Thinking Strategically: An Interview with Zhai Yan, Founder of Huizeren

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This interview was conducted by Dr Andreas Fulda ((Dr Andreas Fulda is an academic practitioner with an interest in social change, organisational development and documentary filmmaking. During the past ten years Dr Fulda has helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese CSOs: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). Dr Fulda is also the editor of the book Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in the PR China (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2015). Contact:; as part of a research project commissioned by Geneva Global. It is published by China Development Brief and Geneva Global. Geneva Global is an innovative social enterprise that works with clients to maximize the performance of their global philanthropic and social impact initiatives. The interview reflects the independent opinion of the interviewee and does not represent the views of the publishers.

To download the interview as a PDF click here.

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To view the Chinese-language version click here.


Andreas Fulda (AF): I understand that the Beijing Huizeren Volunteering Development Center was established in 2003. What kind of problems did you want to solve by establishing Huizeren? What was your initial motivation?

Zhai Yan (ZY): This had something to do with me. In 1995 I was working for a women’s hotline and did some research and psychological counseling for the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing. I worked at Maple Women’s for eight years. I found that we could not solve the women’s problems simply through hotlines, by doing some research, and writing policy reports every year. This way we did not see any change. At that time it was quite exciting to see which people stepped forward from the first generation of NGOs, such as Song Qinghua from Shining Stone Community Action, Zhang Jufang from the Capacity Building and Assessment Centre or Li Tao from Facilitators. That was the time, 2002 until 2005, when the Ford Foundation supported Winrock International to deliver an NGO capacity building project. We all found this to be a particularly good project. It inspired an enhanced awareness among NGO employees and increased their ability to reflect.

Prior to this we only knew that we wanted to do something, but we did not know how to bring about change. I followed this capacity building project for three years. Following it for three years allowed us to learn about leadership, management, strategy, fundraising, project management. We also learned about volunteerism and governance systems. We realised that we learned was quite different from the way how the first generation funders thought about social problems and also quite different in terms of what we commonly refer to as their approaches.

During the process of this training we acquired a new knowledge system and learned the most. This enriched us and opened our eyes. This was because eighty percent of what Winrock International introduced were very good international experiences and knowledge. This is why I think that this capacity building project had a huge impact on us.

At that time most NGO personnel had pretty much the same understanding of the social problems. They also agreed that trainings could help them increase their knowledge and help find solutions to problems. But in comparison to the former generation of NGO founders they had different ideas in terms of strategy. We also had a different angle on the problems. Our leadership styles would also differ. This is why so many people left the first generation NGOs.

My own key motivation to leave was the following. I saw the social problems not only as someone who had a background in psychology but also as someone who worked on women’s issues. I was thinking whether or not it was possible not just to sit in a room and pick up calls from people but instead to go out to the communities and do something. At that time I participated in activities of other organisations. When going out I felt that actions had more value, at least more value than the rather passive services we provided in the past.

I founded this organisation together with another colleague. My first idea was to establish professional volunteer services on the community level. I no longer wanted to do research in my room, since I felt that made no sense. So we had to think about what kind of services we were going to offer. Our special skill was psychology, which is why we started by providing community counseling services. We started as simple as that. This coincided with the outbreak of SARS in Beijing. A lot of people were scared and ran away from the problem. Whole communities were deserted, many of which were locked down. At that time you could not see anyone and Beijing was an empty city. A lot of people from outside Beijing were isolated, and many schools and work units stopped working and producing. We could not do anything. There was a sense of panic. We thus thought we should do something within our own community. We were local people and we could not go anywhere.

We initially started by trying to unite people in the face of a disaster. We called our first initiative the “Heart Great Wall” (xin chang cheng). The Chinese character xin means heart but is also the first character of the term xinli, which means psychology. The Great Wall was to represent unity and resistance in the face of these risks and events. We did this project for three months using our own money. We saw some great effects. All over Beijing we visited more than a dozen communities and street offices in Shijingshan, Dongcheng, Xicheng and Haidian. We met a lot of acquaintances and brought together about five hundred volunteers in about three months. What we did is we purchased some disinfection supplies, printed some small leaflets and told people how they could engage in preventive measures. We also told them how they could control their fears and work when they had to work, and to continue living their life. We also helped a number of disability groups. Since capacity building is our speciality we provided some community training for them.

This is how we worked from the very beginning. We called this ‘to serve the community through training volunteers and volunteer activities’. After we did this for three months we began to realise that we are strongest when conducting trainings. Everyone really approved of our work. Of course we also ran a hotline, but we soon realised that hotlines were not our strong suit. We then constantly provided trainings. Initially our trainings were mostly for community members in need. We later found that when you ask volunteers to provide services, they really do not know anything. You have to teach them from scratch. When more and more people participated in volunteer services we realised that the needs of volunteers as a group was becoming increasingly big. This prompted us to specialize in volunteer training and to develop community counseling projects. The goal was to enable skilled professionals to serve the communities. After our organisation was established we did not receive any salaries for the first three years, we basically had nothing. We completely relied on our volunteers.

AF: You relied on their passion.

ZY: Yes, we relied on their passion. We did the trainings ourselves. Every month we would conduct a volunteer training. At that time we rented the room of a school. We did that every month. This is how we rapidly developed our volunteer training profession. This exploration took us about a year. In and around 2003 we basically understood our own position as regards to community volunteer service training.

That year we received small grants, among others from the Canadian International Development Agency as well as the World Bank. They asked us to provide trainings for volunteers, encourage citizen participation, and to mobilize community residents to provide services to themselves. It was all related to community mobilisation, this kind of work. So we did this on the grassroots and community level.

We did this until 2005. In 2005 we realised that we had too many volunteers and that our organisation needed to become more standardised. That was when we started establishing a Board of Directors. We also established a strategic plan and started hiring full-time staff. This way we became more organised. Since I had worked for Maple Women’s for eight years I had been thinking about many social problems for a long time. I also had some basic working skills, knowledge, ideas and quite a lot of connections. So when we started back then everything developed very quickly. These were the ideas we had when it all started.

When an organisation develops there are basically two pathways. One is the operation and management of an organisation and the building of a team. The other has its profession at the heart of its existence and provides social services. It can be said that initially we had no idea about our organisation. We knew how to manage volunteers, but we did not know how to run an organisation. So in the early years we focused on our core profession, the social services. This initially was one of the key ideas and motivations for us.

In this process I had two realisations which I found very interesting. When you want to establish a non-profit organisation, partners are very important. This is the same as if you want to establish a business venture. You need a good partner with a like-minded philosophy which is consistent with yours. This partner’s ability and level need to be very similar. This way it is easier to make concerted efforts. When we started me and another colleague from Maples’ Women left. The other person was teacher Shi Yue. She is really great. According to her she wanted to have some fun by engaging in philanthropy. She said that volunteering was making her very happy, which is why she was willing to provide some services. Her pre-condition was that all of this should not become too burdensome. The work should not weigh us down. But when we started we realised that while providing services was a lot of fun, looking after the organisation was rather painful. So this is my first point, the importance of partners and to be very clear that the organisation and the profession actually needs to develop together. This was my first realisation.

My second realisation was about the need to become more organised. This is something you can not achieve alone. This is why we consider the Board of Directors, this governance structure, to be so important in the growth of an organisation. At Maple Women’s we did not have a Board of Directors and thus I had no idea about governance. But once I left and established my own organisation I realised the importance of governance. From 2005 onwards I paid more attention to how volunteer organisations are organised. Prior to 2005 we mostly provided volunteer training. 2005 thus was a turning point for us. This was the time when we started providing volunteer trainings. In 2005 we established our first Board of Directors and came up with our strategic plan. It was also an important juncture insofar as we developed a strategic partnership with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

These were our initial thoughts. In the later process we constantly had to adjust and make changes. This process carries on until the present day. In fact we have experienced three major changes in the process. The first two years were the first phase. At that time it was still quite simple. Initially we just wanted to do some good.

AF: So when you started to become more organised, you must have started to raise funds and tried to raise all sorts of resources. Which of the four sources of funding, a) government funding, b) foundation funding and c) corporate funding or d) donations are most common in your civil society work?

ZY: The majority of funding comes from foundations, probably about sixty percent. These foundations include foreign ones. Foreign funding makes up about one third of our funding. In the very beginning and during the six years from 2003 until 2008 you could say that about ninety percent of the funding came from abroad. Domestic funding was very limited. For example we would get a little bit of income from our trainings and services. In addition, the government would sometimes consign trainings to us. But this was not often the case. We mostly relied on foreign funding in the early years. Now our international funding support is about one third and domestic support is gradually increasing. Government support has also increased to about one third. The government procures our services. Our services generate about two million RMB per year. Government procurement amounts to about 600.000 to 800.000 RMB. The rest comes from corporations. Since we do not have the right to raise funds from the public we can not accept individual donations. But we provide services for corporations. We also have our own service income. Then there is what we call joint outsourcing (lianhe waibao). The way it works is that we help to raise funds for NGOs. It is not us who apply for the funds but we do the capacity building on their behalf. We call this outsourced income.

AF: More and more Chinese NGOs rely on domestic resources, whether they are provided by the government, foundations or corporations. Where do you see the biggest difference between international and domestic funding? Are there any fundamental differences?

ZY: Their are huge differences. This is something I constantly discuss with domestic foundations and corporations. There are about three differences which I find most noticeable. The first difference relates to the issue of equality and respect. What I mean by this is their knowledge and understanding of NGOs and whether or not the relationship is equal. Here I see the biggest differences. In terms of domestic foundations there has been a big uproar online recently that the relationship is highly unequal. This is regardless of whether we are talking about public fundraising foundations or the private foundations of entrepreneurs or whether we are talking about government procurement. They all seem to see NGOs as tools. They do not treat you with equal respect. Corporations in particular add all sorts of conditionality. So this is the first point about the lack of equality. Let me give you an example. We tell them that we would like to do something. They respond by saying that this does not meet their objective and is not in line with their mission. They will find all sorts of reasons. And then they will get back to you and ask you to do what they want to do.

This way they will let you do things and you get incorporated into their system. Some organisations may agree to go along and do what is required from them. But when they start working they will be subject to all sorts of interferences. If this organisation does not listen to them they will be threatened with funding withdrawal. This is why we think that fundamentally this is not an equal relationship. They treat you as second-class whereas they think they are first class. It is a highly unequal relationship.

The second difference relates to issue of being instrumentalised. What do I mean with instrumentalisation? Let me give you an example. A foundation supports a community to increase children’s basic knowledge about disasters and improve their disaster crisis response capacity. This support also includes relief supplies. They make it compulsory that everyone has to wear their shirts and hats. Everywhere they go they have to put up banners which state that this is an activity of the supporting foundation. What this means is that a lot of volunteers distribute the goods and do their good work and outsiders think that they are from the foundation, whereas in fact they do not know that they actually represent their own NGO or volunteer organisation. We call this a kind of original equipment manufacturer-style (OEM) procurement. The biggest problem with this kind of procurement is that it is a kind of neo-colonial ideology. Let me explain what I mean with neo-colonial ideology. We know the old colonialism which was part of globalisation. It meant that some would claim sovereignty over others, especially capitalists. They would claim ownership over places like Hong Kong or India. When these places where colonized they lost their own sovereignty. One can also include present-day practices such as OEM services into this category. So for example Nike has all of its factories abroad and none of them operate domestically any more. What we do is that we offer our cheap labour, whereas they reap the high profits. I think that this is a kind of exploitation. What happens to NGOs is tantamount to exploitation.

Thirdly, in terms of the guiding values we see some of the most fundamental problems. Grassroots organisations know best about the needs of the community. So the majority of grassroots organisations can represent the interests of the community. Foundations on the other hand share interests with those who represent the capital. This is why you have conflicting interests. When there are conflicting interests, the people who represent the capital will force NGOs to do things their way. This is how their values enter the system. We know that behind funds you will see what has been called the problem of ideology and the problem of values. This is also something the Chinese government cares about. But if your core values are good, we call them the concept of universal values, than they are very welcome to take root. Currently it can be said that we do not accept the values of those who represent the capital. They use very hard mechanisms to force ordinary people to accept the values of some interest groups. This is something we do not agree with.

So the three big differences are a lack of equality, the exploitation, and misguided leadership. They not only do not support grassroots NGOs but also reduce the management fee and labor costs to very low levels. They let you do things but they do not allow your organisation to develop. I think that this is actually hurting civil society rather than helping to build up the third sector. They want to completely put us into their low-cost workforce, which runs counter the spirit of civil society.

AF: Chinese foundations have a rather short history of development. As a third party I am looking at these phenomena as an observer. I think that this may be a process. I have heard similar feedback from other NGO people. I have also interviewed various foundations leaders, such as a leader from the SEE Foundation. My impression was that in the past five to six years they learned a lot. Their reflective capacity seems to be very strong. So do you see room for some improvements?

ZY: There will certainly be improvements. When I talk about these three differences the key behind all of this is learning. It is a process of learning about basic ideas, a process of learning specialised knowledge and the development of a viewpoint about society. But if we go back to the initial question about the differences between international and domestic funders there are certainly major differences. Their understanding of people and assumption about people is different.

In present-day China 99% of the foundations are not grant-making organisations. They all want to do things themselves. This is why they see NGOs as their legs and feet which allow them to do things. But when you look at international foundations, the majority of them are grant making or of a venture capital type. They do not implement projects themselves. This difference reveals a different value. Among the domestic donors I think that the Narada Foundation has been doing a good job. They are also pushing for changes among foundations. Of course I have also been in touch with many foundations. They all said that in the future they will definitely become grant making organsiations, but that presently they need to do it themselves in order to learn. Only this way they will be able to engage in grant making. Or they say that they gradually start trusting you and will work with you. A lot of the foundation people I meet talk that way. But I do not agree with them. As someone working at the frontline I do not think this way. I think that you can learn a lot from other people’s experiences. You do not need to experience everything yourself. But of course it is also a reality that in China a lot of people have never engaged in charity work. So as long as they have a charitable heart we can accept that. But I do not think that this an inevitable road.

AF: They could consign projects.

ZY: Absolutely, but the precondition is that they trust you.

AF: They could ask for all sorts of reporting. There should be ways to go about this.

ZY: Yes. But it does not matter. I can also accept that. It is only that in China there is a lack of social trust. Only when people engage in common activities do they gradually understand each other and build up trust. This change process has taken so many years and has been very slow. Yet I am actually quite pleased to see that more and more entrepreneurs are starting to pay attention to people and the social sphere. They pay more attention to the soul and practice, this level of things. So I think that this is a good trend for the future development.

AF: This actually makes me think of a concept that was developed in Europe. I am thinking of the principle of subsidiarity which was developed as part of catholic social thinking. The key idea is that what a smaller organisational unit can take care of should not be dealt with by a bigger organisation on a higher level.

ZY: That is right. What you can see here is that behind all of this is a conceptual and cultural difference in terms of basic assumptions about people. We also say that China’s feudal traditional culture is a top-down culture, where society pays respect to authority and not a culture which is people-oriented and where civil society functions from the bottom-up. This is why we are trying to do something in this regard.

AF: You just mentioned that you sometimes jointly apply for project funding with other organisations. When you apply with other organisations, how do you ensure a reasonable allocation of resources? I am asking this questions because based on my experience with international projects, resource allocation is one of the greatest source of conflict.

ZY: Yes, this is the case. The resource allocation depends on the capabilities, position and the complementarity of the various parties. It depends whether or not two partners can complement each other in their functions. I think that complementarity rests on two basic conditions. The first is the relationship. We usually talk about resource allocation in the context of relationships. Especially in China we can see that if my relationship with you is good, then everything is fine. If our relationship is not good, than there will be a lot of competing interests. This is why we consider the establishment of a good relationship a precondition for resource allocation and cooperation. The way we establish relationships is that we start by having a loose cooperation with another organisation for at least one year. In the process of cooperation we examine whether or not both sides share the same key understanding and values. If this is not the case at critical points these issues would come up in the process of resource distribution. So this is the first condition, which is a good relationship. The second condition is the complementarity within a project. Our expertise needs to match and be complementary to what we are trying to achieve through the project. It should not be a competitive relationship. It also needs to be in line with our and their mission. These are the questions we need to ponder before we decide whether or not to cooperate.

AF: Let us talk a bit more about cooperation. When you do your projects, do you usually work with one or various partners?

ZY: We usually work with various partners in our projects. For example in the context of our new philanthropy leadership programme we work together with five to seven organisations. We also have a Board of Directors where everyone is involved in the decision-making. Once a decision has been made it is for me to host the application. We provide management fees to organisations in the various localities. These organisations are in charge of the specific implementation on the local level. When we work with various organisations we apply for funds, provide the core competencies, coordinate and then invite partners in. In terms of the one on one cooperation it is the other partner applying for funds, and we work for them by providing technical support.

AF: Do you feel that in the past years there has been a change within China in the way domestic and foreign organisations communicate and cooperate? Have you noticed any significant changes?

ZY: There are significant changes. By the way, you ask really good questions. This kind of changes are very significant. Why is this the case? If you look at the CSP the CanadaFundphasedouttheiroperationsinChinaacoupleofyearsago. Also Voluntary Service Overseas has stopped providing funding in China this year. Also the Global Fund and international organisations have reduced or ended their assistance to China. We can see that the amount of funding resources provided by foreign organisations in China has been reduced greatly. This is my first point. Secondly, we can see that some new international funds are entering China. But they come in not in a formal way but in a very personalized and informal way. I know for example that in western parts of China or in other fields there are people using business approaches. There are now some innovative models, such as business investment. More and more people have also set up social enterprises and use this kind of mode. Some private equity funds have also started to provide funding to social organizations. This is very interesting, since this has not yet been incorporated into the government system. But I am aware that these kind of adjustments are under way in China.

AF: NGOs are gradually moving towards the social enterprise model. Do you think that this is feasible or will there be many difficulties?

ZY: First of all I think it is feasible and I agree with this development trend. It is just that we phase a lot of challenges in China. Let me continue talking about the changes in the way foreign and Chinese organisations cooperate with one another. International fundings support is decreasing, while a business approach is being introduced. So there are some changes. Secondly, if we look at the cooperating organisations we can see that in the past grassroots organisations benefited more from funding support, organisations which would engage in simple forms of charity. These days more business-minded social enterprises receive funding support. There has been an increase in the level of attention and level of funding to these types of organisations. After 2008 more and more business people and returnees have established social organisations. They receive more and more support, that is a second change.

There is also one more change which is very interesting. We maintain a lot of cooperative relations with international organisations, the traditional one’s like Ford Foundation, World Bank, UNDP, and those under the UN system. We still engage with them. But I noticed that many of their strategies, and this is my personal observation, are not quite representative. Their interest in Chinese NGOs does not seem quite as strong as it used to be in the past. I have talked to various people about this change. They told me that the composition of NGOs in China has become quite complicated. Just think of the incubators of social organisations, which train a a lot of government-funded organisations, social workers organisations, and help with the transition of public institutions (shiye danwei zhuanxing). They find it very complex and are not convinced that these are pure NGOs.

With the influx of so many social enterprises and business people, both government and business have become very much involved. This is why some of these foundations, in terms of their funding, seem to be inclined to return to forms of support they used during their early years in China. So for example they support research and work with universities, and academic institutions and engage in advocacy. Or they provide funding to international organisations operating within China. Also there has been a lot of staff turnover in recent years. This is why we see so many differences. But let me get back to your question about social enterprises. I actually do not think that you have real social enterprises in China. 90% of their funding still comes from funding support. They can not sustain themselves financially. There are maybe one hundred organisations, certainly not more than one hundred, which can completely sustain themselves financially. Or you have something separate like a microcredit organisation. This was a business to begin with. They may now pull the banner of social organisation, but in fact they were a business before. They may be able to sustain themselves. Others engage in charity shops. Supplies which are donated by people at no cost can then be sold. This is also not a real business model. There is also a new model for volunteer service which is called zero operation cost (ling chengben yunzuo). It also is not a business model which provides you with funding cycles, since it still follows the common charity model. This is why I think that Chinese social enterprises are just about to develop. But that is very good. We need this kind of business model which can help support organisational services in the future. If they can charge more this would be quite transformational. I think that this is really needed. We are also increasingly charging fees for our capacity building trainings. This is a good direction.

AF: In the following let us talk about your understanding of civil society. Do you have an organisational view of Chinese civil society? If yes, how would you describe it? If not, who is framing the discourse about China’s civil society in your organisation and how?

ZY: We defined civil society at a small conference last year. My personal view was that civil society should meet human needs based on respect and independent freedom. It should also be based in citizen rights and promote a volunteer spirit and social responsibility. It should be a philanthropic society based on fairness and justice. In terms of our discussion of civil society or the research we carry out during our actions we can distinguish between three levels of understanding. The first level are the volunteers. We do capacity building for volunteer services. This is why we have a lot of communications with volunteers and people working for social organisations. We hear what kind of ideas and feelings they have. The second level is our own group. We think of ourselves as an organisation which encourages people to happily volunteer and serve civil society. We pay attention to the building and development of civil society. This is why we need to have a common understanding towards this. The third level are external experts, including the research groups that are cooperating with us. These are mostly from our professional volunteer service alliance, which includes businesses, research institutions, as well as some foreign and domestic donors. So we also have this external view on this issue. As such we discuss the issue of civil society on three levels which allows us to have a basic understanding. You could say we synthesize and thus have a fairly representative understanding of this problem.

AF: So through your discussions and actions you are realizing the value of civil society rather than advocating a certain idea. Is my understanding correct?

ZY: You are right. We emphasize the volunteer spirit and incorporate a lot of contents when advocating this volunteer spirit in our actions. We do not use the concept of civil society to preach.

AF: I noticed that when I have asked this question a lot of interviewees would talk about public participation. I think that this is a very interesting phenomenon, since public participation is something that benefits both the government and civil society. Is this what people mean?

ZY: Yes, that is what they mean. Civil society should not be a politically sensitive term. It is a neutral term.

AF: We have talked about grassroots NGO and how they are struggling. To a certain extend they lack resources. What is the key reason for this?

ZY: This is something we researched last year with the help of the Narada Foundation. We did some research on NGOs that engage in joint disaster relief. In our research we discussed why these NGOs have formed an alliance. We also looked at the problems they face when forming such alliances. We found out that resources are the key reason for them to cooperate or not to cooperate. We consider grassroots NGOs to be groups which are naturally resource dependent. When we look at these people we see that the majority are not driven by material interests. They act as volunteers. This is why they have to be able to mobilise resources, this is quite natural. But since the related technical ability for and theoretical research about public interest work is not in place the public does not recognise their work. This is also due to the bad external environment for philanthropy in China. The public only recognises the government and they do not dare to donate to civil society organisations. Since members of the public have no trust, they do not know who you are. And the government and media will constantly propagate that the party is great. So in terms of the external environment grassroots NGOs lack access to resources.

The second reason is that for entrepreneurs capital markets are king. They do not trust the grassroots, which in turn do not get any resources. But of course the skills and experiences of grassroots NGOs are also lacking. This leads to what we call the natural resource dependency of NGOs. This is why they need to integrate resources wherever possible in order to achieve an outcome where one plus one equals more than two. Only this way can they survive. Most the time NGOs like to do things on their own. This is why in China cooperation and alliances have been a huge problem within Chinese civil society. This problem has not been solved until today. But we also think that sometimes the lack of resources helps NGOs to form alliances. So resource problems are not always a bad thing. For example some grassroots NGOs used the mobile internet to raise public funds and achieved some good results.

AF: That is right. But I have also noticed that the lack of resources among individuals and organisations can also lead to what could be termed the ‘rabbit eye disease’. I am thinking of people who are so jealous of more successful peers that they will seek to destroy their fortunes at any cost, just like a rabbit gone mad. Do you think that in China this is a society-wide problem or one that is confined to the world of NGOs?

ZY: This is what we call unfair competition. Unfair competition leads to such results. So how do NGOs face this problem? All in all I do not think that this is just a problem for the NGO sector but the current condition all over China. In businesses, the bureaucracy and all sorts of other sectors such as academia this holds true. So we think that this is a very common phenomenon. In Chinese culture this is called an “internal conflict over limited resources” (wo li dou).

Secondly, in terms of NGO competition this sector has not yet been established and does not have rules and regulations. People do not yet have this kind of mindset and many grassroots NGOs are still in their very initial phase. Everyone is competing in a very blurred market, which lacks segmentation and specialization.This is why we are trying to promote the whole sector and do not simply help with the maturation of some organisations.

In China we also have the saying ‘qiong shan e shui chu diao min’, which means that an inhospitable natural environment produces trouble makers. This means that when someone lacks resources and is poor it is easy for this person to be steeped in vice. Such people start slandering and attacking others and thus destroy the order. When NGOs engage in defamation or when there is unfair competition among them this should be seen both as a problem of the sector and the whole society. We should not consider this to be an issue of a person’s morality or say that an organisation is not good. Instead we should work to improve the overall environment. This is why I never quite agreed with those people who advocated industry self-regulation and high moral principles. We are not there yet. We need to go to the source of the problem and open up resources. We also need to improve policies and educate more and more people about charity. If you do not do this type of work you will never understand how hard it is. This is why I think that we need to open up and extend our reach and let more and more people participate. Rather than being monopolized by the government, more money should be provided through various philanthropic channels. This way the public will gradually understand what this is all about.

AF: Where do you see Chinese civil society in 5-10 years?

ZY: This is something I am most keen to talk about. After the 18th Party Congress the Chinese party-state has started to advocate social governance. They call this social governance innovation. Social governance innovation is their term, whereas we call this the gradual opening of society. The government is transferring some functions back to society. Here it does not matter whether this society is civil society, we should not care too much about this. But at least they need to establish what could be termed a third sector. This is a very good signal. I am very positive about this, as it is not too far removed from our initial dream of a civil society. This should be quickly accelerated.

There are three types of evidence which can help us verify that in the next five to ten years we will see some better developments. The first is related to NGO registration. We are very happy that in 2013 we were the beneficiary of becoming one of the first 50 organisations, which no longer needs a sponsoring organisation (zhuguan danwei) and which the Beijing municipal Department of Civil Affairs has offered to register as a private non-enterprise unit. Due to these new policies the government can now procure NGO services more easily. Of course in terms of taxation and public fundraising there has been less progress. But we are currently proposing new legislation and I assume that these issues will be addressed when the People’s Congress discusses the new Charity Law in 2015. We are participating in the discussion of the Charity Law. If it comes out in 2015 we may within the course of three years have received very preferential charity policies. This will also greatly benefit the development of civil society. This is the first point, that we may get this kind of policy, this kind of overall environment.

Secondly, there are people like us who have been active in philanthropy for twenty years. Then you have people who have joined after 2008 and accumulated experiences during the past six or seven years. I think that the Chinese people’s citizen awareness is becoming much stronger and visible. The speed of this development has accelerated in comparison to a few years ago. Let me give you an example. When we tried to recruit people two or three years ago we would not be able to find people. But when I recruit these days I get a lot of applications from people with good backgrounds. I think that this is very representative. I think that when people are willing to work in this sector it means that they recognize the third sector. So I am very hopeful that talented people will join and participate.

My third point is that in terms of civil society we see that we currently can only provide services and we can not yet open other activity areas. But I also do some research. We also provide similar support. For example our Social Organisation Support Center has already been inaugurated. The local government has consigned Huizeren to do NGO development and support work. There is a lot of space for this since the government can not do everything, they will need to consign certain things to us.

In the past two years we did a survey all over China and went to fifteen or sixteen cities. In each of them we found three to five platform organisations (pingtai zuzhi). Let’s not just talk about how many of such organisations are run by the Non-profit Incubator and us in Beijing alone. In every locality you find these type of organisations. These organisations in operation are really outstanding. I think that this is a very good development. It means that people like us have some room to operate. Over time, these people can help the localities. So for example our platform (pingtai) allows me to influence about one hundred organisations, which means that they will be able to proliferate very quickly. So in the next five to ten years you will see the construction of the infrastructure of China’s civil society. By the construction of the infrastructure of China’s civil society I mean that a number of people and organisations, some policies and government officials will be more open and walk in front.

AF: You mentioned social governance. I have noticed that the government sometimes uses the term social management and other times uses the term social governance. I also noticed that in the Chinese language the terms ‘zhili’ for governance and ‘chuli’, which means dealing with something, sound quite similar. I once participated in a series of trainings conducted by the Party School in Ningbo. Most of the local government officials did not understand the term social governance. They thought that it meant solving problems. While you could say that social governance also implies the solving of problems, it actually refers more to multi-stakeholder cooperation and public participation etc. At that time I was under the impression that the Party School was trying to promote the concept of social governance and social policy. But if government officials do not understand this, the Party School may have good intentions but still not be able to implement related policies.

ZY: That is right. In order to address this problem we have started training government officials. That is very interesting. Before working on our project site I have already had almost a year of conversations with a Deputy Director of a Street Office. We especially discussed the difference between ‘managing’ (guanli) and ‘governance’ (zhili). We had strong arguments about the actual meaning of these terms. These days we have a much better communication. During this process I learned a lot about the government’s views on these issues and the language they use. The language we use and the language they use is quite different. My cooperation partner could learn from me and understand the meaning of the relevant terms.

We think that there are three differences between management and governance. The first is the role of the actor (zhuti). Who is going to do the operational management and problem-solving? The question of the qualified actor (zhuti zige) is very important since the government originally thought only they could engage in this kind of management and problem solving. Now they understand that social organisations and residents on the community level can also be involved. They realised that the services provided by corporations, for example those provided in the context of their Corporate Social Responsibility can also be considered. They can also be one of the qualified actors. What they realised is that these things are not singular, but plural issues.

The second difference between management and governance is the mode and pathway. In the past you only had the top-down approach based on authority. Now they understand that you can also self-organise, that you can solve problems on your own, that you can self-manage, that you can engage in mutual discussions. That is the second point. They now know that they can understand governance this way.

The third point is that discussing the difference between management and governance has allowed us to tell them that the key is to establish a legal system. We think that in a law-abiding society everyone is subject to the same rules and regulations. When everyone respects this kind bottom line then in governance processes you need to do so even more. But China does not have the rule of law, it has the rule of men. If you are an official I need to listen to your orders. But this does not work anymore. It is not about listen to your subordinates or your superiors, but it is about basic rules and regulations that everyone needs to comply with. This is because we now have a plurality of actors. They may understand that this is the future, which is why they have accepted this direction. This is why I think that in this respect we are getting closer to the standard of governance.

So from a civil society perspective they have started to accept this understanding of governance. But this does not mean that they act on behalf of civil society. They have to understand that we are independent. They should not think that just because they procure our services they become our boss. We are actors on the same footing. So when they procure our services this means that NGOs have already acquired this skill or function to solve social problems and that the government can gradually retreat to the governance level. They no longer need to be active on the level of service provision. So this is my first point about independence.

The second aspect we strongly emphasize is the voluntary nature of governance. When we engage in this it absolutely does not mean that you can tell me what do do but instead this means that I am voluntarily doing something. So if I want to do something they can not simply interfere, unless I am breaking the law. In such cases they can require me to change. But otherwise they can not interfere into our public interest dealings, which are our rights, not obligations. We always tell them that providing social services is our right, it is not our obligation. So they can not interfere, which is my second point about the voluntary nature of governance.

The third aspect we emphasize in our service provision is our ability to innovate and our innate plural character. They can not say that all parts of civil society need to provide social services. We think that they need to safeguard and respect difference. We want to a have an inclusive and accepting civil society. Of course they can not fully accept that. Just think of their attitudes towards rights-protecting organisations, or minority groups such as gay people, people infected with HIV/Aids or sex workers. These groups they accept even less. But in small ways we exist. So I think they will have to face this. But right now our entry point is service provision. I think that they are still in the process of accepting the concept of civil society and I am personally still optimistic.

AF: Let us talk about your understanding of change. What kind of changes do you expect at the personal, societal and policy level?

ZY: I think that change is a big characteristic of China. Especially in the past few years, changes have happened very quickly. If we look at the big picture we will see that one thing is unlikely to change very quickly. In the next three, five or ten years there will still be one party rule. So our understanding of changes are all based on this premise, the premise of one party rule.

AF: Reform within the system.

ZY: That’s right. As we spoke about it earlier, the government functions are likely to become less, especially their service provision functions. These will be given to social organsations. The social service function and the qualification of social organisations will also increase. There is no doubt about this. So China’s civil society can make good use of this kind of social organisations to gradually develop. We can nurture it little by little. This is something we can see.

Secondly, in the process of civil society development we are seeing the impact of business on civil society. This is very obvious and clear. To use another term we are seeing a marketisation. When I talk of marketisation I do not mean the marketisation and consumption of public interest. What I mean is an independent, free and fair competition mechanism which will push the government to retreat. The 18th Party Congress stipulated that market actors should be strengthened. So when the second sector develops rapidly this will also affect the third sector. In terms of the development of China’s economy we can see that it has peaked. In the next three decades it will certainly go downhill. This is something we all agree on. It will not be able to sustain a period of rapid growth. GDP will soon fall to 5%. The landslide of China’s economy and the decrease of this type of growth will bring about economic crisis, especially financial crisis. China’s current mortgage crisis carries a high financial risk, which is represented by the state of China’s real estate. We think that the crisis of China’s market economy will bring great uncertainty for society. This will not only include unemployment and capital problems but it will also create more social problems. We think that China’s civil society needs to develop in sync with the development of the second sector’s market economy. There should be some interactions and we should engage in some preventive work. To put it differently, if we can mobilise more corporate investments or make them pay more attention to civil society development, this could in fact help reduce future unrest triggered by the economy’s landslide and financial crisis.

I am pretty sure that this will happen. This is the second big change. And I think a lot of Chinese people have not realised this. Those who have funds transfer assets in an evasive way. What they do not know is that if they where to use them in China to do some social investments, they could help relieve the dangers of an economic crisis. This is my second point.

Thirdly, we will see changes in the future as regards to the type of social organsiations. Unlike in other countries the development of China’s social organisations has not happened from the bottom-up. There is the existing stock (cunliang) and then there are the increments (zengliang). In terms of existing stock this is geared towards the interior of the government system, with their numerous industry associations and public institutions. When I am doing training these days – and I am very open about this here, this is the case with the social organisations the government procures their services from – about eighty percent of the people are from within the system. They are from industry associations, they are the idle and the rich. Alternatively they are retired government officials, wealthy entrepreneurs or people pampered by our public institutions. The are the stock of NGO which are commonly referred to as Government-organised non- governmental organisations (GONGO). In China this kind of people make up the majority and represent tens of thousands of organisations. Millions of people work for these organisations.

And then you have the increments like those newly established social organisations. There are about 200,000 of these types of new organisations. You also have about 400,000 of the older type of social organisations. These new incremental organisations bring in vitality and new ideas as well as new techniques. They charge against the old. But the Chinese government will not let the incremental organisations become part of the old stock. About eighty percent of the government’s funding is for their own stock, and only 20% goes to the incremental organisations. So only those things that the existing stock can not do will be given to the incremental organisations. But I think that in the coming five to ten years, the stock will be reduced or decoupled from the government and the increments will increase. The ratio will reverse to the opposite. Right now the stock may be the majority, but in the next five to ten years the increment will have stood up.

AF: In terms of changes, where do you see that civil society had some greater impact? Where do you see some bottlenecks?

ZY: As someone involved in an NGO I would say that impact happens in two ways. First of all among the service recipients. The majority of NGOs pay attention to whether or not the directly involved beneficiaries experience changes. In our case, since we serve grassroots NGOs by providing capacity building we care whether or not these NGOs have strengthened their capabilities and whether or not they can live longer. This is a standard which we can use to judge. This year we also added an impact indicator. Every year we train about one thousand organisations. After five years is it possible for us to identify one hundred out of these thousands of organisations, we call this the ten percent, which have undergone changes and which have become leading pioneers in the sector?

On a different level Huizeren pays attention to changes to the general environment for public interest work. We also pay attention to public policies. Every year we provide the government with two to three proposals regarding issues such as government procurement, registration, Charity Law, volunteer services or some very specific proposals regarding the process of government procurement. It is this kind of advocacy. This is why we also have an impact indicator which is related to our influence on the government.

Let me give you an example. In 2006 and 2007 our main concern was the overall environment for volunteer services and volunteer service legislation. At that time we pushed for the Beijing municipal government’s volunteer service regulations. Later we helped the Ministry of Civil Affairs to promulgate a volunteer service documentation method. In 2014 we helped them to come up with the volunteer service group construction method.

Lastly, we have our organisational impact. Put in simple terms this is our visibility. Do people immediately know who we are when they hear the word Huizeren? This also includes whether or not the organisations that we have trained are able to share our ideas with more people. For example every year we train one hundred volunteer trainers. They conduct their own trainings and spread our ideas, thinking and knowledge. So how many people do they train? How many people can we indirectly reach? Has the citizen consciousness among the public increased and is societal participation on the rise? These are the kind of impacts we should pay attention to.

Every year we engage in impact evaluation and look at these various levels. We now exist for ten years. In 2013 we did a ten year review. We found it quite gratifying. Initially we did not see this type of changes. In the process we had quite a lot of staff turnover, so they could not see it. After these ten years we invited everyone back. We looked at how many people Huizeren has affected during the past ten years. We later found out that we have indirectly affected about 1 million people. We also influenced about ten thousand grassroots NGOs. They all still exist. We also had an impact on tens of thousands of volunteers. And through our trainings the people we have trained have become the backbone for NGOs. We also participate and support the development of policies and regulations in the field of philanthropy. We promote cooperative relations between the government and NGOs and encourage public procurement, thereby enhancing the ecological environment for philanthropy.

Civil society only exerts a very weak influence on society. Public participation through volunteering only stands at 7%, which means that many people do not know NGOs. When we develop philanthropic services on the community level, we often do not receive acknowledgment and support by the local residents. We are still very unfamiliar in the public’s eye.

AF: Last but not least I would like to discuss with you the issue of sustainability. A lot of NGOs find it difficult to survive. Huizeren has also faced some challenges, but it still exists today and has played a very significant role. Among your various initiatives you have conducted, how sustainable are they?

ZY: We see it this way. In terms of the sustainability of an NGO we do not believe that this depends on resources. We think that for a real NGO the most important foundation is whether or not their solutions can serve societal needs. Frankly speaking I am not concerned that Huizeren will not have any money. During the past five to six years we have never thought about this problem. We could not meet all the demands. All the time there would be people asking whether we can do this or that. We had to think of ways how to reject them. Of course this does not mean that this will go on forever. So how did we achieve this outcome? In our analysis this is because we directly linked up with the societal needs and we found ways to solve some problems. As long as you occupy this spot, you will find endless resources.

The second aspect of the sustainability question is essentially speaking a form of relationship. In this relationship you need to show the capabilities of your organisation. You need to have good solutions. The second factor in terms of sustainability is whether or not you can have a relationship with the stakeholders. In terms of the stakeholders the Chinese government is still the most important one. If you do not manage this relationship well you could go down anytime. This is why each time we train NGOs we tell them that they can use all sorts of ways to express their dissatisfaction, even use radical rhetoric. But they have to have a good relationship with the government, this is the precondition. So in China only if you know how to protect yourself will you be able to change China.

The third point I would like to make about sustainable development is related to NGO leaders or the core backbone of such organisations. These people are very important. Without these people it is hard to talk about the organisation. This is why I put people at the first place. This is also why we do leadership trainings. We want to keep these valuable people. We need to bring out the power of this backbone, these groups of people. You can have a career prospect and have some people continuously replicate your good work as long as you get the relationship with the government right. This also solves the problem of sustainable development.


In Brief

An interview with Zhai Yan, founder of Huizeren, as part of the “Thinking Strategically about Civil Society Assistance in China” project
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