You Need Us: Making Room for NGOs in China

There is a cottage industry taking root around corporate social responsibility in China, and over the last six months, I have picked up amongst their numbers a growing concern about the health and prospects for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those not directly chartered and managed by the government.

Normally I might have taken this as sour grapes: CSR is not growing as quickly as it should in China, and the people who have devoted their lives to getting corporations to “serve the people” have been having a hard go. But then I talked to some NGO administrators, many of whom have been here for a while and all of them involved in organizations largely in sync with China’s policy priorities, and I started to hear the same thing.

Then The Washington Post noted in March:

This month, [the government] announced regulations designed to make it harder for China’s fledgling community of nongovernmental organizations to get financial support from overseas.

Non Sequitur

It would be easy to read into these regulations any range of motives, but I think what is happening goes deeper than some short term policy change, and is rooted in a deeper discomfort among policymakers with NGOs. I would argue that a growing part of the challenge NGOs of any stripe or origin face in China is that there is no ideological framework that would make a place for those organizations within the Chinese system.

At the core of modern China’s social contract is that the government, the Party, and the Army, either directly or via the work unit, are supposed to provide all of the social needs of the people. This is not purely a “communist” thing: paternalistic governments have been a part of China since before Master Kong wrote his Analects, and the government serving in loco parentis has become a core assumption of many of Asia’s political systems.

Theoretically, then, there should be no need for NGOs: it is the job of the government, Party, and Army to provide.

At best, once again in theory, an NGO with a social mission operating in China is a de-facto indictment of the government and Party, an implicit admission that the government is not fulfilling its moral role. At worst, the NGO is the seed of a rival center of domestic political power, or (like many pre-liberation missionary groups) a subversive element or tool of a foreign government. There is no conceptual framework in the Chinese polity for a private institution to take a social role, and even the social role of work units has been reduced over the past thirty years to little more than a basic benefits package. And without a clear, articulated (or at least understood) place for NGOs in Chinese society, each organization represents latent disruption inimical to a Harmonious Society.

Leaders of China, We Are Not The Enemy

In order for NGOs to take their full role in Chinese society, NGOs themselves are going to have to first make a case that civil organizations have a necessary and proper role in Chinese society, one that fits within Confucian ideology and that implicitly legitimizes rather than indicts the government that accepts them. This means making an ideological case – not just a practical one – that carves out a legitimate niche for NGOs as serving a role that government or enterprise are not only unable to fill, but that they should never have been expected to fill in the first place.

The best scenario to make this happen would be for NGOs to team with respected party ideologues at the Party School to make the case by drawing from the foundational documents of the People’s Republic. The NGOs would then work with those ideologues to help create a legal (read “constitutional”) role for NGOs in society, rather than muck about with trying to get a single law passed that could be negated by policy.

Of course, I’m not betting this is going to happen anytime soon.

Fighting Inactivism

First, for many people who staff and support international NGOs, doing or saying anything to legitimize the Chinese government would be a non-starter. That is sad, but understandable. It would gall not a small number of them to have to argue for their role in a society where the need is ostensibly plain to see, in a polity many of them see as morally bankrupt, or worse.

Second, we have to consider the possibility that whatever framework would result from such an approach would involve a loss of some of the autonomy NGOs are used to experiencing elsewhere, especially in the Anglophone world. Most NGOs guard their independence with ferocious jealousy, and would be hesitant to surrender that which they believe makes them most effective.

Third is what I would call “The Google Trap.” In making concessions to government control or oversight to facilitate operations in China, NGOs would put at risk their global support ecosystem, from contributors, staff, partners, beneficiaries, and other NGOs to government and the media. Whatever the prospects in China, no NGO would put its global operations at risk by compromising on their principles in China.

All of this leaves NGOs waiting for China’s leaders – perhaps the next administration, perhaps the one after that, or the one after that – to reach the conclusion that it is beyond the abilities of government, Party, Army or enterprise to carry the full burden of China’s social challenges, and to conclude that there is indeed a role for non-governmental “social organizations.”

All fine and good. But what happens in the meantime? Given that many issues addressed by NGOs are attached to a ticking clock, can NGOs afford to wait? When faced with the prospect of compromise vs. inaction, does it not run counter to an activists’ creed to accept the latter? This is the hidden conundrum facing NGOs in China, and until it is addressed the social action sector will find itself increasingly hemmed in by policies and regulations made by regulators with an incomplete appreciation of the role NGOs can – indeed, should – play in the Chinese system.

But first, the NGOs themselves have to figure that out.

Posted via web from Silicon Hutong on Posterous


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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