Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Profile of Chen Yongsong, founder of EcoNetwork

Profile: Chen Yongsong

Chen Yongsong is the founder of EcoNetwork (Yunnan shengtaiwang), an environmental NGO headquartered in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. In January of 2009, I arranged with Chen to meet him at his Green Home for Youth (qingshaonian luse jiayuan) located in a village in the Lashihai district of Lijiang. Lashihai is a large lake located about 8 km to the west of the old city of Lijiang. It is also home to a community watershed project started by Yu Xiaogang, the well-known founder of the environmental NGO Green Watershed. Our car took us through the new city, then up a winding mountain road which leveled off after a few hundred feet. To our right, we could see the clear, blue green lake nestled in plain surrounded by mountains.

Chen met us on the road near his school. He’s a middle-aged, small man with graying hair and a bookish look. He took us down a dirt path through red metal gates decorated with couplets on the side given to him by farmers in the village. The couplets said something about when the government provides security, and the people are at peace, then there is happiness throughout the land. Next to the door was a white plaque with the name of the school in black characters (see picture on right). He led us into the school, which was a traditional two story building inside a courtyard. He gave us a tour of the school which consisted of an office on the first floor with a few computers and a meeting table, and environmental exhibits of their biogas project, pictures of different kinds of renewable energy, pictures and models of bird species indigenous to Yunnan and the Lashihai area, and books about environmental protection for the students – one of which was written by him.

After the tour, we went back down to the meeting room and had tea. He poured us some tea which he called Pu’er forest tea that was given to him by a farmer in Xishuanbanna. Chen and I talked sitting out in the courtyard (see picture to left) in the warm sun under a bright blue sky. Here is his story.

Chen was born in August 7, 1960 and attended Yunnan Normal University where he was an English major and took classes in English literature and American history. After he graduated in 1985, he was assigned to a job in the Yunnan provincial government foreign affairs office.

In 1988, he quit his government job and jumped into the sea (xiahai). He originally wanted to study abroad in the U.S. but then got married and had to stay put. He took various jobs, going into real estate, helping start a factory, teaching. He had no idea of or interest in environmental protection at the time.

Then in Jan. 2000, he came across an informal network of people, most of them working for international NGOs who came together to discuss environmental issues. This network was looking for a coordinator who spoke English and could take minutes of the meetings and eventually set up an organization. Then in 2001, the Yunnan provincial government got nervous about foreigners and Chinese meeting to talk about environmental issues, and decided to break up the network. The foreigners left, but Chen decided to keep the network going. At that time, in 2001, the Yunnan provincial government and the British international development agency had a joint project planned for the 2001-2005 period to promote sustainable development. This project had a large budget. Chen decided to write up a proposal to use NGOs to disseminate the idea of sustainable development among the broader public. The British embassy liked the idea and gave him money for his project. Thus EcoNetwork was born.

EcoNetwork’s main office is based in Kunming, but Chen decided to select 4 project sites, each in different areas and addressing a problem unique to that area. In Lijiang, it was cultural preservation of the Naxi, who are ethnic minorities living around Lashihai; in another area of Yunnan, they have a project protecting the black-necked crane, and so forth.

When I asked him why he decided to join the network, when he had no interest in or experience in environmental protection, his first response was that he had tried so many other jobs and failed at them, or wasn’t interested in them, so he started looking around for something else. He first joined the network to practice his English. He had to write up the minutes of the network’s meetings, and began to realize that they were all about environmental issues. He also saw that there were few Chinese participating, most were foreigners, and felt that maybe there was a possible career here.

The lack of Chinese interest in these types of discussions also made him realize the importance of public participation if environmental protection was going to be a reality. Environmental protection wasn’t going to be solved solely by the government. But participation required a mechanism. He began to think about the importance of NGOs and volunteerism as a mechanism for getting people involved, and giving them a sense of social responsibility.

In 2001, he applied to the U.S. Embassy’s International Visitors Program to visit the U.S. and visit NGOs and find out more about volunteerism. He flew into the U.S. on Sept. 12, the day after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. His plane was rerouted from NYC to Buffalo, and he remembers having to go through extensive searches in the airport.

After he returned from the U.S., Chen began to set up opportunities for university students to volunteer in educating others about the environment. The Green Home for Youth is such a project that provides training to both Chinese and international student volunteers. Chen wants to not just protect the environment but also to change society through volunteerism. He gives an example of university students planting trees, and helping teachers in the village. These teachers don’t get much money and are burdened by other duties, so he asks university student volunteers to come and help teachers in different ways – providing activities to stimulate the children, observing classes and making suggestions to teachers.

Chen’s NGO is like many NGOs scattered across China. It is small, not well known, and isolated, yet seeks to promote awareness of two values that receive too little attention in China: sustainable development and public participation.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Three NGOs in Nanjing

November 23, 2009

In a recent trip to Nanjing, I visited three NGOs. They couldn’t have been any different and highlight the organizational diversity of NGOs in China. The first was an environmental NGO called Green Stone, and located in a small two room apartment in an alley off a street lined with stores selling metal and rubber piping, and other industrial equipment. It would be the last place I’d think to look for an environmental NGO.

This NGO got started with a few student volunteers who in 2007 decided to establish an NGO that they registered as a business. It has two full-time staff, and most of their funding came from international foundations based in China.

We then went to a rundown hotel where we listened to the organizer of an environmental volunteer group that is unregistered. This person also happened to be a local government official who had retired recently and was devoting full time to his volunteer group. He told us some stories about the conflict over development projects in Nanjing between government leaders and NGOs and citizens who oppose unrestricted development. Most of these development projects were centered in the Purple Mountain area, famous as the site of the Sun Yatsen Masoleum, where this group focuses its activities.

One story is about the building of an observation tower on Purple Mountain. After their volunteer group contacted the media, and two lawyers filed a lawsuit, the Nanjing mayor eventually had the tower dismantled.

Another case involving the protection of forests in the Purple Mountain area occurred in 2002. The volunteer group contacted Liang Congjie, founder of the Beijing environmental NGO Friends of Nature, who used his position as a CPPCC member to write a letter to the Nanjing government. In the end, some trees were cut, but others were preserved. Liang Congjie noted this action as the first time Nanjing citizens had stood up to protect their city’s resources.

Another case in 2004 came up when the city government announced the building of a 5 star hotel in Purple Mountain. The volunteer group sent letters to the Nanjing city officials raising questions about this project, but didn’t get any response. They then contacted some media outlets, but were told by Nanjing officials to stop involving the media. The project went through but with some modifications to lessen the environmental impact.

In another project, the Nanjing government invited a U.S. design firm to come and design a bar area. Once again, they contacted the media which caused Nanjing officials a big headache but forced them to meet with their group.

The situation of NGOs and volunteer groups in Nanjing is fairly good now, but because their group has opposed development projects, they’ve gotten a lot of pressure from the government. As a result, his group now focuses on less sensitive issues such as protecting a certain species of butterfly.

He notes that there are still many restrictions on NGO registration, and he hasn’t seen much change in the local government’s attitude in the last few years. His group is unregistered because he can’t find a supervising unit. He uses the bank account of a local government agency when he needs to deposit funds, but when he asked this agency if it would sponsor his group for registration, they said no. The general attitude of local leaders in Nanjing toward groups like his, he says, is still one of suspicion rather than support. He says there was a forum held by the city environmental protection bureau and environmental NGOs in Nanjing a few years ago, but after the forum was over, Nanjing leaders wrote a letter criticizing the meeting.

His stories were a reminder that while NGOs do have some allies among influential activists, certain government departments like the environmental protection bureau, and various media outlets, they still lack legitimacy and clout in China.

In the afternoon, we saw a very different kind of NGO when we went to visit the Amity Foundation which is located in quiet compound next to Nanjing University. Amity is located in the former residence of the president of Jinling University. They had just finished moving into a state of the art building next door which had 3 floors of offices with cubicles full of new computers, desks and shelves. At the top floor was a library. In the basement where we congregated, there was a state of the art conference room.

Amity was founded in 1985 by Chinese Christians and runs a wide range of social and environmental programs throughout China. It has a budget of close to 100 million yuan, larger than any other NGO I’ve come across in China. While it can be considered a NGO, it’s registration status suggests it has good connections with the government. It is the only independent NGO that I known of that is registered as a public fundraising foundation. This means it has the authority to raise funds publicly. The other public fundraising foundations I know of are all GONGOs. Amity is registered with the provincial Civil Affairs department, and its supervising unit is the provincial Overseas Chinese Friendship Association.

During my visit, I was told two interesting pieces of information. One is that Amity has just started a capacity building program to promote the development of grassroots NGOs. The other is that the Sichuan earthquake energized not only conventional NGOs, but also faith-based NGOs such as Buddhists charities. One Amity staff told me she had met with a number of Buddhist organizations who told her about temples in Sichuan that had started their own charities after the earthquake. On the development of Buddhist charities, take a look at Andre Laliberte’s chapter on the topic in our edited volume, State and Society Responses to Social Welfare Needs (Routledge, 2009).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On what Obama can do for NGOs on his visit to China

November 14, 2009

On the eve of Obama’s first trip to Beijing, there has been talk about whether he should raise the human rights issue. Here’s my take on this. Obama should address human rights in China by recognizing the progress made by Chinese NGOs. After all, he knows what it’s like to be a Chinese NGO.

In an article he wrote in 1988 titled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City”, Barack Obama recounts an episode in which a public school aide says she can’t understand why he, a college graduate, would go into community organizing. Obama asks her why. Her response: " 'Cause the pay is low, the hours is long, and don't nobody appreciate you."

She could have been describing what it was like working for a Chinese NGO which face not only problems with raising funds, but also lack of legitimacy and respect from the government, business community and society at large.

As a former community organizer, Obama has a natural connection to Chinese NGOs, and he should play on it when addressing the human rights issue in his upcoming trip to China. Thus, rather than criticize China’s human rights record, which he will probably not do publicly, he could meet with grassroots NGO leaders and recognize their efforts. Moreover, in his meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, he could take the time to commend them for encouraging NGOs and other social organizations to play a bigger role in addressing many of China’s environmental and social problems.

Normally, China’s NGOs work quietly on the margins, educating people on China’s tremendous environmental problems, helping migrant workers recover back wages, integrating mentally challenged youth into the community, and counseling women in abusive relationships. But NGOs and volunteer groups played a very public role in the relief and reconstruction effort following the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008. You might say 2008 was the coming-out year for Chinese NGOs and volunteers who showed many in Chinese society were willing to lend a hand to address China’s many social and environmental problems. Obama could mention these efforts to Hu and Wen as a way to bring the value of NGOs to Hu and Wen’s attention.

Obama’s mention of China’s NGOs would of course be symbolic. But his actions and words, no matter how small, would mean the world to them. His support would give NGOs a measure of recognition at the highest levels of the Chinese government, and encourage NGOs to move forward, despite political and legal obstacles, and lack of support and recognition from the government, businesses, and society at large.

As a former community organizer, Obama knows NGOs need all the encouragement they can get.

There is also evidence that praising China for progress they’ve made, is more productive than harping on their shortcomings. In 1996, Carter wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin about his delegation’s favorable assessment of the ongoing village election experiment. Soon after, Jiang began to pay more attention to village elections and lending them his support. Obama could do the same for China’s NGOs.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Profile: Lu Fei, founder of NGOCN

November 1, 2009

In this blog, I hope to put a human face on the emerging NGO scene by profiling some of the NGO founders and activists I’ve met and interviewed for my research on NGOs.

I’d like to start out with a profile of a young man I met in Kunming. His name is Lu Fei. He’s not one of the better known activists out there, but he’s an interesting character and has done a great deal for civil society organizations and social causes for someone so young. He’s really an atypical Chinese youth, but also at the forefront of a growing interest among many Chinese youths in volunteerism and social issues.

I met Lu Fei at my hotel room near Yunnan University. I had called him because he was mentioned as one of the founders of NGOCN Development and Exchange Network (NGOCN Fazhan Jiaoliu Wang), otherwise known by its website address, ngocn.org. NGOCN is one of the most popular and widely used communication platforms serving NGOs in China. Like its Beijing counterpart, China Development Brief, NGOCN posts articles, job listings, news about conferences and funding opportunities, and a regular newsletter on the NGO/nonprofit sector.

I was surprised by Lu Fei’s youth. He looked like your typical college computer science student, spiky hair, not much of a fashion or social sense, and a dreamy look in his eyes. But when he started talking, you began to realize he was more a doer than a dreamer.

Lu Fei started NGOCN with a friend, Ben Li, in January of 2005 when they were both working in the Kunming office of Oxfam Hong Kong. They felt international NGOs had a dominant presence in Yunnan, and wanted to create a platform to promote the growth of domestic NGOs in China. In the first year, they relied on volunteers to run the office. In 2006, he left Oxfam and went to work full time for NGOCN with funding from Oxfam.

Lu was only in his mid 20s when he started NGOCN but he surprised me when he told me NGOCN was the fourth organization he’d started. He started his first venture after he graduated from high school and spent the summer traveling in the west of China and seeing the obstacles to education in poor areas. He decided to set up a fund using the internet to raise money for disadvantaged children in western China.

Lu spent one year in college in Beijing, majoring first in computer science, then in public administration, but then dropped out and went traveling in Tibet. There he saw many children who lacked books, so he and a friend started a website to contact publishers, friends and others to contribute books to schools in Tibet. He would track the books to make sure they got to the children.

In 2004, he returned home to Guangdong and started an organization with some friends devoted to poverty relief. He had some differences of opinion though with the board of directors and left soon after.

Lu tells me his parents haven’t approved of the direction he’s taken his life. When I asked him what his parents do, he said they work for the Civil Affairs bureau in Guangdong, the government agency that regulates NGOs.

Days after that interview, I went to Chengdu to interview NGOs there about their response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There I found that Lu was responsible for organizing what turned out to be largest NGO network in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. On the day of the earthquake, he contacted a number of NGOs who got together and formed the Sichuan NGO Earthquake Relief Coordinating Office (Sichuan minjian jiuzai lianhe bangongshi). This was a virtual network of NGOs formed to secure and deliver supplies from around the country to the earthquake areas. Within a few days, it grew to include more than 100 organizations.

Lu never mentioned his role in this network to me, and it has never been mentioned in the many articles I’ve read about the participation of NGOs in the earthquake relief. But I count it as another important achievement in Lu’s short career as an NGO activist.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Yu Keping on China's "government-led civil society"

October 24, 2009

In yesterday’s China Daily, there is an article in the Opinion page about Yu Keping’s views on political reform in China. Yu is well known for his book, Democracy is a Good Thing, where he argues that democracy is the best system available, but that democracy in China will come about differently than in the West. The article spends most of its time though on Yu’s views on civil society and NGOs in particular.

Yu is bullish on China’s civil society and sees NGOs playing an important role in helping the government to maintain social stability by cooperating with the government in addressing social problems. In this regard, he sees NGOs playing a different role in China than they do in the West because they are being guided by parameters set by the government. He calls China’s civil society an example of government-led civil society.

Yu’s views are similar to those voiced by some NGOs I have interviewed. These NGOs stress the importance of working together with the government. They see cooperation with the government, in particular basic-level governments at the district, street-committee and township levels, as the best way to expand their service provision, and thus their influence. Yet this view also raises the question of how to treat NGOs who do not want to cooperate with the government, who want to work on behalf of their own members rather than on behalf of the public interest? Some NGOs tend to look down on such “selfish” NGOs, but as Robert Putnam argues nonpolitical associations such as sports clubs can play an important role in promoting civic engagement and social trust, which Putnam sees as important preconditions for democratic consolidation. In stating that most Chinese NGOs are willing to cooperate with the government for the public interest, while “some act in self-interest or even harbor hidden agenda”, Yu seems to be implying that “selfish” NGOs do not have a place in China’s civil society.

Yu’s notion of “government-led civil society” also caught my eye because it sounds similar to Michael Frolic’s concept of “state-led civil society” which he advanced in his 1997 book, Civil Society in China. Yu here seems to mean something different that Frolic who was talking about “social organizations and quasi-administrative units created by the state”. In other words, what we sometimes call government-organized NGOs (GONGOs). Yu, on the other hand, is referring to NGOs that aren’t necessarily created by the state, but cooperating with it. A civil society whose goals are one with the state.

I have some problems with both these terms. First of all, Frolic’s notion of a state-led civil society is outdated. While there are many so-called NGOs that have been created by the state, what Wang Ming of Tsinghua University calls “top-down” NGOs, there are also a rapidly growing number of “bottom-up” NGOs that are created independent of the state. Second, Yu’s “government-led” is a misnomer and denies agency to the NGOs that want to cooperate with the government. More and more, NGO cooperation with the state is taking place not because the government is telling NGOs to do so. It is doing so because of strategic planning by NGOs, many of them of the “bottom-up” variety, who see cooperation as beneficial for their own long-term interests.

I prefer the term “negotiated civil society” to “government-led civil society” because it views government-NGO cooperation as a two-way street, and acknowledges agency on both sides. Of course, the government is the more powerful player here, but it does not “lead” the NGO. Rather cooperation is the result of negotiations between the two sides.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Inaugural post

October 1, 2009

This is the first posting on my new blog, NGOs in China. I chose to post it on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC for reasons that I think will become clear as the blog evolves. I hope you find the blog useful. If not, let me know why.

I’ve been thinking about starting this blog since last year when I was editing a book on Chinese NGOs with Jonathan Schwartz, a colleague of mine who teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Editing that book with Jonathan opened my eyes to the richness and diversity of grassroots NGOs in China. I have to confess that I came to the NGO scene only recently, after forays into local governance, and corruption in China. But I thought I understood China’s political landscape pretty well, until I started editing this book, and then it became apparent how little I did know about the NGO scene and how quickly it’s developed over the last few years. My thanks to the other contributors to that volume who helped me better understand the Chinese NGO sector: Tim Hildebrandt, Catherine Keyser, Joan Kaufman, Andre Laliberte, Marsha Smith, Jennifer Turner, and Hong Zhang.

In editing the book, I found that grassroots NGOs have been sprouting up all around the country, despite the authoritarian political system, an unclear and unwelcoming regulatory environment, and a state-dominated, profit-obsessed society that is only beginning to understand what NGOs, nonprofits and philanthropic foundations are. These NGOs or proto-NGOs take all sorts of forms that often bear little resemblance to NGOs and nonprofits in industrial democracies. But they are engaged in addressing a wide range of social problems, using visions, ideas and approaches that are refreshingly different from the government’s to carry out social, legal, political and ideological change from the bottom up.

I became so fascinated by NGOs that I decided to start another book project, this time one focused on the NGO activists themselves, their background, what influenced them to go into NGO work, and their strategies and ideas for expanding their influence, and carrying out social and political change in an authoritarian system.

In January of 2009, I took a trip to Yunnan and Sichuan to interview NGOs there, including NGOs that had responded to the earthquake that hit western Sichuan in May of 2008. My interviews with NGO leaders there, hearing about their projects, their ideas, their ambitions and their failures, convinced me that I needed to do more to tell the story of grassroots NGOs to an English-speaking audience. Since then, I have been back to Sichuan in June of 2009 to follow up on what NGOs were doing in the earthquake reconstruction, and interviewing NGO founders here in Beijing.

So the main reason for starting this blog is to record and thereby recognize some of the diversity and scope of the NGO community here, and communicate it to an English-speaking audience. I realize that is a tall order, and can’t promise much. The NGO community in China is too large for one person to do justice to in a blog. It will be a record of my own discussions with, and readings of, NGO activists, academics, and others who inhabit and contribute to the development of the nonprofit, nongovernmental, charitable sector here in China. Whenever possible, I will be asking people to write a guest column for this blog.

I have no ambitions of filling the large void left by China Development Brief (CDB), an NGO started by Nick Young. CDB did a great job of informing both Chinese and English speakers about Chinese NGOs and civil society, as well as many other aspects of social development. Unfortunately, it was closed down (although the Chinese counterpart still works out of the same office space) and Nick was ordered to leave the country in August of that year. The closing down of CDB meant the loss of an important source of English-language information about the China NGO scene, and got me thinking of ways to revive CDB in another form, or failing that, starting a blog that would keep English-language readers informed about NGO developments in China. As I found out, trying to revive CDB proved too sensitive, and so a blog became the next best option.