Introduction: This article is noteworthy for providing insights into how the NGO, nonprofit sector, or what is now commonly referred to as the public welfare or public interest sector, is evolving in China, and in particular how they are evolving in the special economic zone of Shenzhen which for the past few years has been experimenting with political reforms. The Shenzhen Fair shows the growing collaboration taking place between NGOs, foundations, business and government in the last few years. That collaboration is changing the NGO landscape in significant ways. It also shows the more open attitude of the Shenzhen authorities toward social organizations such as NGOs, although as the article makes clear, their openness is restricted to NGOs operating in “safer” areas such as environmental protection, education, and poverty relief, and does not seem to extend to legal aid or labor NGOs.
A year after the 2009 Beijing Public Interest Fair (hereinafter referred to as “Beijing Fair”) was held, another fair was held at the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center with the mission of “bring together donors and recipients in the NGO field” ((Editor’s Note: I have translated the term “gongyi” as public interest, although the more commonly used term is public welfare. The latter term, with its emphasis on providing social welfare services, implies a more restrictive role for citizens and civic organizations. The “public interest” however suggests a more expansive role that includes not just social service provision, but also advocating for social and political changes. The government tends to use the term “gongyi” in the sense of public welfare, but NGOs would generally prefer the more expansive definition.)).
The Approval Process
The Shenzhen Fair was co-sponsored by the Shenzhen Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau, Shenzhen City Civilization Office, Shenzhen Care Office, Shenzhen City NGO Management Office, and the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会), and organized by Non-profit Incubator (NPI). The participation of government agencies (in the Shenzhen fair) was very different than the “Beijing Fair” which was co-sponsored by many public fundraising and private fundraising foundations ((Editor’s Note: The participation of government agencies in the Shenzhen Fair may reflect the more open attitude of the Shenzhen local government towards NGOs. Shenzhen is one of the cities experimenting with more liberal registration and management policies for social organizations. At the same time, government involvement as hinted below also comes with more regulation. Local authorities in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities are finding it pays to be proactive in working with and supporting NGOs because they then have more of a say in managing them.).
A few days before the Shenzhen Fair began, organizations that were registered for the exhibition began to receive notices from the organizing committee, requiring that they fax their business license or Civil Affairs registration documents for approval. This qualification process made exhibitors feel a bit “nervous”.
On February 26, the Huiling schools, which had already prepared to go to Shenzhen, were told they could not participate ((Editor’s Note: Huiling is a well-known NGO that serves young adults with intellectual disabilities and now has 10 schools around the country. Because many nonprofits are not allowed to register branch organizations in other regions, each Huiling school has to register separately. This makes it difficult for Huiling, and other NGOs with branch offices, to participate as a single entity. In this case, it required that each school submit paperwork if they wanted to participate in the fair.)). A Philanthropy Times (Gongyi Shibao) article found that Huiling had applied as a single entity under the name of “Huiling Service Organizations in China for Individuals with Cognitive Disability,” but had only submitted the business license for Qinghai Huiling, and thus was not approved by the Shenzhen Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau. Two other agencies also encountered a similar situation. When she learned the reasons for the rejection, Meng Weina, Huiling’s founder, immediately wrote to Xu Yongguang, Narada Foundation’s chairman of the board, and others, to request help. The situation was eventually resolved after some mediation and submitting the required paperwork.
Another rule was that the organizing committee stipulated that each exhibitor had to be recommended by a social organization officially registered with Civil Affairs. In addition, the organizations’ nameplates on the booth had to be their legally-registered names. This led to some confusion ((Editor’s Note: Some NGOs, especially those registered as businesses, use corporate-sounding names such as “xx Consulting Company” or “xx Research and Development Center” to register, but go under a different name in public.)).
For example, visitors who stopped at the booths of “Love Together (Beijing) Consulting Co., Ltd.” (爱聚（北京）咨询有限公司)and “Beijing Xinmin Sirui Education Consulting Center” (北京新民思睿教育咨询中心) discovered they were in reality two well-known NGOs – 1kg.org (多背一公斤) and 21st Century Education Research Institute（21世纪教育研究院). For security considerations, any salon activities held during the fair had to be reported. Various inconveniences brought on by these restrictions annoyed some exhibitors, but everyone also basically showed their understanding.
On March 4, the Shenzhen Fair officially opened in the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center. More than 160 NGOs participated, more than at the Beijing Fair. The projects on display involved 8 major areas: poverty alleviation; environmental protection; culture and education; mental health; supporting the elderly and persons with disabilities; professional social work services; support services; and research and comprehensive services. Some companies such as Wal-Mart also set up their own booth in the exhibition hall stage area.
Walking through the whole exhibition, you rarely found a NGO devoted to labor or legal aid. Their absence was striking in a city like Shenzhen where many factories are dependent on migrant labor, many labor problems have emerged and, as a result, many organizations have emerged to provide legal aid, psychological counseling and other services to workers. Local organizations confirmed that these types of organizations were not present because of their sensitivity ((Editor’s Note: The author’s observation here confirms what we have heard even about more liberal-minded localities like Shenzhen. That is, authorities are more open to allowing NGOs to register and assume a legal identity, but they are also selective in the types of NGOs they will support. NGOs working in areas regarded as “safe” such as poverty alleviation, environmental protection, disabilities, care for the elderly, are encouraged while NGOs working in more risky areas such as legal aid and labor are not.)).
Still, there were NGOs that had not been approved to participate, but came anyway and distributed flyers about their organizations, and actively sought opportunities to engage with the exhibitors.
Exhibition and theme activities
The Shenzhen Fair was an improvement on the Beijing Fair in terms of overall numbers. It held five forums, eight public interest activities and 14 salons. According to the statistics of the Organizing Committee, on-site distribution of free tickets surpassed 20,000 which is far more than the 3,000 people who attended the Beijing Fair.
Several public areas were opened up in the exhibition hall, allowing exhibitors to take the initiative and host discussions and competitive activities. The topics were diverse and ranged from brand communications and fund raising to protection of the Hoh Xil Tibetan antelope, from dyslexia to women’s breast health care.
Meanwhile, in the stage area, there were more experiential and participatory activities provided. Exhibitors and the public could participate in these activities. Some took in the joys and insights of a nature photographer, while others experienced what it was like to live in a family of someone with disabilities through simulation activities. The forums on the second floor of the exhibition hall were of most interest to NGOs. They discussed the resources that organizations themselves need to develop. The number of people gathered here often far exceeded those at the other activities in the salon and stage areas. In the forum area, two separate discussions were going on about the development of private foundations and the use of IT technology to promote the public welfare. The forum’s activities went from morning until the end of the day but the number of participants at these discussions never declined.
The “Private Foundation Forum” was hosted by the Shenzhen Fair’s organizing committee. People from private foundations including Narada (南都)，Vantone (万通)、Beijing Western Sunshine (西部阳光)、Tencent (腾讯)、Huaxia (华夏) and others shared experiences about the establishment and initial operations of private foundations.
In the adjoining hall was the second forum on “NPO IT DAY” (non-profit organizations information day) co-sponsored by NPI and Microsoft, with about 120 people participating. The participants got together in groups with Microsoft employee volunteers to discuss three main topics of interest to NGOs: “fund-raising, securing materials, and finding people” as well as how to better serve the public good in the area of IT management. After each group discussion, professionals conducted on the spot “IT diagnosis.” Afterwards, representatives from Microsoft, Taobao, and Vjoin shared their personal stories.
In the “NPO IT DAY” activities, participants could express their reflections about the meeting via text message or by logging on to Sohu’s microblogging site. This information appeared simultaneously on the big screen at the venue. Microblogging platforms are now playing an important role and being taken seriously by NGOs.
Moving towards corporate resources but NGO registration difficulties remain
Compared with the Beijing Fair, companies came out in stronger numbers at the Shenzhen Fair. The importance of corporate resources is seen as increasingly important by NGOs, and has led to new areas of cooperation. On the last day of the fair, NPI issued a “2011 Report on matching resources for the public interest sector in China” that addressed this issue.The report surveyed 84 institutions and showed that the support that public interest organizations get from companies and foundations comprise a high proportion of their total funding, 32.7% and 15.1% respectively. These figures showed that funding for public interest organizations has undergone major changes. At the same time, the amount of funding from the government is also increasing. However, resources mainly go towards environmental protection, poverty alleviation, social innovation, post-disaster relief, etc., while investment in capacity building, health care and mental health is still relatively small.
The report also found that “a NGO’s registration form is major requirement for donors.” It points out that the vast majority of donors will ask recipient organizations to be legally registered charity organizations; of these donors, 60% tend to fund charity organizations registered in the Civil Affairs system, while organizations registered with Industry and Commerce as businesses or those not registered at all get very few resources ((Editor’s Note: The difficulty NGOs have registering is already well know. Many independent NGOs cannot register with Civil Affairs and thereby gain legal status as a “charity” or “nonprofit” organization because they must first find a government agency willing to be its supervising unit. Because finding a willing sponsor is difficult, many NGOs end up registering as a for-profit business or remain unregistered.)). Eighty percent of the difficulties experienced by public interest organizations are directly connected to the “external policy environment or the way their organizations registered”. This confirms that “registration difficulties” still constitute the biggest obstacle for NGOs.
In addition, some organizations found the opportunity to communicate with the government. After the fair ended, Meng Weina of Huiling said in an email that she had an in-depth discussion with the Shenzhen Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau Director Liu Runhua and deputy director Ma Hong for 40 minutes in front of their booth. Both sides openly and frankly exchanged their ideas, winning each other’s respect and understanding. The Civil Affairs officials said, “As long as you given it careful thought, (Shenzhen Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau) welcomes Huiling to Shenzhen to provide services.”
Civil Affairs Director Liu was confident in making such a promise to Huiling. Back in November of last year, at the China Charity 100 Forum (中华慈善百人论坛), Director Liu had sent out an invitation to “come to Shenzhen to practice charity.” As a special economic zone, Shenzhen has used its unique identity to carry out innovations in the reform of the registration and management of social organizations. Since 2006, Shenzhen has allowed trade associations to directly register with Civil Affairs ((Editor’s Note: Registering directly with Civil Affairs generally means the association is not required to find a supervising agency to sponsor it.)). In 2008, it promulgated “Views on Further Developing and Standardizing our City’s Social Organizations,” allowing economic, social service and public interest charitable organizations to directly register with Civil Affairs. Then in 2009, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Shenzhen Municipal Government signed an “Agreement” allowing Shenzhen to carry out a comprehensive reform of the Civil Affairs system. It is because of this more open policy environment that the One Foundation was able to register in Shenzhen as a public foundation early in 2011 ((Editor’s Note: Jet Li’s One Foundation was unable to fundraise publicly because it was registered as a private foundation. It had been unsuccessful in registering as a public foundation. Its breakthrough came in January 2011 when it registered as a public foundation in Shenzhen due to the more open environment for NGO registration there.)).
The more open policy environment in Shenzhen is also reflected in its support for local social worker service organizations. At present, Shenzhen has more than 40 social worker service organizations, and they all have the support of the local government which is purchasing their services ((Editor’s Note: A recent trend that has attracted the attention of NGOs is government support for service organizations staffed by qualified social workers. These service organizations — many of which are community-based and serve the elderly, disabled, and children — are encouraged to register as nonprofits and bid for government funding.)). Shenzhen’s support for social organizations has attracted the attention of many NGOs, including NPI, Shanghai’s NPO Development Center (映绿), and Beijing’s Capacity Building and Assessment Center (倍能), all of which have registered and set up an office in Shenzhen.
At the fair, the Shenzhen Municipal Government made it known that give space for the development of social organizations, and indicated their desire to continue to hold large-scale public interest exhibitions like the Shenzhen Fair in order to raise public awareness and participation in the public welfare sector. In the current environment, there is no way to break through the fundamental obstacles. In Shenzhen, the land of reform, these small-scale experiments are worth our attention. The Shenzhen Fair perhaps is the opportunity for greater interaction between NGOs, government and business ((Editor’s Note: Here the author implies that barring more fundamental reforms in the political system, gradual reforms such as those in Shenzhen may be the most that NGOs can hope for.)).