of the Communist Party.

In 2016 and 2017, the implementation of the Charity Law and the Overseas NGOs Law completely re-regulated the charity field from the legal perspective, and the influence of this is still unfolding.

On August 3, 2018, the government released the draft of the Regulations on NGOs Registration to solicit feedback from the public. The draft merges the Regulations on Social Groups Registration, the Foundation Management Ordinance and the Regulations on Private Non-Enterprise Registration. If the new regulations are put into effect, these three older regulations would be repealed at the same time.

In this period of reconfiguration the charity sector is filled with uncertainty, and all kinds of social forces are trying to adapt while they watch the developments.

The “marketization of philanthrophy” discourse would sometimes appear before 2011, but it was after 2011 that it really raised a clamour, to some extent filling the lack of meaningful discourse within the charity field, and becoming the loudest voice. This discourse system proposed to “solve social problems” through a professional, effective and large-scale approach, while it dodged or gave up upon the responsibility of charities to autonomously define such problems. Acquiring the legal space available in the new period by becoming simply a “tool to solve social problems”, it is hard to say whether it was a sincere cry or just a clever strategy.

In this four-stage division, we can see how the various social forces all entered at different stages, and their growth, ups and downs, and characteristics help to shape the charitable field.

At present the charity sector is in a reconstruction stage led by the authorities. Institutional space, relations among parties, methods of action and the sector’s culture are all under adjustment. The different actors are all trying to adapt with different moods, and a new structure is on the horizon.

In Brief

A personal attempt to summarise the course of the last 40 years of philanthropy in China, from the Reform and Opening Up until the present day.
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