NGOs in China

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

End of China's one-child policy will ease pressure on gays and lesbians to bear children

This op-ed by Tim Hildebrandt appeared in the South China Morning Post on November 9, 2015, soon after the Communist Party leadership announced they would end the one-child policy and allow Chinese families to have two children. With Tim’s permission, I’m reposting it here because it looks at the impact of the one-child policy on one marginalized group in China that rarely gets much consideration and yet is quite active in the NGO sector – the LGBT community.

End of China's one-child policy will ease pressure on gays and lesbians to bear children

The Communist Party intended to help the struggling Chinese economy when it overturned the country's infamous one-child policy last week. The decision to rescind the policy will undoubtedly be welcomed by the country's growing middle class, the next generation of Chinese who will now have the prospect of knowing what it means to have a sister or brother, and corporations who are relishing an even larger market. But one group that the party never considered is also likely to benefit: China's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The one-child policy never mentioned homosexuality. But its ill effects over the decades have fallen disproportionately on the country's LGBT community. Numerous surveys of gays and lesbians in the country consistently reveal that family pressure is of utmost concern. Indeed, in the decade-long research I have conducted on these issues in China, I found that gay and lesbian citizens consistently ranked family pressure as the biggest obstacle they face. One chance at raising a child who meets all of the expectations of parents put enormous burdens on gays and lesbians, keeping them in the closet and contributing to high rates of depression and suicide. The pressure to produce grandchildren is acute.

The desire for grandchildren isn't, of course, limited to China. But the obsession often leads to pressure on gay and lesbian children to conform to a heterosexual life and produce offspring. In China, the expectations for continuing the family line to fulfil ancestral obligations are often extreme. Still, the push to be grandparents has as much to do with material concerns as worries about the afterlife. In this respect, another policy change in the last decade has created a decidedly material incentive for families to pressure their only child into living a straight life and producing a grandchild: the government's dismantling of cradle-to-grave support. Elderly care, once guaranteed by the state, has been severely cut, partly because of the assumption that one's children and their grandchildren can fill the gap left by the state and take care of them. And so, in essence, the pressure that gay and lesbian Chinese feel is not only due to the risk of hurting the family's reputation, but something very material: the parents view a gay or lesbian child as a potential threat to their care as they age. Because both in vitro fertilisation and adoption are difficult, "traditional" and "natural" male-female births are seen as the only option for parents.

In its 35-year history, the one-child policy has long been used by government critics in the international community as evidence of its callous view of human rights. Activists have derided the effect it has had on unwanted pregnancies and children: stories of sex-selective abortions, newborn girls abandoned in public toilets, and even female infanticide have become regular news fodder. But Beijing's decision has far more to do with demographic forces than human rights concerns, whether they be concerned with forced abortions or social pressure on LGBT people. The policy was intended to curb population growth that the party could not afford while also developing a modern economy. It is being rolled back now because, ironically, the government can't afford to keep it in place. With fewer young people entering the workforce, the country is less able to support the larger number of aged citizens.

The policy shift will certainly not be an instant panacea for gays and lesbians. Family pressures are likely to remain, and changing the policy will be too late for the current generation of gay and lesbian young adults. Hopefully, the possibility to have an "heir and a spare" will ease the pressure placed on gay and lesbian Chinese, allowing them to live a more open and less stressful adult life. Although it was not the intent of Beijing, easing limitations on births should go far in helping to build a more respectful environment for gays and lesbians across the nation.

Dr Timothy Hildebrandt is assistant professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Social Organizations and the Authoritarian State in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and researches and writes on LGBT activism and related policy issues in China and around the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Launch of Tsinghua University’s Institute for Philanthropy

When I was in Beijing this first week of November, I had the opportunity to attend the Tsinghua International Conference on Philanthropy (公益慈善国际研讨会)announcing the opening of the Tsinghua University Institute for Philanthropy (公益慈善研究院).  The conference was held at the Wenjin International Hotel in the Tsinghua Science Park on November 5, 2015.

True to the conference’s name, both overseas and Chinese guests were invited. The international guests included the president of the International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR), the dean of Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy, Chairman of the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN),  chair of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Program, along with other academics and NGO representatives from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. The Chinese guests included officials from Tsinghua University, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, the head of the One Foundation, and leading lights from the academic world such as Wang Ming (the dean of China’s NGO studies and the Dean of the Institute of Philanthropy), Deng Guosheng, Kang Xiaoguang from Renmin University, Jin Jiping from Beijing University, Tao Chuangjin from Beijing Normal University, and Zhu Jiangang from Sun Yatsen University.

For those steeped in the history of NGO studies in China, the opening of the Institute is an important event because of the place Tsinghua occupies in NGO studies. Tsinghua established one of the earliest NGO Research Centers back in the late 1990s. That center published the first Directory of Chinese NGOs in back in the early 2000s, and Tsinghua scholars such as Wang Ming, Deng Guosheng, and Jia Xijin have played an instrumental role in promoting the field of NGO studies, and in pushing for an enabling regulatory environment for NGOs through their work. Currently the center publishes China’s leading journal on NGOs, the China Nonprofit Review (中国非营利评论).

Notably, the Institute was set up jointly by Tsinghua University and the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  It will be directly under the university and separate from the School for Public Administration and Policy which houses the NGO Research Center.  Unlike the School for Public Administration and Policy, the Institute will  not have degree programs of its own. It is only a research institute for now, although that may change in the future.

The themes of this two-day conference are cross-boundary, innovation and sharing. Plenary session 1 addresses the essence of philanthropy; session 2 examines borderless philanthropy; session 3  looks at philanthropic innovation and the market; and session 4 discusses the power of philanthropy.  I was only able to stay for the opening remarks, and had to miss the plenary sessions.

Toward the end of the opening remarks, the Associate Dean of the Institute, Wang Chao (who spent much of his career in the NGO world working for international NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund and World Vision) introduced the Ci-Lab (“ci” as in philanthropy or charity) or Social Innovation Lab which will be one of the Institute’s programs set up with the aim of promoting innovative ideas, individuals and organizations and matching innovators with resources.

The newly-issued Charity Law draft was on the lips of a number of the opening speakers, including the Ministry of Civil Affairs official who mentioned that the Charity Law draft is now available for public comment and hoped that it would be passed quickly. Professor Wang Ming also spoke about how the Charity Law would provide a more open environment for philanthropy in China and asked the audience to reflect on what the post-Charity Law era would bring for Chinese philanthropy. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Grassroots NGOs Win Landmark Environmental Public Interest Lawsuit

In this second year of a sustained crackdown on civil society activists and organizations in China, the environmental sector has been one of the few bright spots. On January 1 of this year, the newly revised Environmental Protection Law loosened restrictions on organizations that could sue polluters on behalf of the public interest (so-called environmental public interest lawsuits) to include qualified civil society organizations. Then in late February, Chai Jing, a former CCTV investigative reporter, released her documentary "Under the Dome" about China's smog crisis. That documentary immediately went viral getting hundreds of millions of clicks just a few days after going online.

Now we can add yet another example to this list. About two-and-a-half weeks ago, on October 29, 2015, the Nanping Intermediate People's Court in China's southeastern Fujian province issued a judgement in favor of two grassroots NGO plantiffs: Beijing-based Friends of Nature and Fujian Green Home. These two NGOs filed the lawsuit on the same day the Environmental Protection Law went into effect. The defendant was a quarry company that had engaged in illegal mining and damaged the surrounding forest. The company owners were ordered to pay fines totaling 1.46 million yuan (US$230,000) in compensation for 'loss of environmental benefits' and legal costs, and given five months to restore the forest to its original state or face further fines.

Some may take exception to calling this a landmark case and they would have a point. The term "landmark" can be abused and overused. What constitutes a landmark case? Is this really a landmark case given that the polluter is a merely a local quarry company, not a large state-owned enterprise? Is it a landmark case given that we still are unsure if the court ruling will be enforced by local authorities, and if the polluters will pay the fine and clean up the forest as ordered? Is it a landmark case given that other significant cases have preceded it? As Stanley Lubman points out in his very informative blog, an earlier "groundbreaking" lawsuit was filed last October by an environmental association in Taizhou City in China's eastern Jiangsu province against companies that were dumping waste acid into local rivers. The intermediate court in Taizhou ended up fining the defendants U.S.$26 million — the largest ever in a public interest lawsuit in China and much larger than the fine levied in the Fujian case.

In an excellent article in The Diplomat, Scott Wilson, who has researched citizen participation in environmental governance, writes about the Taizhou case that it should be seen as an example of the Chinese government seeking to control the environmental litigation process. The Taizhou environmental association that filed the lawsuit - the Taizhou Environmental Protection Federation  (TEPF)- had been founded as a government-organized NGO (GONGO) that same year (the name is a dead giveaway as a local affiliate of the All-China Environmental Federation, a GONGO established with the blessing of the Ministry of Environmental Protection). The irony was that TEPF was able to file this lawsuit under a recently-amended Civil Procedure Law which allowed "relevant organizations" to file environmental public lawsuits for the first time. Yet under the newly-revised Environmental Protection Law, which only allows NGOs with five years experience in environmental protection work to file such lawsuits, TEPF would not have qualified. Pushing the irony further, Friends of Nature, a grassroots, independent environmental NGO established 20 years ago, filed a lawsuit in Taizhou against a chemical company involved in the same pollution case, but the local court refused to hear the case, saying Friends of Nature had no standing to initiate the lawsuit even though it had 19 years more experience than TEPF. The Taizhou case highlights the privileged position occupied by GONGOs which are used by the Chinese government to manage social and environmental issues while appearing to be tolerant of NGO-type organizations.

In this context, the Fujian lawsuit is a landmark case because two independent environmental NGOs with no connection to the government managed to win in a country where the Communist Party seeks increasingly to guide civil society along the correct path. It will be a case that other independent environmental NGOs can build on as a model of, and inspiration for, grassroots activism. Friends of Nature, in particular, is known to many as one of the first independent environmental NGOs, founded by Liang Congjie and friends (Liang Xiaoyan, Wang Lixiong, and Yang Dongping) in 1995 and has been involved in many of the major citizen-led actions on behalf of the environment in China over the last two decades. It's a shame that Liang Congjie, who died at the age of 78 in 2010, did not live to see this day. He would have been proud of the organization he helped to start.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Civil Society’s Response to Terrorism: the Paris Attacks and China’s Crackdown

Reading about the atrocities committed in Paris yesterday, I was struck by a parallel between the Paris attacks and the recent crackdown on China's civil society. This parallel had to do with how civil society should respond to terrorism of all kinds, whether domestic, transnational or state terrorism. What we saw in Paris appeared to be a blend of domestic and transnational terrorism. But terrorism can also be of the state variety carried out by state actors such as the police and government security forces against its citizens.  The latter is what Chinese civil society – NGOs, human rights lawyers, labor activists – is currently facing in a sustained clampdown that is well into its second year.

In formulating an answer, one thing to keep in mind is the important role the media plays in conditioning our response. Unfortunately, much of the media magnifies the effect of terrorism by focusing on the violence and brutality of the action, and instilling a sense of fear and helplessness with headlines like “Paris Terror,” “Terror in Europe,” “An Awful Realization: Terror Strikes Again” and the unfortunately-worded “Massive Muslim Terror Attack in Paris.”

The same is true of the way media and human rights organizations often report on the Chinese government’s crackdown on activists and NGOs. The narrative is to portray them as victims who are helpless in the face of overwhelming state power. To be fair, we need to be informed about civil society's plight so that it can receive attention and support from the international community, and both the media and human rights organizations play an important role here. But the narrative can become so one-sided and deafening that it can have a paralyzing effect on both activists and bystanders. People and organizations stop what they are doing or change their usual routine, lie low or head for shelter to escape the impending storm. But this behavior is precisely what terrorists intend, to instill a sense of fear and helplessness among citizens so that they will give into the agenda of those who seek to terrorize them.

The way for citizens and civil society organizations to respond to terrorism is to resist this narrative, and stand firm, resolute and optimistic in the face of terrorism, and continue to work with others to move forward on making the world a better, more equitable and yes more hopeful place. After the Paris attacks, there will be a great deal of work to be done in advancing that agenda. Finding and working hand-in-hand with like-minded people is important because solidarity provides the empowering effect needed to resist fear, helplessness and anomie.

I realize this may all sound obvious but it is actually very difficult to do when the dominant narrative does not encourage this mindset. These days I meet with funders, and representatives from foreign governments and international organizations, who tend to treat us like victims, buying into the narrative that the space for civil society is closing. We are viewed with sympathy, but when we say we are finding ways to move our work forward and are looking for funding, our remarks are received with skepticism and we’re told how many Chinese organizations cannot carry out their projects because of the crackdown. I almost want to say, listen we have a labor movement to build and it can't wait. But I sense a passive response from us is what is expected, while an optimistic, defiant response gets challenged instead of supported.

So I was happy today to find a sign that some (many?) citizens in Paris are responding to the attacks with great courage and optimism. That sign was not in any headlines but buried deep in the middle of one article on the Paris attacks. A French woman who was on her morning run was asked for her reaction to the attacks. She said she was still trying to process the events, but without succumbing to fear. “This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. We are not at war here. We need to stay confident and hopeful.”

That quote beautifully expresses the attitude that civil society can and should take in response to terrorism.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Update for January-June 2014: Legislative Progress and Continuation of a Clampdown

Looking back at this update that I wrote for the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law back in 2014, I see that I was on target about the Charity Law although understandably pessimistic that a draft would appear in the next year or so.  I was also right in reading the signals about upcoming regulation for international NGOs but failed to anticipate the Xi Jinping administration’s embrace of national security priorities in 2014, and what that embrace would mean for international NGOs in the form of the Overseas NGO Management Law that came out in draft form in early 2015.

January-March 2014

In March of 2014, the annual “two meetings” (lianghui) – the second session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Consultative People’s Political Conference (CPPCC) – were held in Beijing. The NPC session’s focus was on introducing a legislative agenda to carry out the broad policy pronouncements issued by the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee which met earlier last November.  According to various sources, that agenda includes working on the revision of the registration and management regulations for social organizations, the Charity Law which has been in limbo for almost 10 years, and various other policies on tax exemptions to encourage charitable donations, government procurement of services, strengthening trust in charitable organizations through third-party evaluations, improving transparency of foundations and nonprofits, and promoting religious charitable activity.

1) Formulating a Charity Promotion Law  (cishan shiye cujin fa, 慈善事业促进法) to regulate charitable organizations and undertakings. The Charity Promotion Law has been referred to in other discussions in this Note as the Charity Law. Li Liguo, Minister of Civil Affairs, recently revealed that the Charity Promotion Law was placed on the NPC Standing Council’s agenda for this year, although observers believe it will be several years before the Law will be passed[1].

2) Improving previous proposals to encourage religious groups to establish charitable undertakings such as hospitals.

3) Relaxing and clarifying policies regarding the development of civic charitable undertakings [民间慈善事业], as well as giving tax breaks to promote those undertakings. In January of 2013, the Ministry of Finance and State Administration of Taxation issued more clarification on tax exemptions in the form of a Notice on Management Issues Related to Determining Qualification for Tax-exempt Nonprofit Organizations.

4) Strengthening lack of trust in charitable organizations through third-party evaluations and rating systems.

April-June 2014

The spring months have been a tumultuous period for civil society in China. With the launching of an unprecedented high-level anti-corruption campaign by the new administration under President Xi Jinping, the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 protests looming, large-scale strikes at the IBM and Yue Yuen shoe factories in Guangdong in March and April, and a number of bombings and attacks in the spring that the Chinese government attributes to Uyghur separatists, the security situation for civil society groups and activists became increasingly tense. During the April-July period, a number of lawyers and other civil society activists were detained or arrested and charged with “gathering to create a public disturbance” and other crimes. The well-known anti-discrimination NGO, Yirenping, had its Zhengzhou office raided in June and again in July. In addition, a number of Christian churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang were demolished. The scope of these detentions and arrests was substantial – some say unprecedented – and included groups and activists who had not experienced repression in the past. 

At the same time, we continue to see some progress on the legislative front such as the newly-revised Environmental Protection Law which allows a broader range of NGOs to file environmental public lawsuits, mention of the Charity Law being placed on the national legislative agenda, and signals about formulating regulations for international NGOs.

On April 24, 2014 the 8th meeting of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress approved the revised Environmental Protection Law which will come into force in 2015. This Law went through several drafts. Earlier drafts elicited criticism from civil society organizations because they placed narrow restrictions on NGOs that were qualified to file environmental public interest lawsuits. Thus, in the first two drafts of the law, only NGOs with close government ties such as the All-China Environment Federation (a GONGO established by the Ministry of Environmental Protection) were allowed to file lawsuits. Following debates and suggestions, a third draft was presented in August 2013 according to which new actors could file a lawsuit if they respected the following conditions: being registered with a Civil Affairs Bureau above the city level, being active for at least five years, and have “a good reputation.”  In the final draft, presented in March of 2014, “good reputation” was replaced by “no record of illegal activity,” thereby widening the scope of actors entitled to file public interest environment lawsuits[2].  

Reports also came out about the drafting of the Charity Law which has been placed on the National People’s Congress (NPC) legislative timetable. The NPC Domestic Affairs Legal Committee (全国人民代表大会内务司法委员会has taken the lead in the drafting of the Charity Law and is expected to submit it for consideration in 2015 if the legislative process proceeds smoothly. Legal scholars such as Jin Jinping, director of Peking University’s Civil Society Research Center, spoke in favor of legislation protecting one’s right to engage in charitable acts. She hoped that legislation should give communities more freedom, and stressed that when considering legislation that has to do with liability, supervision, management, and taxes, it was important to consider whether the Charity Law would promote or “imprison” one’s right to do good[3].

There has also been more high-level signaling that new regulations may be in the works that will make it easier for international NGOs to gain legal status. In May of 2014, the newly-formed National Security Commission headed by President Xi Jinping ordered a review and investigation into the operations of international NGOs working in China, particularly those with projects in rural areas. The text noted that the investigation’s purpose was to “lay the foundation for further strengthening standardized management.” This suggests that the investigation should be seen not so much as a crackdown on international NGOs working in China, but as part of a broader initiative to strengthen regulation over international NGOs which, in the past, have operated largely without much government regulation or oversight. Given the 2013 news of impending new regulations for international NGOs, it may very well be that this investigation will help to shape the content of those new regulations.

These positive legislative initiatives accompanied a wave of optimism following the Third Plenum Decision of November of 2013 and the NPC meeting in March of 2014, both of which signaled greater government support for civil society through the moniker of “social governance.” But true to the Communist Party leadership’s penchant for contradictions, these measures were followed quickly by a more repressive period in which many civil society activists, lawyers and NGOs came under greater scrutiny in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 protests and a substantial number were detained, investigated, harassed or arrested.

[1] “Minister of Civil Affairs, Li Liguo: The countdown for our country’s charity legislation has begun”, 民政部部长李立国:我国慈善立法进入倒计时, China Broadcasting, 6 March 2013, available online:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Some Good News Regarding the Overseas NGO Management Law Draft and the Long-Awaited Charity Law

In a difficult year for civil society, we have two pieces of good news for a change. One is that the Overseas NGO Management Law draft has yet to be reviewed a third time by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. Generally after a draft law is reviewed a third time, it is voted on unless significant problems or controversies emerge.

A comparison with the National Security Law is instructive. Both the second draft of that law, and the second draft of the Overseas NGO Management Law, came out about the same time in May for public comment. The National Security Law draft was reviewed a third time at the next Standing Committee meeting, voted on and passed overwhelmingly with only one abstention. The Overseas NGO Management Law draft, in contrast, has not been mentioned at any of the subsequent Standing Committee meetings. Since the Standing Committee meets every other month, there is still a chance that it could be reviewed in December. Still the delay suggests that the many comments on the draft law coming from both the foreign NGO and business community, and the concerns voiced by various government leaders at the highest levels in both the U.S. and Europe have been heard. In his private meeting with Xi Jinping in Washington, President Obama was said to have voiced his concerns about the law. President Xi said he supported a law to regulate overseas nonprofits, but did not say that he supported the law in its current form. In addition, my sources tell me that there is considerable dissension among various Chinese government agencies over this draft law. In short, there seems to be enough problems and controversies to delay this draft law. It may not be reviewed until next year, if then, and when it is, it may contain some significant revisions. Stay tuned.

The second piece of good news is the long-awaited arrival of the first draft of the Charity Law for public comment[1]. This law has been in the legislative pipeline since 2005 and it has become almost a yearly ritual to predict the law’s appearance and then to be disappointed. It looks that streak of bad luck is about to come to an end. On first glance, the Charity Law draft looks quite good. I’ll write in more detail about it in another post. But let me note three major highlights of this draft law.

One is that it upholds a quite expansive view of charity or philanthropy, what the Chinese call “big philanthropy” (da cishan) in going beyond traditional notions of philanthropy such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief to including the promotion of education, culture, sports, health, environmental protection and “other activities consistent with the societal public interest”.

Second, it appears to allow for the direct registration of charitable organizations, thereby doing away with the old “dual management system” in which NGOs had to find a professional supervising agency before they could register with Civil Affairs. The language in the draft could be clearer on this point, but an article posted on the NPC’s website confirms that this is the intent.

Third, the last article in this draft law notes that “even when a non-profit organization with the purpose of conducting charitable activities is not registered, it can still conduct charitable activities within its limits, but shall comply with the relevant provisions of this Law and benefit from relevant rights and interests according to law.” In the past, I have never seen such a clause appear in any Chinese regulations concerning NGOs. Instead, one usually sees regulations appear (such as a Guangzhou draft regulation which came out last year and has not been heard of since) banning “illegal social organizations (the official Chinese term for NGOs),” referring to organizations that operate as NGOs without having registered. What this clause essentially says is that unregistered NGOs should not be considered as illegal and should be allowed to carry out charitable activities. That is a significant step forward.

Of course, there are some problems with this draft such as continuing to insist on a higher bar for charitable organizations that want to engage in public fundraising, and too much emphasis on compelling charitable organizations to disclose information. I’ll write more on these issues in a later post.

[1] I’m grateful to ChinaLawTranslate for providing a preliminary English translation. This translation still has a number of problems but is the only English translation available, and the nature of crowdsourced translations is that they will improve over time. China Development Brief should have a more authoritative translation out soon.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Update on Developments in 2013-14: What Will the Third Plenum Bring for China's Civil Society?

In the fall of 2013, observers and practitioners in China’s civil society were waiting for a major policy statement from the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee which was held the second week of November. The Third Plenum has historically been the venue at which major policy decisions have been made. Deng Xiaoping’s call for “reform and opening” was made at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978. Since this was the first plenum to be held after Xi Jinping was confirmed president in March, it was seen as Xi’s stage to lay out his policy blueprint for the next few years. People were particularly eager to see what the Xi Jinping administration’s policy would be toward the various reforms and experiments that had been taking place in the NGO sector over the last few years[1]

The Xi administration’s answer came in the form of the Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform (中共中央关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定) which was adopted by the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee on November 12, 2013. The Third Plenum Decision received the greatest attention for its calls for greater liberalization of the economy, and more use of market levers. But it also called for a bigger governance role for the market, private sector and non-state actors, including social organizations, the official Chinese term for NGOs. Of course, the actual impact of these broad policy pronouncements will depend on the details of the implementing laws and regulations that follow. Still, as Xu Yongguang of the Narada Foundation argued in one of the more optimistic assessments, there are a number of areas in the Decision that should raise the spirits of those in the NGO sector.

Perhaps the most important is a change in tone when talking about the role of society and social organizations in governance. Previous high-level speeches and documents have used the term “social management innovation” which emphasized the need to manage society and social organizations. The Decision replaced that term with “social governance,” a term which has never been used before in official discourse but one which more liberal-minded advisors have advocated for because it places society and social organizations more on a par with government. The notion of “social governance” recognizes that social actors have a part in governance alongside the government and business, and that there needs to be greater cooperation between these different stakeholders if China’s development is to become more sustainable and inclusive.

There is thus an entire section of the Decision (Section 13) devoted to “Making Innovations in Social Governance”. Instead of talking about the need to manage social organizations, that section talks about achieving a “positive interaction between government administration on one hand and social self-management and resident self-management on the other.” It also talks about enlivening the role of social organizations by further separating government from social organizations, encouraging government contracting of services to social organizations, making it easier for social organizations to register, and improving tax preferences for charitable donations. The Decision also calls for social organizations to get involved in cultural and educational activities, and for community-level and social organizations to be consulted on policy decisions and their implementation.

In short, the Decision not only gives a green light to the reforms and experiments that have been going on in the NGO sector at the local level over the past few years, but also provides a macro framework decided by the top leadership (what the Chinese call “high-level design” 顶层设计) for envisioning how those reforms should proceed.

The question now is what actual implementing laws and regulations will come out of the Third Plenum? The Decision opens up a number of very broad areas for reform that need to be fleshed out. How will the separation between government and social organizations take place, and how will the roles and responsibilities of each be clarified and enforced? How will government contracting be carried out and what type of social organizations will be eligible to apply? How will the registration of social organizations be simplified and streamlined and what type of social organizations will be eligible? Complicating these questions is another broad reform being carried out to transform and streamline the government by detaching public institutions from the government system and turning some of them into social organizations. This reform will bring a whole new group of actors into a very fluid, quickly changing NGO sector.

The outlines of some of these implementing policies have already begun to take shape. On September 26, 2013, the State Council General Office issued its Guiding Opinions on Government Purchasing Services from Social Actors (国务院办公厅关于政府向社会力量购买服务的指导意见). The State Council’s Institutional Reform and Functional Transformation Plan (国务院机构改革和职能转变方案) also lists three other tasks to be carried out. One is experiments to separate trade associations and chambers of commerce from their government supervisors so that they can truly play a service function in responding to their members needs. The second is to enable four categories of social organizations to directly register by revising the Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例), and similar regulations for the two other categories of social organizations. The third is to come up with other specific measures for strengthening social governance.

These three tasks were to have been carried out by the end of 2013, but it appears they are behind schedule. The revised Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Associations (社会团体登记管理条例) have still not come out, but recent reports indicate it is still under revision and should come out first, sometime in 2014, followed at some later date by revised regulations for the other two categories of social organizations, as well as other measures related to social governance. The year 2014 should thus be a busy and fruitful one for the NGO sector on the policy front.
IF the Third Plenum Decision was the only major event in the last few months, then Xu Yongguang would be right about a spring thaw for China’s civil society. But this same period has seen other events cast a chill on the coming spring. These include a clampdown on prominent bloggers and the arrest or detention of some well-known activists, scholars and businessmen. In January of 2014, Xu Zhiyong, founder of the NGO, the Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng) and one of the drivers of the New Citizen Movement, was tried and sentenced to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” That same month, the moderate Uighur intellectual and economics professor, Ilham Tohti, was detained in Beijing on charges of “inciting separatism and ethnic hatred” and in September sentenced to life imprisonment.

These events show that even as the government has taken the first, important step towards recognizing the value of civil society, it still has a long way to go in creating a level playing field and protections for the many, diverse individuals and organizations in China that work to create a more just and sustainable society.

[1] For a summary of those local experiments, see the ICNL China NGO Monitor.