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 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.