Thursday, December 15, 2011

Visiting NGOs in Shanghai and Nanjing: are they the future?

Everywhere I go, it seems I come across new epicenters of NGO activity.  When I was in Chengdu, I thought Sichuan was the new epicenter of NGO activity in Southwest China.  My recent visits to Shanghai and Nanjing show these cities, particularly Shanghai, are emerging as epicenters of NGO activity in eastern China.   I used to think eastern China lagged behind other areas such as Beijing, Yunnan and Sichuan when it came to NGO growth, but no more.

In Shanghai, I visited the Public Welfare Park in the Pudong New District where the Pudong disrict government has constructed an artsy, modern building that houses about 30 nonprofits, providing them with various support services and contracting with them to provide community services.

There I paid a visit to two movers and shakers in China's nonprofit world: Nonprofit Incubator (NPI) and the NPO Development Center.  Both provide consulting and capacity building training to nonprofits.  NPI is an impressive, professional operation with a public foundation and offices in Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and employs over a hundred people all told.  It incubates and supports a number of Shanghai's up-and-coming NGOs.  NPI symbolizes the future of what NGOs can be in China.  The NPO Development Center (Ying Lv in Chinese) is a much more modest operation, but has been working in Shanghai for many years providing capacity training to Shanghai's nonprofits.  It was founded by Zhuang Ailing, who was director of the recently-established China Foundation Center for a few months before returning back to Shanghai where she is heading the RenDe Foundation, a newly established public foundation started by the Nanjing-based Amity Foundation.  RenDe will be one of the few foundations in China devoted to making grants to support NGOs.

Much of the credit for what is happening in Pudong and Shanghai more generally goes to Ma Yili, the former director of the Pudong Civil Affairs bureau who is now director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs department.  Ma is seen by many as the driving force behind the Pudong Public Welfare Park, and the local government's efforts to promote nonprofits to contribute to the development of local communities.  These initiatives have been expanded to other districts in Shanghai, and their effects are being felt in other nearby cities such as Nanjing.

In Nanjing, NGOs are on the rise and the Nanjing city government is now considering similar measures to energize the development of nonprofits.  I visited the most prominent NGO in Nanjing, the Amity Foundation, which in 2009 established a NGO Development Center to incubate local nonprofits much as Shanghai's NPI is doing.  Like NPI, Amity is an impressive, professional operation located in a beautiful space next to the leafy campus of Nanjing University.  It is the only NGO that I can think of that has its name displayed prominently on its front gate.

I spoke with the director of the NGO Development Center who told me Amity was being contracted by the central government to develop policy ideas and strategies to promote the NGO sector in Nanjing.   Later I had lunch with the director, and two members of Green Stone, an environmental NGO that is getting Amity support.

I also paid a visit to Tianxiagong (Justice Under Heaven), a new NGO in Nanjing that is essentially a branch organization of the well-known Beijing-based NGO, Yirenping, which engages in advocacy and legal aid for hepatitis B sufferers who encounter discrimination in the workplace.   I spoke with Yu Fangqiang, the young, smart and very persistent NGO campaigner who used to work for Yirenping and now heads the Nanjing office.  He gave me a book they had just produced of interviews with NGOs and individuals in the east China region who were fighting for just solutions to various social and environmental problems.

As organizations that share a mission of supporting and promoting China's NGOs, NPI, the NPO Development Center, Amity and Tianxiagong will all play a pivotal role in reshaping the civil society landscape in this part of China.  Due to their efforts, eastern China is no longer a backwater for NGOs.  Indeed, it may represent the future for China's NGOs.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My travels to visit NGOs in Sichuan

I realize it's been a while since I've posted.  China Development Brief just started a new project involving the updating of the Chinese NGO Directory that was last done in 2001.  Much has changed since then, and the number of NGOs has grown rapidly, so we thought it was high time for a new directory.  This one will focus on the more independent, grassroots, public interest NGOs, unlike the old one which included a number of GONGOs.

I just realized how big an undertaking this directory is when I took a trip to Sichuan to visit some NGOs in Chongqing and Chengdu to get a better sense of the NGO situation in the southwest.  I visited Wu Dengming's Green Volunteer League (GVL) which is one of the oldest environmental NGOs in the country, having been established in 1995, a year after Friends of Nature.  Wu is a feisty and energetic 72 years old and is still as active as ever.  I interviewed him about his life and we talked for about 4 hours.  In between, he was visited by two Europeans who were making a documentary about water in China and wanted to interview Wu over the next two weeks.   Wu told me there were now a few more NGOs in Chongqing, which used to be a backwater for NGOs.

My next stop took me to the 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center, which started as a network of NGOs that responded to the Sichuan earthquake.  I've written in a number of places about this Center which is led by the intrepid husband-and-wife team of Gao Guizi and Guo Hong.  Guo Hong is a sociologist and NGO researcher at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences where the 512 Center is located.  I'd visited them twice before over the last few years, and it was good to see them again.  Gao took me down the alley next to the Academy where we sat and had a simple bowl of zhajiang mian, which I thought was a Beijing-style noodle dish, but Gao told me Sichuan has its own version of the noodles, less sauce and just some ground pork sprinkled over a bowl of noodles with a little spicy saucy at the bottom.  I was told I had to stir the noodles around to get the sauce mixed in.  It was very satisfying, and I have to say, better than the Beijing version.  And only 6 RMB!  

Both Gao and Guo are very thoughtful, knowledgeable observers of the NGO scene, especially in Sichuan, and they spent about 3 hours talking to me about the numerous NGOs that have emerged in the province.  I was impressed.  It seems that Sichuan may have supplanted Yunnan as the center of NGOs in southwest China. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and Civil Society Activism

Kudos to the Nobel Peace Prize committee for selecting three women activists from Africa and the Middle East.  They are President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner in Yemen.  Their selection turns the spotlight on the pivotal role of women in promoting development, democracy and peace.  But I also like the committee's decision because it shows that activism comes in all shapes and forms.  One women is an elected leader, another the leader of the Women for Peace movement uniting Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, and the last the founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, a civil society advocacy organization in Yemen.

I also like the fact that civil society activists got much of the credit.  Women like Gbowee and Karman did not just burst onto the scene, but have been building their organizations and movements for years.   According to the New York Times, Gbowee's Women for Peace was started in 2002, while Karman's Women Journalists Without Chains was established in 2007.  Their achievements are the result of years of patient, determined, brave activism.  As Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the committee, noted the 2011 prize recognized those “who were there long before the world’s media was there reporting.”

There are many civil society activists like this in China -- women and men alike -- who have yet to get the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee or the international media, but deserve more of our attention for their work. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A View from the Top: will upcoming policy changes make it easier for NGOs?

Recently, CDB (English) has created a special section, A View from the Top, that monitors changes in official thinking and actions on China's civil society.  For the section, I scan media reports and select reports that I think are significant and give us some insight into what is going on in the black box that we call the Chinese government. 

Just looking over the reports listed, you can see that over this past year there have been multiple reports suggesting that new policies are forthcoming making it easier for NGOs to register and fundraise.  But there are also reports showing that many difficulties remain.  One of them is an interview with Zheng Gongcheng of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.  Mr. Zheng discusses the obstacles holding up the Charity Law which was originally expected to be passed in 2009.  I made some comments on this article in another listserve, and am posting them here.

 "I don't think there's much that is new in this interview with Zheng Gongcheng.   What he does confirm is that there are multiple reasons holding up the Charity Law, as well as other regulations being revised by MOCA like the registration and management regs for social organizations. 

One of these is disagreement among policymakers over the content of these regulations.  One contentious issue that Zheng touches on is whether charity organizations (he seems to use this term instead of social organization) should have to get a supervising unit (yewu zhuguan bumen) in order to register.  This is an old issue that has been debated for at least the last 10 years, and raises concerns among more conservative, security-minded policymakers who don't want to give charity organizations too long of a leash.  Zheng interestingly takes a clear stand on this by saying he thinks a supervising unit violates the independent legal nature of a charity organization. 

This disagreement becomes particularly intense when the laws/regs are sent to the NPC and State Council where other departmental interests insert themselves.  I think MOCA realizes the regulatory environment for charity organizations is far from perfect and is committed to improving the environment, as we can see from the various initiatives they've taken in the past few years to revise the regs, and issue various other measures including the approval of local experiments in Beijing and other parts of the country.  And I think the debates over issues like the nature of charity, fundraising and registration that were renewed after the 2008 earthquake, and the most recent media reports on problems in the Red Cross and other GONGOs, have put more pressure on MOCA to improve the regulatory environment.

But MOCA is a relatively weak ministry and when other departments raise concerns, it lacks the clout to get the necessary support.  MOCA's case would be helped if a powerful leader took an interest in their cause and championed it, but I don't see this happening, especially in the run up to the 18th Party Congress next year.  Wen Jiabao perhaps, but he seems to be relegated to the sidelines?  So I'm not hopeful at least for the short term. 

Another reason for the delay has to do with consideration of how these laws and regs may affect other laws and regs in the pipeline. Zheng mentions the laws related to social security and social assistance and says that they might have to precede the Charity Law.  MOCA also has to coordinate and get the support of other departments that would be involved in the implementation of these laws and regs.  So in addition to security concerns, there are concerns about the timing and implementation of the laws and regs.  This is also tied to the local experiments going on in various areas of registration and fundraising.  Zheng alludes to this and implies that allowing local experiments and regulations to move ahead of the national level ones may be the preferred and realistic course of action given the logjam at the national level. 

I'm interested to see if the recent debates and revelations of scandals in various GONGOs will get the attention of the leadership.  It seems the debate over fundraising, charity and other related issues is being ratcheted up, as exemplified by the media scrutiny in the last few months.  I'm struck by all the reports of charity scandals that have come out recently, and can't recall this level of scrutiny in the past.  We'll have to see if anything comes out of this growing public awareness and scrutiny."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

China Development Brief (English) August Updates

I realize I haven't posted in a while, but below is the reason why.   Here's our monthly newsletter about new developments at CDB (English):

Translations for August
This month, thanks to the hard work of our CDB Translators, we are pleased to offer translations of five articles highlighting the diversity of China’s NGO/nonprofit sector.   They include articles about:

A survey of major public welfare events of 2010 voted on by the readers of CDB and two other NGO publications;

Theme of the Month: Mainstreaming
One theme that emerges from the articles on NGOs serving the intellectually disabled is a desire on the part of many NGOs to find ways to join the mainstream of society.  Mainstreaming strategies include collaborating with and seeking funding from local governments, media, the business sector, and the communities in which they work.   This theme reflects an important change in the thinking and strategies of NGOs that in the past tended to be marginalized and were often better known and appreciated by those in the international community than by the Chinese themselves. 

Upcoming Translations in September
Below is a list of articles that will be appearing in the month of September on CDB (English)’s website. 

1)  “From Opposition to Dialogue”, an article about recent actions taken by the Green Choice Alliance, a network of 34 NGOs, on industrial pollution cases. 
2)  “An Interview with Ma Jun”, an interview with one of China’s best-known environmentalist who is a central player in the Green Choice Alliance.
3)   “A Conversation about Rural Library Projects”, a CDB-moderated discussion with several NGOs about their different approaches and assessments of the effectiveness of rural libraries.
4)  “China’s Huiling: Harmonious Cooperation Requires Rule of Law and Culture”,   Huiling, one of China’s most prominent NGOs serving the intellectually disabled, discusses some of the obstacles it faces in working with the disabled in China’s communities, including unfavorable legislation for civil society organizations.
5)  “Beijing LGBT Center”, a profile of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Center, one of the best-known LGBT NGOs in China, with a discussion of the future of the LGBT movement in China.

Check Out Our NGO Resources
We also encourage you to peruse our other NGO resources:

 Announcements about jobs, conferences and activities in the nonprofit sector.  

Updating CDB’s Directories of NGOs
We are currently in the process of updating CDB’s Directory of International NGOs in China,  and Directory of Chinese NGOs.  The updating of these two directories is a rather large undertaking that will take some time.  We thank you for your patience as we try to get the new information up as quickly as our limited resources will allow. 

Volunteer Translators and Interns
CDB (English) depends heavily on the help of our volunteer CDB translators and interns.   If you are interested in being a CDB translator, check our website here.  We are always looking for good interns who will play an important part in the development of CDB(English).  If you are interested, check our website here.

If you know of others who wish to receive monthly CDB (English) newsletters, please have them email  If you do not wish to continue receiving newsletters, please reply to this email with the subject line “Unsubscribe” and we will take you off our mailing list.
Best wishes,
Shawn Shieh, Editor
China Development Brief (English)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

CDB (English)'s Inaugural Special Issue on Philanthropy and Civil Society

I am very pleased to announce our inaugural special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society in China is now available on our new website (  (P.S. We are not the same as the old China Development Brief which is at 
Thanks to the fine work of our CDB translators, the 12 articles that make up this special issue have been appearing on our website for the last month.   Together, they provide a compelling and insightful glimpse into an important change taking place in China's nonprofit, philanthropic community.  For each article, I have written a brief introduction to provide context, and inserted explanatory notes through the text.  To provide coherence and context, I have also provided a Preface and Table of Contents for the special issue.
The Preface
·      tells how the special issue was produced;
·      provides a short primer on the nonprofit/philanthropic sector in the PRC;
·      summarizes the key findings of the 12 articles. 
It has been a busy summer for us at CDB(English).   In addition to getting our website up, and our special issue released, I have been traveling in the U.S. promoting CDB(English), and meeting with potential funders and partners.   I gave two public talks on our special issue at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York City, and the Kissinger Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.  The title of the talk was “Same Bed, Different Dreams?: The New Philanthropy and Civil Society in China”.  Both talks were recorded and podcasts/videos are available on the websites of the Wilson Center and National Committee for those interested.
We hope you will take the time to explore the articles and other resources we provide on our website.   These resources include translations of Laws and Regulations governing the nonprofit sector, a Bibliography of sources on civil society, and Announcements of jobs, conferences, and activities of interest to an international audience. 
We will continue to provide translations of selected CDB articles, and develop the other NGO resources on our website.   We will be sending you monthly newsletters alerting you to new material on our website in addition to new CDB (English) developments and events.  If you know of others who wish to receive monthly CDB (English) newsletters, please have them email  If you do not wish to continue receiving newsletters, please reply to this email with the subject line “Unsubscribe” and we will take you off our mailing list.
CDB (English) would like to thank CDB, the Ford Foundation, and our CDB (English) translators and interns for their support.   As a translation project of CDB, CDB (English) would not be possible without the hard work of CDB staff who invest long hours to report on the nonprofit sector in China.   We also appreciate the financial support of the Ford Foundation who believed in us from the very start.  Finally, our translations and other resources would not be possible without the work of our CDB Translators, and interns: Emily Chesborough, Stephanie Roach, and Justin Pena. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Promoting CDB (English)'s special issue on philanthropy and civil society in China

I'm pleased to finally announce that our special issue is now online at China Development Brief (English) (  The special issue comes with a Preface and Table of Contents.  The Preface provides some information about the special issue, a brief primer on the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in the PRC, and the key findings from the 12 articles translated for the special issue.  I'm very happy with the result and believe CDB's reporting provides a very insightful, thorough look into a very important development in China's civil society.  I'll be emailing a monthly newsletter about the special issue and other developments at CDB (English).  If you'd like to get on the email list, please send me an email at

When I was in the U.S. in July, I also gave two public talks on our special issue at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York City, and the Kissinger Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.  The title of the talk was “Same Bed, Different Dreams?: The New Philanthropy and Civil Society in China”.  For those interested, both talks were recorded and podcasts/videos are available on the websites of the National Committee ( and the Woodrow Wilson Center (

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Improving Human Rights Through Social Change

Last Monday, I was invited to participate in a briefing on Capitol Hill to Congressional staffers on the topic of "Human Rights and Social Change".  It was an opportunity for me to think through the U.S. government's (and more generally the U.S.) approach to the human rights issue in China.  Here are my remarks:

The way in which we view China is shaped strongly by our own political, social and cultural biases.  We tend to focus on areas that are of importance to us: human rights, rule of law, treatment of ethnic minorities, rights-based activities, freedom of expression and religion, etc.   What we might call political and civil rights.  These are important issues not only to Americans but to the larger international community, but we should keep in mind that they come out of a specific political, social and cultural context, and are not necessarily the most important issues to many in China’s civil society.  These are also areas where the party-state has been more vigilant in opposing reforms, partly because they perceive outside forces pushing hard for changes in these areas.  

The problem is that in focusing so much of our attention and energies on these areas, we have developed blind spots in other areas where change is occurring in a more organic fashion, using strategies and methods that are generally accepted and have proved effective in China.   These changes have not resulted in the kinds of change we in the U.S. would like to see, particularly a stronger, more independent legal system, and greater protection of legal rights, and the expansion of freedom of expression and religion, for Chinese citizens.  But they are nonetheless important changes that have resulted in the expansion of civil society broadly defined.  This civil society consisting of voluntary, private, self-governing initiatives, organizations, networks and movements has been growing in numbers and in the diversity of actors involved.   They include lawyers, journalists, academics, ordinary activists, NGOs, foundations, informal and virtual groups and networks, and even the occasional government official.

I would argue that we need to do a better job understanding how social action and change is unfolding in China before we try to impose our own template of how political and social change should occur.  Why and how has civil society continued to grow through the cycles of relaxation and repression that we keep hearing about in the international media?   What are the consequences of this growth?   Where will it lead?  What if anything can the U.S. government do to support civil society?

We’ve been very good about identifying and calling attention to the ways in which the government has sought to stifle and repress civil society.  It seems that every week we read news about activists, writers, lawyers,  and monks being restricted, detained, disappeared or arrested.  We’ve also done a fairly good job of identifying acts of “mass disturbances”, strikes, protests, riots.  But again, these stories are consistent with our concern for rule of law, freedom of expression and religion, and the treatment of ethnic minorities. 

What we hear little about are the stories that do not get the attention of journalists.  Stories about the quiet work that is being done behind the scenes, the emergence of social actors promoting change in less public ways, the growth of social and virtual networks, and the growing collaboration between civil society actors, the government and business sectors.   These are areas where civil society is trying escape marginalization and join the mainstream of Chinese society.  They are also trends that get little mention in the media and in U.S. government human rights reports.

Information about these changes is not lacking.  It is available and being documented by academics, bloggers, and organizations like China Development Brief.  But it does not seem to be filtering up to those in the U.S. government.

Just to give one important change that has happened recently is the rapid rise of private foundations which offer another means of support for civil society.  The rise of foundations established by private entrepreneurs suggests that the private sector is gradually becoming more socially engaged.  Their support of civil society, while not a direct statement supporting political reform, shows their support for an organizational sphere independent of the party-state.  The coming together of private entrepreneurs and civil society has been gathering speed over the last two years.  It represents a very significant event that is beginning to change the civil society landscape because now you have independent foundations with lots of money and influence.  The question is, will they support civil society? 

The always insightful Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, recognizes the importance of social change in reforming the political environment in China.  In his 2006 essay, “Changing the Regime by Changing Society”, he states:

“China’s course toward a free society will mainly rely on bottom-up gradual improvement and not the top-down ‘Chiang Ching-kuo style’ revolution.  Bottom-up reform requires self-consciousness among the people, and self-initiated, persistent and continuously expanding civil disobedience movements or rights defense movements among the people.  In other words, pursue the free and democratic forces among the people; do not pursue the rebuilding of society through radical regime change, but instead use gradual social change to compel regime change.  That is, rely on the continuously growing civil society to reform a regime that lacks legitimacy.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Talking about Chinese Philanthropy and Civil Society in the U.S.

I'm currently on home leave in the U.S., supposedly on vacation but at this point more work than vacation.  I figure now that I've left the Great Firewall I should use this opportunity to blog at least once, just to say I did it.   So this post is pure in the sense that it hasn't been filtered or laundered through a VPN or anonymous proxy.

While on home leave, I'm taking advantage of being on the east coast to promote the work I've been doing with China Development Brief, in particular our special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society that is appearing on our website at  I just finished a talk at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations today on that topic.  The talk was held at the Luce Foundation's conference room in their lovely 30th floor office with beautiful views of the city.  There was haze on the horizon which made me feel like I was in Beijing, right at home!

I couldn't imagine a better venue for my talk than the Luce Foundation.  Luce is one of the big names in philanthropy and they have a major Asia program to improve U.S. understanding of Asia.  There is also a China connection.  Henry Luce set up the foundation as a tribute to his parents who were missionaries and educators in China during the first half of the 20th century.  All four of the Luce children were born in China.  So to give a talk on philanthropy and civil society in China at the Luce headquarters seemed very fitting.

The talk went smoothly, aside from some initial technical problems with the computer.  I spoke about my work with China Development Brief (English), and spent some time discussing what constitutes the nonprofit/NGO/philanthropic sector in China before getting to the meat of the talk which was to lay out the major findings from the 12 articles we translated for our special issue on philanthropy and civil society.

For those interested, my discussion of the nonprofit sector and the major findings will be laid out in an introduction to the special issue that should be on our website soon.  Given the anxiety in the U.S. about the human rights situation in China, I expected more questions about the political situation for nonprofits in China, but there were none, though that may have had something to do with the limited time for Q&A.

In any case, the main purpose of my talk, beyond promoting CDB, was to send the message that there is a great deal of change going on in the nonprofit world in China despite the recent crackdowns on individual activists.

Next week I'll be giving a talk on the same topic next Tuesday, July 26 at the Kissinger Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. 

After that, a week in San Diego and then back to Beijing where I may finally be able to take that vacation!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nice response to my last post from Holly Chang: civil society activism and the international media

 Following is an insightful email response from Holly Chang, who has her been working to support various grassroots NGOs in China through her nonprofit, Golden Bridges. Holly points to how certain kinds of activists who push the boundaries tend to get more play in the international media (think Ai Weiwei), and how this can effect civil society's efforts to exercise influence domestically.  With her permission, I'm posting most of her response below.


For international and interested observers, I can understand how difficult it is to study civil society in China because it is a moving stream of activity, it is highly anecdotal, and there is not really a strong "culture" of transparency where successful practitioners write or speak about how they succeed.  
In a recent interview with the WSJ, Henry Kissinger says "I have not joined public denunciations in order to preserve the possibility of maintaining influence on human rights issues."  
His statement made me think of all the people that are at the frontlines successfully pushing the needle in a very real way - they do not speak out to the international audience in order to "preserve the possibility of maintaining influence".  What little time they do have to communicate and speak out, they may do so only within their domestic circles. 
This unfortunately creates an incredible imbalance in the tone and mood of international media reports about civil society in China.  The negative reporting ironically creates an environment where I feel local government becomes nervous and is pushed to be less tolerant than normal, and therefore potentially worsening the situation for practitioners, potentially creating more distrust in those that represent international groups on the ground (ahem).
In my efforts to be a better "bridge", I am trying to find a balance between "doing the work" on the ground and "communicating to the outside" about both the successes and challenges.  This is a challenge for me as an engineer, attempting to do more PR - it is not my strong suit, but this year, I will start to try. 
We should not forgive or ignore the realities of the brutality. But we also need reports of hopeful examples that should and can be replicated, to inspire and perpetuate a more conducive and healthy environment for actors (both local and international) to succeed on the ground.  Thank you for your post.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is China's civil society in danger?

April 22, 2011 (updated May 29, 2011)

I started this blog out wanting to write more about what NGOs have achieved in their short life in the PRC – their achievements, the people behind the scenes, the challenges they face -- but I find myself returning frequently to the issue of how the party-state controls NGOs.   I have to admit that this is driven by international media reports that focus heavily on instances of NGOs being harassed and closed down.  Of course, state control and regulation of NGOs is an important dimension, but it’s only one dimension, and the purpose of this blog is to bring to light other aspects of social activism in China that do not get much attention in the international news media.

So you can imagine that I’m writing this post with some trepidation, and I’ve sat on it for over a month before posting this.  But it’s hard to ignore the international media reports on the recent spike of repression in China following the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East and calls for a similar uprising in China.   It’s also hard to ignore when it affects someone you know.  One of my friends, a foreign journalist who was at the Wangfujing area in Beijing which was supposed to be one of the staging grounds for the uprising, was a victim of that repression.   He was beaten up by a gang of plainclothes thugs/police because he was carrying around a camcorder filming what ended up to be a nonevent.  He suffered cracked ribs and had to be hospitalized.  Later, to add insult to injury, he was followed by the police for days.   

The April 16-22 issue of the Economist argues that the latest crackdown on activists like the artist Ai Weiwei, rights-defense lawyers, and other human rights activists goes far deeper and wider than previous crackdowns.  It then makes the startling claim that this crackdown is the worst since the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen.  

I like the Economist but I think this time it went too far.   Before I explain myself, let me say for the record that I don’t want to sound like an apologist for the regime, or to downplay the repression that is happening.   I too am dismayed by the many arrests and disappearances of activists who are fighting the good fight.   What happened to my journalist friend was reprehensible.  The Chinese government should be called to account for what they did.  And I agree with the Economist when they say that the repression is an overreaction to perceived threats and shows a regime that is not confident but rather very nervous about its position. 

But the Economist makes it sound like we’re returning to the days of the early 1990s or even the early 1980s when outlets for activism for few and far between.   If so, how do we square this claim with more optimistic trends discussed in this blog and elsewhere showing the emergence of a more vibrant civil society?   

I like to think of civil society in China as an iceberg where only a small portion is visible and the bulk lies below the surface.  The tip of the iceberg are mostly individual activists – rights lawyers, human rights activists – who dare to venture over that imaginary line that the Chinese government says should not be crossed.  A few are activists associated with NGOs.  Below the surface lie other activists and groups, including many NGOS, that carry out their work in relative anonymity within the boundaries permitted by the state.   Over the last two decades, this iceberg has grown substantially and ever so often we see cycles of repression aimed at the tip of that iceberg.   But the bulk of the iceberg below the surface continues to expand without attracting much attention. 

The iceberg is also sprouting new tips as we see more of the iceberg below the surface emerging and becoming visible as the government and society begins to recognize the NGOs and activists that are working within permissible boundaries.  NGOs are also getting more networked not just with other NGOs, but also with government agencies, GONGOs, businesses, academics, and the media.   NGOs are also making some progress in terms of diversifying their funding and attracting more professional staff.   These trends – greater legitimacy, networks, professionalization –  are all indicators of a more mature, independent civil society emerging in China, even as repression continues mostly against those individual activists who push the boundaries of the permissible. 

What bothers me about the kind of coverage we see from the international media is that its coverage of civil society is driven by the harassment, arrest and disappearance of activists.  This narrative is misleading on two counts. 

One is that it sends a message that human and social agency in China is monopolized by an all-powerful, monolithic government that can squash (or allow) dissent and activism at a moment’s notice.   As I’ve written about in other posts, this is not an accurate reflection of the reality here.   There is no single, unified view or approach within the government about how to deal with civil society here.   Yes, there are efforts to wall off the more vocal activists who push the envelope, but in other areas the government is seeking to find ways to better regulate the growth of independent organizations.   Of course, one motive behind greater regulation is control.  But government leaders are also beginning to realize that civil society is not going away, and that it will be better to have civil society as allies working together with the government to address China’s immense social problems.

Secondly, this narrative sees these individual activists as representative of the larger civil society in China.    That is not the case.  Many NGOs are aware of the latest crackdown, and may sympathize with their fellow activists, but they also have different philosophies and approaches to carrying out their work.  Like the state, civil society is by no means monolithic.  

What is missing from this narrative is accounts of the many expressions of social agency coming from activists, NGOs, bloggers and other groups that are an important part of China’s civil society.  How else to explain the expansion and maturation of civil society over the last 20 years?  How else to explain their growing partnerships with and acceptance by government, businesses, academics, the media, and society at large?   I’ve heard some people say, these trends have happened because the government allows it.  But once again, this answer makes the same mistake.  It assumes agency on the part of the government, and sees social activists and groups as passive actors trapped within an authoritarian system.  

If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt tell us anything, it is that we should not underestimate the agency and power of society even within seemingly resilient authoritarian states.  Yes, we should sympathize with activists who are unjustly harassed or jailed.  But we should also call attention to the many other social activists who, by working within permissible boundaries, are changing China slowly from within. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Progress Report on China Development Brief (English)

I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  April was a difficult month for me personally.  I had to return to the U.S. to take care of my parents whose health has declined suddenly.  My mother died on April 12 and my father’s health took a turn for the worse, and he’s now living with us temporarily here in Beijing.  As a result, I've had to put diversions like this blog aside for the time being.

The good news is that the China Development Brief (English) project is coming along nicely.   As of April, we had almost 40 volunteers sign up to translate CDB articles, and many of them are hard at work translating and reviewing the articles for our first special issue on Philanthropy and Civil Society in China.   Almost all of the translations for the special issue have come in and are now in the process of being reviewed.  We hope to have the special issue ready by next month.  
 We also received a modest grant from the Ford Foundation to translate CDB reports on civil society, and are applying for funds from other sources.   We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
 Finally, thanks to Enway Software Technology Company whose staff has been volunteering their time to develop our website, the CDB (English) website is close to a public launch.   I’ve also had the help of an intern who has been putting together a bibliography of sources on civil society in China.  That bibliography will be available on our website.  This summer, I’ll be assisted by two other interns who will be working on the website development, and updating CDB’s directory of international NGOs in China. 
 The staff at CDB have been a real pleasure to work for.  They have been very responsive, accommodating and professional about working with me, and putting up with my deadlines, even though it means more work for them.   I cannot ask for a better group of people to work with.
As many of you have read about in the international media, this is a difficult time for civil society in China with the government’s repression of human rights and legal activists, and news of growing sensitivity to foreign NGOs.  I wrote a post about this some time ago, then decided to sit on it until I made more revisions, but I will be posting it soon.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The top 16 "public welfare" events of 2010

In a previous blog, I listed what I saw as some of “The Best and Worst of 2010 for China’s NGOs”.   In the their most recent issue (Winter 2010), China Development Brief came out with the top 16 major "public welfare" (gongyi) events.  The term “public welfare” is often used in China in place of nonprofit, civil society, or philanthropy. 

These top 16 events were selected from a survey of readers of three major media platforms that cover the “public welfare” or “civil society” sector in China: China Development Brief (with which I am working now), Social Entrepreneur magazine (published by the NGO, NonProfit Incubator or NPI) and NGOCN (NGOCN’s founder, Lu Fei, was profiled in an earlier post on this blog).   The list provides a window into what Chinese observers of the civil society sector think have been important trends.   Many, but not all, are events that I also listed in my Best and Worst List, which is a good thing because it suggests that I haven’t strayed too far from the perceptions of the Chinese NGO community.
The readers who responded to the survey were from all over China, including Hong Kong, and draw mainly from those working in the “public welfare” sector, but also include people working in government and business, students, and researchers.   Many are young, about 84% between 20-40 years of age, and about 42% are from Beijing and Guangdong. 
Here in order of the top vote getters are the 16 biggest “public welfare” events of 2010 with the percentage of votes in parentheses.  A number of these events were covered in my previous posts, including “The Best and Worst of 2010 for China’s NGOs” so I don’t go into them in detail.

1)  Jet Li revealing, in a September 2010 CCTV interview, problems he was having trying to register his One Foundation as a private foundation due to China’s restrictive registration laws, and rumors that the One Foundation might close (61%).
2)  The new regulations from the State Administration of Foreign Exchange that went into effect in March 2010 making it more difficult for grassroots NGOs to transfer foreign funds into their accounts (51%)
3)  The September visit by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to discuss philanthropy with some of China’s wealthiest individuals (46%).
4)  The establishment in June of 2010 of the Public Welfare (or Philanthropy) Research Institute at Beijing Normal University.  The Institute is funded by the One Foundation and headed by a former Ministry of Civil Affairs official, Wang Zhenyao (45%).
5)  The announcement by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in July of 2010 requiring 15 national public fundraising foundations to turn the funds they had raised for the Yushu (Qinghai province) earthquake relief over to the Qinghai provincial government, provincial Red Cross and provincial Charity Federation.  This decision was criticized for harming the cause of philanthropy in China (43%).
6)  The participation of almost 60 Chinese NGOs in the UN climate change talks in Tianjin in October of 2010.  The NGOs issued a joint statement, and organized 20 joint activities.  It was the largest number of Chinese NGOs to participate in the area of climate change (40%).
7)   The slowness of the NGO response to the drought in the southwestern part of China  in the spring of 2010 provoked some discussion in the media, especially compared to the quick NGO response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (35%).
8)  The establishment of the China Foundation Center in July of 2010 (33%).
9) The Green Choice Alliance, a group of 34 grassroots NGOs, among them Friends of Nature, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and Green Beagle, released two investigative reports in April and June on heavy metal pollution from the information and technology sector (32%). 
10)  The Qinghai Gesanghua Educational Assistance Association raised more than 2.59 million yuan online for the Yushu earthquake highlighting the use of new media platforms for NGOs to fundraise and carry out relief work (32%).
11)  The Yunnan provincial government piloting new regulations governing international NGO management.  The regulations came out in December of 2009 and were implemented in January of 2010.  These are the first regulations explicitly aimed at international NGOs (31%).
12)   The first New Public Welfare Carnival held in Shanghai in August and September of 2010, an event that brought together businesses, government, academics and NGOs to promote social innovation (30%).
13)  The notice by Beijing University cutting its association with the Peking University Women’s Legal Aid Center in March of 2010 (30%)
14)  Strikes by workers at Honda Motor Company’s factories in Guangdong starting in May of 2010 (30%).
15)  Cao Dewang, chairman of the Fuyao Group, gave the largest one-time donation in the history of the PRC to the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation to help poor farmers in the five drought-stricken provinces in southwest China (28%).
16)  The folding of “Friends” publication which was aimed at the gay, HIV/AIDS and public health community and had been publishing since 1998.  “Friends” closed because it lost its major source of funding from an international foundation (21%). 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Warriors of Qiugang -- environmental activism at its best

Last Saturday afternoon, I went to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in the 798 Art Space in Beijing to see “Warriors of Qiugang”, a short documentary about a farmer-turned-environmental activist (to see the full documentary, go to  The film was directed by Ruby Yang who had won a Oscar for best short documentary for her earlier 2006 film, “Blood of Yingzhou District” about children in Anhui who had lost their parents to an AIDS epidemic in the province.  I had seen the earlier film and a friend of mine, an environmental lawyer in Beijing, had recommended “Warriors of Qiugang” so I was looking forward to the screening.  When I heard that Ruby Yang and Mr. Zhang Gongli, the farmer, were going to be in the audience and answering questions afterwards, that made the event even sweeter.

Despite the polluted, overcast, chilly conditions, I hopped on my bike and rode out to the 798 Art Space and got there about 10 minutes late.  The film had already started, and the auditorium was almost packed, but luckily I found a seat up front, opened up my Windows document on my phone and started to take notes.

The film is in some ways a familiar story for those of us steeped in environmental horror stories in China.  The story is about Qiugang village which is located on the banks of the Huai River in Anhui.  The village’s land and waterways are being laid to waste by several highly-polluting factories next door.  The villagers are fed up by the pollution and the health problems it is causing, and protest in 2003 but are beaten up.  Enter Mr. Zhang whose land is very close to one of the factories.  He sues the factory in 2004 and again in 2005 but loses each time, though in an interview he did with me afterwards, he said the factory did settle with him by paying him 500 yuan (about U.S.$65 a year at that time) for three years, but refused to stop its operations.  In 2007, Mr. Zhang and Qiugang are helped by Green Anhui, a local environmental NGO, which gets their story to the local media.  The villagers then decide to write a petition to the local authorities asking them to close the factories down.  The local authorities balk until Mr. Zhang, with the help of Green Anhui and other environmental NGOs in Beijing, bring the story to the national media which in turn attracts the attention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.  Mr. Zhang's message is that the factories should be closed down because they are in violation of existing environmental laws and regulations.  Under pressure from the national authorities and Mr. Zhang who keeps up the campaign, local authorities eventually order the factories closed in 2009.  The factories are now in the process of being torn down.

The film brings out some important elements of activism in China.  It shows that ordinary farmers do care about the damage caused by environmental pollution and are willing to take risks to do something about it.  It depicts the role of NGOs in educating individual activists about the laws, and bringing their stories to the media and national authorities.  It shows how the media and national authorities can be occasional allies in the fight to enforce China’s laws in favor of social and environmental justice.  The combined efforts of these actors can sometimes lead to good results even in an authoritarian state.  We see a similar pattern in the environmental campaign against the Nujiang River dam project which ended up being suspended in 2005 (see Andrew Mertha's brilliant account in his book Water Warriors). 

After the film, I had a chance to go out to dinner with Ruby Yang and Mr. Zhang and offered to escort Mr. Zhang back to the train station so I could interview him.  He told me many of the people in his village and many of the local officials in his area had seen the film.  Now that he had achieved a level of fame, he didn’t seem to think the local authorities would cause him any trouble.  I hope he's right.

When I dropped him off at the train station, he took out his camera and showed me pictures of the factory being razed.  He said there would soon be trees and grass there, and that they've seen some small fish again in the river and waterways.  He sounded hopeful.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How to read this blog

I realize that blogs are by their nature spontaneous and unstructured.  There’s no beginning or end.  It’s the difference between a swimming pool where serious swimmers are doing laps, and a pool that is crowded with frolicking kids.  Books are the former, and blogs are the latter.  You just dive in somewhere in the middle and start exploring.  Being the type that likes order and organization, though, I thought I’d try to go against the nature of a blog, to create an unblog if you will, by organizing it a bit more like – gasp! – a book.  If someone were to ask me how they should read my blog, and to help them organize the blogs into chapters, here’s what I might come up with.  I'll be updating this post to reflect future postings.  (True blog aficionados are welcome to ignore this post and just dive in.)

My Inaugural post posted on October 1, 2009 where I introduce myself and my reason for writing this blog

Defining NGOs in China 1.0, posted on June 28, 2010
Yu Keping on government-led civil society in China, posted on October 23, 2009
Important trends among Chinese NGOs, posted on August 26, 2010
The best and worst of 2010 for China’s NGOs, posted on January 12, 2011

Three NGOs in Nanjing, posted on November 30, 2009
Discussing the future of China’s NGOs, posted on July 22, 2010
Grassroots activism and public-private partnerships in the Hudson Valley, posted August 1, 2010
Challenges for grassroots NGOs, posted from Asia Catalyst on March 11, 2010
Shaping the future of grassroots NGOs, posted from Asia Catalyst on March 7, 2010

Is it getting a bit chilly for NGOs? posted on March 8, 2010
The Oxfam HK case, posted on March 8, 2010
Notice on  administration of donated foreign funds, posted on April 9, 2010
Peking University Women's Legal Aid Center loses its affiliation, posted on April 13, 2010
Shutting down of NGOCN’s website, posted on April 20, 2010
Why the chill in the air for NGOs?  posted May 12, 2010
An exchange between Meg Davis of Asia Catalyst and Shawn Shieh on regulation of Chinese
NGOs, posted on November 9, 2010
Regulating NGOs: why the schizophrenic year for NGOs?, Part I, posted February 7, 2010
Regulating NGOs: why the schizophrenic year for NGOs?, Part II, posted February 9, 2010

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake and China’s NGOs, posted on February 24, 2010
NGO Participation in disaster relief in China, posted from Asia Catalyst on April 27, 2010
Visiting NGOs along the faultline: Sichuan to Qinghai, posted August 4, 2010
Visiting the Global Village project in Daping, posted on August 8, 2010
Profile of Gao Guizi, coordinator of the 512 Voluntary Relief Center (Sichuan), posted on
September 21, 2010
Volunteering at Global Village's "Lehe Jiayuan" project in Daping, posted on October 18, 2010
Global Village's LOHO Community project in Sichuan -- excerpts from a volunteer's blog,
posted on November 14, 2010

Profile: Lu Fei, founder of NGOCN (Yunnan), posted on November 1, 2009
Profile of Chen Yongsong, founder of EcoNetwork (Yunnan), posted on December 15, 2009
Profile of Xu Yongguang, secretary general of Nandu (Narada) Foundation (Beijing), posted on
January 24, 2010
Profile of Ma Yinling, founder of (Yuexi county) Poverty and Development Research Center,
posted on September 3, 2010
Profile of Gao Guizi, coordinator of the 512 Voluntary Relief Center (Sichuan), posted on
September 21, 2010
The passing of Liang Congjie, China’s environmental and civil society pioneer, posted on
November 1, 2010

On what Obama can do for NGOs on his visit to China, Posted November 14, 2009
Talking to some NGOs in Sichuan, posted on August 15, 2010
Can Bill Gates and Warren Buffett start a philanthropic revolution in China?  Posted October 1,
Volunteering at Global Village's "Lehe Jiayuan" project in Daping, posted on October 18, 2010
Good news for 2011: Starting up China Development Brief (English), posted on January 27,
Getting involved in the nonprofit community in Beijing, posted on January 4, 2011
Global Village's LOHO Community project in Sichuan -- excerpts from a volunteer's blog,
posted on November 14, 2010

XuYongguang’s talk at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China, posted on March 7, 2010
Profile of Xu Yongguang, secretary general of Nandu (Narada) Foundation (Beijing), posted on
January 24, 2010
Can Bill Gates and Warren Buffett start a philanthropic revolution in China?  Posted October 1,2010

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's been a while...

I realize it’s been some time since I’ve posted and wanted to explain my long absence from these pages.  One reason (ok, excuse) is that I’ve been busy getting the China Development Brief translation project going.  One part of this project is to bring together a community of volunteer translators who can help in translating selected CDB articles for a special report we are putting together on Philanthropy and Civil Society in China.  I’m pleased to say that the response has been wonderful.  So far, 34 people have signed up to translate the articles from Chinese to English.  They are a diverse group, students, scholars, NGO practitioners, and professionals, all with advance bilingual skills.  I’m also working on the website which will be linked to the Chinese-language CDB website,  I hope to have the entire special report ready by June of this year.

My other excuse is the internet in Beijing which has been acting up as a result – I’m just guessing here, but I think it’s a pretty good guess – of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and the call for a similar uprising here in China, using the internet and various social media sites as a springboard.  The authorities here are understandably on edge and have made it very difficult to access internet sites outside of China.  Gmail is very, very sporadic now, and my VPN provider which I thought would never be blocked was.  As a result, I’ve not been able to access my blog until today.

I promise to put more blog postings up soon.  My next one will be a blog about how to read this blog.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Regulating NGOs: Why the schizophrenic year for NGOs in 2010? (Part II)

In my last post, I argued that to understand the schizophrenic year for Chinese NGOs, one has to understand the nature of the system regulating civil society.  I brought up Kang Xiaoguang and Han Heng’s analysis of the system which gave us a sophisticated and nuanced model, but I felt it didn’t provide a satisfactory understanding, at least with respect to Chinese NGOs.  It was too neat and simple.  I think for a more realistic explanation, we need to bring in others who point out that the system is not so neat, or unified, or rational. 

One place to start getting a more accurate picture is Professor Deng Guosheng’s article, “The Hidden Rules Governing China’s Unregistered NGOs” published in the Spring 2010 issue of The China Review.  Professor Deng, of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center, shows that you cannot just look at the official regulations governing NGOs, but also at the “hidden” or “implicit” rules.  He notes that the official regulations for social organizations (NGOs included) only apply to legally registered NGOs.  But many NGOs are not legally registered as NGOs, but as businesses or a “project” under another organization.  How are these NGOs regulated?  Kang and Han argue that they are not.  The government leaves them alone.  But Professor Deng argues that there has been an implicit understanding or ruling made between central and local authorities concerning unregistered NGOs.  He calls this understanding the “Three Nos” policy: “no recognition, no banning, no intervention”.  In other words, while authorities do not recognize these NGOs as legal, they will not take actions to ban them or intervene in their affairs as long as the NGOs do not harm state security or social stability.

What Professor Deng is saying here about the system is that it gives wide latitude to authorities, especially at the local level, to deal with unregistered or unofficial NGOs.  This explanation helps to account for the seemingly schizophrenic gap between policy and implementation/enforcement I mentioned earlier.  The policy towards registered NGOs such as foundations is improving, but the authorities attitudes and actions toward unregistered NGOs varies widely because of the “three Nos” policy which gives them a great deal of discretion in dealing with NGOs.  Some authorities see unregistered NGOs as serving a positive role, helping government fill gaps in social services, but others may see them as a threat especially if they touch on sensitive areas such as organizing migrant workers (e.g. in Shenzhen), farmers displaced by dam-building (e.g. in Yunnan) or AIDS victims of government-sponsored blood banks (e.g. in Henan). 

This view is consistent with a model of the Chinese political system that scholars call “fragmented authoritarianism”.  In this model, the Chinese government is not a unified entity, but instead composed of diverse leaders and agencies, each with their own interests and views.  Armed with the discretionary power given them under the “three Nos” policy, these leaders and agencies take different attitudes and actions toward unregistered NGOs.  In some cases, where NGOs serve their interests, they may carry out experiments to make it easier for these NGOs to register.  In others, where particular NGOs threaten their interests, they harass them and even close them down.

Jessica Teets, a professor at Middlebury College, who has written extensively on Chinese NGOs and interviewed a number of Chinese officials on NGO policy, makes a similar point in a chapter written for China Beyond the Headlines, “Civil Society Development in China.”   She argues that China’s tradition of local experimentation and the cadre evaluation system provide incentives for local officials to partner with NGOs when it leads to improved or innovative ways of providing services.  But because local officials are also evaluated on maintaining social stability, they also have to balance the benefits that NGOs bring with the potential costs.

The fragmented authoritarian system explanation does not just account for the schizophrenic pattern we’ve seen in 2010 but also in the years prior.  You could say this schizophrenia is something that has characterized the Chinese government dealings with civil society organizations for some time now. 
I’ve argued in another post (“Why the chill in the air”) that fragmented authoritarianism also helps to explain the delays in the revised regulations on NGOs and foundations.  While the Ministry of Civil Affairs may support the revisions, they are a relatively weak agency and have to contend with other more influential agencies who have concerns about the potential destabilizing effects of a more liberal NGO policy. 

Finally, if this explanation is right, then it means we’ll continue to see this schizophrenia as long as this fragmented authoritarian system is around.  As one civil society activist said to me, “we’re not going to see any major changes in the government’s regulation of civil society until the system democratizes.” 

Scholars such as Teets and Andrew Mertha (see his chapter “Society in the State” in Chinese Politics) make a similar point.  They believe that fragmented authoritarian system allows a wide range of actors, NGOs among them, to insert themselves in the policy process by cooperating with government officials at different levels of the system.  The result has been greater pluralization of the policy process.  But pluralization, as they remind us, is not the same as democratization.  Until the latter happens, China’s NGOs should look forward to a bumpy ride.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Regulating NGOs: Why the schizophrenic year for NGOs in 2010? (Part I)

In a recent post, I listed the best and worst of 2010 for China’s NGOs.  In truth, this best and worst list pretty accurately captures what happened last year in China’s civil society.  It was a year of highs and lows.  In this post, I try to answer the question: why the schizophrenic year for Chinese NGOs in 2010?   I’m actually breaking this post into two parts because I end up giving a longer explanation than I had expected.  (What more would you expect from a scholar?)

I would argue that the main reason for this schizophrenia has to do with a rapidly developing civil society sector coming head to head with a government that remains ambivalent and conflicted about how to deal with that growth.   The Chinese government wants the resources and services that civil society organizations can provide to addressing China’s many social and environmental ills, but at the same time remains suspicious of those organizations.  In terms of policy, we are seeing the Chinese government taking steps to better regulate the civil society sector, and liberalizing the regulatory environment for foundations and business associations.  Yet in terms of implementation and enforcement on the ground, we are seeing more of a mixed picture.  Some localities are being allowed to experiment with more flexible regulations for registering and managing NGOs, but we also see in other places, heavy-handed measures harassing and even closing down NGOs.
This gap between policy and implementation/enforcement is important because it touches on the nature of the “system” that regulates the civil society sector in China.  Getting the “system” right is important to understanding the schizophrenic pattern we are seeing.  This requires that I get  into some of the academic literature so please bear with me.

One attempt at describing “the system” is made by Kang Xiaoguang and Han Heng in their 2008 article in Modern China, “Graduated Controls: The State-Society Relationship in Contemporary China”.   In this article, the authors argue that over time, the Chinese government has developed a finely-tuned “system” of control for social organizations.  The system is now able to exercise different degrees of control over social organizations depending on (a) their ability to challenge state power; and (b) the nature of the public goods they provide.  The highest level of control is for politically antagonistic organizations such as Falun Gong or Charter 08 which are banned outright because they pose the biggest challenge to the government.  The second highest level of control is for labor unions and community organizations such as residence committees.  The third level is for religious organizations, the fourth is for business associations and GONGOs, and the fifth and lowest level of control is for grassroots NGOs and informal organizations.

Kang and Han’s most interesting observation is the last one for grassroots NGOs.  They say that because grassroots NGOs do not pose a challenge to the government and do not provide essential public goods, the government pretty much leaves them alone.

The director of Renmin University’s NPO Research Center, Professor Kang is a noted scholar and a keen observer of China’s NGO scene, and there is much to be admired about their “graduated controls” framework because it seeks to explain how the system regulates a wide range of social organizations, not just civil society organizations, and it recognizes that the system is nuanced.  But I find their description of the system too neat and simple.  They make the governmental apparatus out to be a finely-tuned machine that has figured out a way to regulate and control many different kinds of social organizations.  But we know from practice that the reality is never this neat, and government is rarely if ever a unified rational actor. 

More to the point, this system of “graduated controls” does not explain the schizophrenic pattern we’ve been observing in the civil society sector.  The government does not leave grassroots NGOs alone, nor does it see NGOs as harmless or the public goods they provide as nonessential.

A more realistic explanation is provided by others who point out that the system is not so neat, or unified, or rational.  More on that in my next posting.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Good news for 2011: Starting up China Development Brief (English)

January 27, 2011

I’m pleased to announce that we’ll be starting up China Development Brief (English) this year.  The mission of CDB (English) is to improve understanding and cooperation between the international community and China’s growing nonprofit and philanthropic community by providing authoritative and timely English-language coverage of China’s civil society sector.
To achieve this goal, CDB (English) is partnering with the Beijing Civil Society Development Research Centre which publishes the Chinese-language CDB and maintains a website,   The content for CDB (English) will come from translated reports from CDB, the Chinese media, and Chinese academics, as well as translations of government laws and regulations governing the civil society sector.
After that rather long-winded announcement, a bit of explanation is in order here.  In my first post for this blog, written in October of 2009,  I mentioned that I'd been thinking of starting up the English-language China Development Brief (CDB) that was closed down in 2007, but found the environment was not quite right and decided to start writing this blog instead.  For those who are not familiar with CDB, it had been providing some of the most authoritative and timely English-language coverage of development and civil society issues in China over the previous decade.  Since its closure in 2007, the civil society sector in China has been undergoing substantial and complex changes, some of which I've discussed in this blog, yet there has been little English-language coverage aside from occasional media reports, and certainly no informed and sustained coverage.  The Chinese-language CDB, which is a spin-off of the English-language CDB, has however continued to operate and provide quality, detailed coverage on the civil society sector in China.
A few months ago, I decided to give it another go by approaching the Chinese-language CDB about starting up an English-language service.  Not knowing what to expect, I was a bit surprised to find my proposal welcomed enthusiastically by the CDB staff. 
In the coming months, we will be applying for funding and working on developing a website, a pilot newsletter and a special issue on New Trends in Philanthropy and Civil Society in China.  I’m looking to use a “crowd-sourcing” model that relies on communities of volunteer translators to translate the content for the website, newsletter and special issue.  More on that later. 
I’m excited about working with CDB on this project and hope it lays the foundation for high-quality, timely, authoritative yet accessible coverage of China’s civil society sector.  I’m convinced that the time is now ripe to start this project.  Civil society in China has encountered some setbacks, but most informed observers that I know, myself included, have been impressed by the gains made by civil society organizations over the past two years, and we are hoping that those gains build momentum over the next few years.  Whatever the trends maybe, CDB (English) plans to be around to cover them.
With wishes for a Happy Year of the Rabbit,
Shawn Shieh, Founding Editor, China Development Brief (English)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Two More Additions to the Best of 2010 for China's NGOs

After posting The Best and Worst of 2010 for China's NGOs, I received two emails adding a few other items to Best of 2010:

The Red Ribbon Forum in Beijing in December of 2010 was the government's second ever meeting with NGOs on human rights and HIV/AIDS.  The Forum was a productive and lively discussion. At the meeting, UNAIDS for the first time publicly called for compensation for victims of China's blood disaster, and for the release of imprisoned AIDS activist Tian Xi.

Tian Xi was also named one of Housing Works' 5 AIDS heroes of 2010:

In October, Beijing Yirenping Center, an anti-discrimination grass root NGO, was accepted as a voting member by the World Hepatitis Alliance. It is the the second voting member from China and the only Chinese grass root NGO that was accepted as a voting member by the WHA.