Thursday, July 22, 2010

Discussing the future of China’s NGOs

July 23, 2010

My second day back in Beijing, I’m riding my bike out to the China Development Brief (CDB) office which is nestled in a courtyard amid the hutongs northeast of Jingshan Park. Here's a picture of me in front of the CDB courtyard door.

There’s a meeting that morning among some NGOs to propose ideas for how they can integrate climate change into their poverty alleviation programs. The meeting is organized by Oxfam Hong Kong which is working closely with the State Council’s Poverty Alleviation Office on various projects around China, and attended by some well known NGOs such as Friends of Nature, Global Environment Institute, Green Earth, Action Aid, and China Dialogue.

I asked the Oxfam people about the incident with the Ministry of Education's notice warning universities not to let their student volunteers work with Oxfam.  One Oxfam person said that project was stopped, but otherwise said Oxfam hasn't been affected and is still going strong with their many projects in China.

After the meeting and lunch, I chatted with Fu Tao, who has been the Chinese editor of the CDB since it’s inception, and knows the Chinese NGO sector well. We started talking about the recent measures that make it difficult for foreign donations to get to Chinese NGOs. Fu Tao felt that this was a clever measure by the government to make life difficult for NGOs, particularly those registered as businesses by cutting their pipeline to foreign funds.

When he asked me for my take on the situation. I told him I thought these measures could be seen as part of an effort by different government departments to better regulate and control a growing NGO sector, and not necessarily a coordinated attempt to repress the entire sector. Fu didn’t seem convinced. He said there were cases where the crackdowns on NGOs did represent a coordinated effort, even if they appeared to be driven by one department. He noted the case of Gongmeng which tax authorities investigated and closed down for failure to pay taxes on funds from foreign donors. I agreed that Gongmeng was an example of the government’s coordinated response because several different government departments showed up at the same time to close Gongmeng down, but said not every case is like that.

The more we talked, the more Fu Tao seemed to be of two minds about the future of NGOs in China. He was concerned about the recent measures, including new regulations on foreign NGOs in Yunnan, but then admitted that the NGO sector was expanding in other ways. He noted that some grassroots NGOs that were previously registered as businesses, such as Facilitator (xie zuoze) and Shining Stone (canyu shi), were able to get registered as NGOs with Civil Affairs. He believes this is because the government is willing to encourage NGOs that provide services but don’t engage in more sensitive advocacy work as Gongmeng and Yirenping had. He also noted the rise of private foundations, and thought this was a significant trend in China because some of these foundations (Nandu, Youcheng, Vantone) were following a new philanthropy model supporting grassroots NGOs, rather than the old philanthropy of supporting government and GONGOs. What you are seeing are private entrepreneurs with a different set of values and priorities.

Before we parted ways, I asked him if he was pessimistic about the future of the NGO sector. I thought he was going to say yes, but then said he really wasn’t sure.