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).