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.

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