June 29, 2010
I'm on vacation in the U.S. and will be posting to this blog, but more infrequently than normal until I return to Beijing in mid July.
Here's a post I've been meaning to post for some time now about the problematic issue of defining NGOs in China.
This blog is about Chinese NGOs, but that begs an important question: what is an NGO in the Chinese context? This is a difficult question to answer because NGOs have had such a short history in China and have emerged in an inhospitable landscape dominated by the state. As a result, the forms NGOs have taken at this early stage often do not resemble the NGOs we are familiar with.
When we think of NGOs, well-known nonprofits and foundations come to mind -- Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Common Cause, Oxfam, United Way, Ford Foundation. These are organizations that fit a generally accepted definition of NGOs (also known as nonprofits, civil society organizations (CSOs), or voluntary associations) as having certain properties: they are private (e.g. institutionally separate from government), nonprofit, self-governing and voluntary . The above named NGOs are also formal organizations legally registered as nonprofits, with a staff, office, charter and board of directors, though scholars like Salamon and Sokolowski include not only formal organizations but also informal organizations and groups as long as they meet on a regular basis.
Why is it so difficult to apply this definition to China? One source of confusion has to do with the Chinese practice of calling organizations set up by the government (what we call government-organized NGOs or GONGOs) NGOs. In China, the term NGO is used very loosely in official parlance to refer to a wide range of organizations including those set up by the party-state. To give an example, corporatist-type “mass organizations” (qunzhong zuzhi) which were established by the Communist Party after 1949 to “represent” specific constituencies such as youth, women, and workers, sometimes present themselves as NGOs. These include the well-known Communist Youth League, All-China Women’s Federation and All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Then in the 1980s, as China opened up to the outside world, other organizations were established by government agencies to cooperate with overseas organizations on environmental protection, population control, trade promotion and other issues. These GONGOs often present themselves as NGOs to overseas organizations that were interested in working with Chinese NGOs, even though they are funded and staffed by the government, their leaders are appointed by a government agency and have an administrative rank. Wang Ming, a leading NGO scholar at Tsinghua University, calls these top-down NGOs . Many Chinese scholars see GONGOs as the first wave of NGOs in China, even though GONGOs do not meet many of the commonly accepted criteria for NGOs. They are clearly not private, voluntary or self-governing. Yet many are registered with Civil Affairs departments as “social organizations’, a term the Chinese government uses interchangeably with NGOs.
So what about real NGOs in China, what Wang Ming calls bottom-up NGOs? These NGOs do meet the criteria of being private, voluntary, self-governing and nonprofit, but it’s not always easy to spot them because so few are like the well-known nonprofits and foundations we are familiar with in the U.S. and other developed countries. Some are legally registered with Civil Affairs as “social organizations”, and have an office, staff, charter, etc., but many more are registered as businesses, or unregistered, but in reality they operate as NGOs. Many of these business or unregistered NGOs have an office, staff, governing board, etc, but some are loosely organized volunteer or community groups, while others may be just a one person, or virtual online operation running out of someone’s home.
In short, the difficulty with defining NGOs in China is that appearances are deceiving, as many things are in this country. On the surface, GONGOs or top-down NGOs look more like the NGOs we know so well. They are legally-registered organizations with an office, staff, branch offices in the provinces, public visibility, respectability and influence. Yet they are not NGOs according to the criteria above. Now take the bottom-up NGOs. On the surface, they do not look like the NGOs we know. They tend not to be legally registered, to be small operations that avoid the public eye, and yet they meet the definition of NGOs. They are in many ways similar to private enterprises and businesses in China during the 1980s that operated in a grey area of illicitness between the legal and illegal.
This blog is dedicated to the real NGOs in China, those that are established voluntarily by citizens with a sense of purpose, self-governing, nonprofit and not part of the state apparatus. At the same time, I don’t believe in drawing a hard and fast line between GONGOs and NGOs. Some GONGOs have become more independent in recent years and may evolve into something resembling NGOs in the future, and thus need to be included in the story of NGOs in China for reasons that I’ll write about in a future post.