Wednesday, February 23, 2022

What Social Innovations Advisory has been doing to promote a resilient civil society and inclusive development

 It's been nearly 16 months since I last wrote about our work at Social Innovations Advisory (SIA), the consulting firm I started back in early 2018. Since then, we've been through struggling through a pandemic that is going into its third year, and an abrupt departure from China last summer with my family (one day I may write about this). In January this year, we ended up back on our feet here in Taipei, Taiwan where we'll be based for the next few years and maybe beyond.

The mission of SIA is to build a resilient civil society for inclusive, sustainable development. Early on, SIA's focus was on China, but as I explained in my last post, we began to venture further afield following China's growing footprint overseas. In 2019, we organized a team of researchers to carry out a UNDP/DFID project to examine the social risks of Chinese overseas investment in Nepal and Zambia as part of that massive development project known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

This project led to consulting for the UK government's China Infrastructure Programme which was intended to help Chinese state-owned enterprises raise the social and environmental standards of their infrastructure projects overseas. We were brought in because of our expertise on China and inclusive development, particularly social inclusion and community engagement. We succeeded in bringing in Chinese partners, including a large industry groups whose members are SOEs, to work on projects to improve their engagement with affected communities.

Since March 2021, in collaboration with the Innovation for Change network and other NGOs, we've been working directly with those communities and CSOs in the global South to strengthen their capacity to understand the BRI, and engage Chinese government and corporate actors to hold them accountable. It's the opposite of what we did for the China Infrastructure Programme and arguably more impactful because civil society is more open to working with us, and understands our language more than Chinese SOEs which have been conservative and cautious in embracing the idea of inclusive development.

In addition to the work we've been doing with global South civil society and BRI, there are two other important areas of work SIA has been involved in. 

One is helping organizations re-think, re-orient and re-strategize their work in challenging spaces such as China and Hong Kong. We have advised the EU, international NGOs, and other organizations develop new strategies through research and convening of stakeholders.

The other is helping NGOs, particularly those working on human rights which have relied heavily on international funding, explore and develop innovating strategies and methods to diverse their local funding base to become more financially sustainable. We have designed tools to train and mentor NGOs through this process, and hope to do more in helping them develop prototypes that can be scaled up.

If you'd like more information about our work or want to talk about collaborating, please take a look at this pamphlet about our work, and get in touch with me at

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The 14th Five Year Plan for Social Organizations: Opportunities for NGOs

In my last blogpost, I wrote about the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) for Social Organizations released in October 2021 and its blueprint for imposing greater controls and supervision over Chinese social organizations in an effort to create a "high-quality" social organization sector.   While the FYP instills little optimism for the development of an independent civil society, it does identify areas in which NGOs in China can contribute to the development of the sector, and to sustainable and inclusive development in China and globally. 

Sections 3.6 and 3.7 of the FYP call for strengthening the internal management, governance and technical skills of social organizations. These areas are critical to developing more professional and disciplined social organizations, and include strengthening social organizations' financial and human resource management, governance, legal compliance, communications and public relations, marketing, and digital capabilities. 

Section 3.7 identifies attracting more talent to the sector as another critical need, and calls for encouraging more majors and courses on social organization management and social work, and more continuing education services and training for those working in the sector.

Section 3.8 includes a number of areas that NGOs can contribute to both in terms of policy advocacy and service provision that align with national strategies:

Support social organizations nationwide to provide professional services focusing on national strategies such as rejuvenating the country through science and education, strengthening the country through improvement of talent, innovation-driven development, rural revitalization, coordinated regional development, sustainable development, and addressing the aging of the population. Support regional and provincial social organizations focusing on the development of the western region, the revitalization of old industrial bases in the northeast, the promotion of high-quality development in the central region, the first development in the eastern region, the coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the construction of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and the integration of the Yangtze River Delta Region.

This includes China's "going out" strategy in line with the Belt and Road Initiative and the recently release White Paper on International Development Cooperation in the New Era.

Properly implement the "going global" of social organizations, orderly carry out overseas cooperation, enhance the ability of Chinese social organizations to participate in global governance, and strengthen the influence of Chinese culture and China's "soft power.” (Section 3.8) 

One other area of opportunity for NGOs will be in the provision of community services through community-based organizations (CBOs) or what the FYP refers to as "community social organizations" (shequ shehui zuzhi). This aligns with the rollout of a major government initiative (see the Ministry of Civil Affairs' Special Action Plan for Cultivating and Developing Community Social Organizations (2021-23)) to strengthen the infrastructure for community services directing more attention and resources from sources such as government procurement and philanthropy to improving community services in urban and rural areas. This is elaborated on in Section 3.8 of the FYP:  

Promote social organizations to serve communities. Focus on consolidating and expanding the results of poverty alleviation and effectively linking with rural revitalization, and give play to the active role of social organizations in mobilizing social forces, linking resources from all parties, and providing professional services. Focus on special groups and mobilize social organizations to participate in public welfare undertakings such as elderly care, childcare, and assistance to the disabled. Focus on the concerns of the masses, give full play to the active role of social organizations in expanding public participation, promoting democratic consultations, resolving social conflicts, and spreading a culture of the rule of law, so as to better participate in grassroots social governance. 

Implement the "Special Action Plan for Cultivating and Developing Community Social Organizations". Speed up the development of community social organizations, and guide all localities to use more resources such as policies, funds, and talents for the construction of community social organizations. Give full play to the role of hub social organizations such as federations of community social organizations and community social organization service centers…. and guide community social organizations to link social workers and volunteers to participate in community governance, provide community services, cultivate community culture, carry out community consultations, resolve community conflicts, and promote community harmony. 


While the focus of this initiative is more on building the capacity of community social organizations to provide more professional community services, there may also be opportunities for policy advocacy on formulating more enabling policies to support this sector.



Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The 14th Five Year Plan for Social Organizations and the future of civil society in China

In October 2021, the Ministry of Civil Affair issued its 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) for the Development of Social Organizations. The FYP is the first of its kind for the social organization sector and is must reading for anyone interested in understanding how the Chinese government intends to reshape the future of Chinas nonprofit sector. It puts forth a grim blueprint for the sectors development over the next five years drawing on high level policy documents[1] and major laws and regulations[2] issued over the last few years.  


The dominant theme in the blueprint is the need to strengthen supervision, control and standardization of the social organization sector in order to promote high-quality social organizations.  To improve their "quality," the FYP calls for raising barriers to entry for social organizations, increasing the proportion of charitable organizations, cracking down on social organizations violating laws and regulations, and clearing out inefficient, ineffective and illegal social organizations (Section 3.3).[3] It calls for supervision and control to come not only from the social organizations management and registration organs (Civil Affairs) and professional supervising units (PSUs), but also from the Communist Party, law enforcement agencies, the use of artificial intelligence and big data, and society (Sections 1 and 3.4).


The political leadership role of Communist Party groups in social organizations is mentioned prominently in many of these sections. Below are just a few examples. 

  • In Section 1, party groups are described as playing a vanguard, “battle fortress” role inside social organizations. 
  • Section 2.2 brings attention to “strengthening the party's overall leadership over social organizations, continuing in-depth study and implementation of “Xi Jinping's Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era”…. effectively realizing full coverage [in the sector] of party organization and party work, integrating party building work into the entire operation and development processes of social organizations, and ensure the correct development direction of social organizations.
  • Section 3.2 calls for social organizations to “be guided to be thankful for the party, listen to the party, and follow the party.
  • Section 3.3 emphasizes strictly synchronizing the "collection of party member information during registration," "reporting of party building work during the annual inspection," and "inclusion of party-building work in important evaluation indicators."    

There is little mention in this document of creating an enabling environment for social organizations. Only toward the end does it discuss the need to support the development of social organizations' branding and communications capacity, and very briefly mentions preferential tax policies for social organizations (Sections 3.6 and 3.7).



The last five years starting in 2016 represents perhaps the most important turning point for civil society in China since the 1989 democracy movement. This period has seen an unprecedented cascade of top-down policy and regulatory initiatives aimed at remaking the social organization sector. In a blogpost I wrote back in 2016, I said that 2016 could well be the year that the future starts.[4] What I meant by this was the future of civil society as envisioned and shaped by China's party-state. Since then, analysts have tried to make sense of that future. Most have taken a wait-and-see attitude, others have put forth a more pessimistic outlook[5], while some continue to argue there is space for civil society to operate[6]. While there may still be room for debate about how civil society will survive and evolve in this difficult environment, there should be little doubt now about what the future looks like in the eyes of China's party-state. One only has to read this FYP to know.

[6] Deane, Lawrence. 2021. “Will There be a Civil Society in the Xi Jinping Era?” Made in China.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

China's neutered civil society will make it hard for it to deliver on the SDGs

 I recently wrote this blogpost for Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) and am reposting it here.

China’s White Paper and the BRI: Can we expect China to deliver on the SDGs? 

 While China’s new White Paper for International Development Cooperation opens opportunities for it to make substantial contributions to the SDGs through south-south cooperation and China-backed initiatives such as BRI, I argue the top-down development approach of China and the lack of an active civil society might hinder the delivery of its commitment to sustainable and inclusive growth in the global South. 

 The English-language blogpost can be found on BRHHC's website, 

 The Chinese version of the blogpost can be found here (中文版本的链接)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Pathways to Financial Sustainability for NGOs

Social Innovations Advisory (SIA) is pleased to announce the release of its report, Building the Roadmap for Financial Sustainability for Rights-based CSOs in the Global South. The report analyses case studies of CSOs in the Asia-Pacific region that are piloting a wide range of business and funding models. These cases are based on interviews conducted during the spring of 2019 with 22 CSO leaders about their experiences, achievements and challenges. Summaries of 16 of these cases in standardized templates are now available in the CSO Sustainability Database on the website of Innovation for Change (I4C). The report can also be found on the website of Rights CoLab, of which SIA's director, Shawn Shieh, is a Contributor.


The findings of this research project have also been shared in the following platforms:


·      A podcast in the Civic Innovator’s series featuring SIA’s founder, Shawn Shieh, Innpactia’s coordinator, Ana María Espin and Innpactia’s founder, Juan Carlos Lozano on “Creative Sustainability” focusing on the imaginative and inventive ways that civil society organizations are seeking resources, funding and other support for their work in often difficult circumstances.


·      Shawn Shieh’s OpenGlobalRights article on how Chinese CSOs are at the forefront of exploring hybrid business and funding models thanks to China having perhaps the most diverse funding ecosystem in Asia.


·      SIA’s report and cases join a growing body of work carried out by the Innovation for Change network and Rights CoLab on financial sustainability and alternative CSO business and funding models in other regions of the world. SIA’s report can be found on the website of Rights CoLab, and the cases can be found on Rights CoLab’s Mapping Civil Society Innovation platform.


SIA plans to use these findings to highlight the critical importance of financial sustainability and local funding to both funders and CSOs in the coming years. We will be developing toolkits and providing trainings and coaching to mentor CSOs on exploring alternative business and funding models.


For questions, please contact Shawn Shieh, Founder and Director, SIA, at

Thursday, June 4, 2020

June 4 and Black Lives Matter

 Today is the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the time, there was division within China's leadership ranks over whether to use the military to suppress the protests. Eventually, Deng Xiaoping and the conservatives in the Politburo Standing Committee prevailed over the objections of the nominal leader, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who sought a political solution to the protests; martial law was imposed and military units were called to Beijing. The decision to seek a military solution to the protests did not go uncontested. The general of of a garrison near Beijing refused to follow the orders and military units further from Beijing had to be called in. They eventually marched through Beijing and on June 4 cleared Tiananmen Square shooting and running over civilians. The number of people who died is only known to the Chinese government, but estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands.

It's hard not to think about China's use of military force against its own citizens in the June 4 protests without thinking of President Trump's recent threat to use military force to "dominate" protests against police violence against black Americans that have rocked U.S. cities. The parallel is a striking one, yet Donald Trump is the leader of a democracy while Deng Xiaoping was leader of an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party holds a monopoly on power. 

Many of us would read this parallel as yet one more sign of Trump's dangerous brush with authoritarianism and the threat it poses to America's increasingly fragile democracy. It also shows the moral bankruptcy of Trump's push back against China in supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Given his record, Trump's posturing against China should be taken as just that - a position taken solely for political expediency, without any moral weight behind it.

June 4, 2020
Fair Haven, New York

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Five Chinese labor activists released but not free

May 13, 2020

On May 9, China Labour Bulletin announced that five Chinese labor activists had been released after spending 15 months in detention and another 14 days in quarantine because of the pandemic. The five are Zhang Zhiru, Wu Guijun, Jian Hui, Song Jiahua and He Yuancheng. Guijun, Jian Hui and Yuancheng were well-known in the labor rights community having founded or worked for prominent labor organizations in the south of China. Jiahua, the only female in this group, was a former worker-turned-activist after her experience in 2015 representing workers at the Lide Shoe Factory in one of China's best-known collective bargaining cases.

Since their arrest back in January 2019, we have had little information about their whereabouts or circumstances. It now turns out that they were pressured to dismiss the lawyers of their choosing and accept state-appointed lawyers. Unbeknownst to their families, they were also tried behind closed doors on criminal charges of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" (聚众扰乱社会秩序罪). Zhiru and Guijun were sentenced to three years imprisonment, suspended for four years, while the others were sentenced to 18 months, suspended for two years. The suspended sentences mean that they will be closely monitored, and their movements restricted, during the period of their suspension and unable to continue their previous work.

Unlike the arrests of five prominent labor activists from Guangdong in December 2015, the arrests of these five activists garnered less international attention, coming in the midst of a string of other arrests of workers and activists, many connected to the high-profile Jasic Technology case in Shenzhen. Together, the harassment, detentions and arrests of workers and activists from 2015 to the present, all stemming from Xi Jinping's broad-ranging assault on civil society, represents the most severe crackdown on labor in China in recent memory. As I wrote in my last post on the power of labor during the pandemic, the crippling of worker centers and labor activists has made it much more difficult for civil society to monitor labor violations and assist workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic and the opening-up phase.

On a personal note, I know four of these activists well, having worked with Zhiru, Jian Hui and Jiahua during my time at China Labour Bulletin. In 2016, we had plans to bring Jiahua and several other female worker activists to Bangalore, India to discuss their collective bargaining experience with Indian female garment workers. It would have been a meeting of labor activists from the world's two most populous countries. Unfortunately, Jiahua and the others were stopped at the border on their way to meet us in Hong Kong to board the flight to Bangalore. So in a quick act of improvisation, they put together a video message and we carried it to Bangalore where we shared it with the Indian garment workers. More recently, I was in touch with Jian Hui who had moved from Shenzhen to Changsha, in the neighboring province of Hunan, where he was excited about starting up his own worker center. The last message I received from him was on December 19, 2018, a month before he disappeared.

I've thought and worried about him and the others often since then, so news of their release is sweet indeed but comes with a bitter aftertaste knowing they will not be free to do what they love.