January 13, 2011
I generally avoid these kinds of lists, but then got emails from two different people in the NGO community, each with their own list of what had happened in 2010 that were complete opposites. One listed all good things, and the other listed all the bad things. This led me to construct my own list that seeks to reconcile these very opposite views of what happened in China's civil society sector in 2010. The reality is that if you combined both of these lists, you wouldn't be far off the mark. The year 2010 was truly a schizophrenic year for Chinese civil society with rapid progress in the Chinese philanthropic sector, but setbacks for grassroots NGOs in other sectors. If 2008 was seen by many as the “Year of the NGO” then 2010 could be said to be the “Year of Philanthropy”. It was (with apologies to Charles Dickens) the “best of times and the worst of times” for China’s civil society.
Following are some (and I stress “some” because this list is by no means exhaustive) of the best and worst moments of 2010 for China’s civil society.
The Best of 2010
APRIL – after the Yushu earthquake in Qinghai, a number of NGOs participated in the earthquake relief, including NGO networks that had formed in response to the Wenchuan earthquake, as well as new networks.
APRIL – 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 an investigative report on heavy metal pollution from the information and technology sector. The Alliance is yet another sign of the growth and maturation of China’s civil society networks.
JUNE -- The Beijing Normal University Philanthropy Research Institute was established with funding from Jet Li’s One Foundation. In a move that signals how much progress civil society has made in China, Wang Zhenyao resigned his post as a government official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs to head the Institute. The Institute will provide training and counseling to promote professional philanthropic talen in China.
JULY -- The China Foundation Center was established after a decade of effort led by private foundation leaders such as Naruda’s Xu Yongguang. The CFC is modeled after the U.S. Foundation Center and seeks to strengthen transparency and accountability in China’s foundation sector, and thereby strengthen public trust in philanthropy, by providing a database on foundations' financials, activities, and performance.
In response to public dissatisfaction with government restrictions on fundraising for the Yushu earthquake (see the Worst of 2010 below), the Ministry of Civil Affairs established a special office to collect public opinions. With more than 420 million internet users and more than 805 mobile phone users in China, this mechanism may be an opportunity for social media to shape policy making in China.
SEPTEMBER -- The Social Innovation Forum in Shanghai—also called the New Philanthropy Carnival—was organized by the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (or YouChange) to encourage new thinking on addressing China’s social, economic, and environmental challenges. The Shanghai municipal government was one of the first local governments to invest in and support social innovation centers in China.
SEPTEMBER -- Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) launched CiYuan, an initiative that builds innovative, cross-sector partnerships to enhance the value of social investment in China. Working with the Taproot Foundation, BSR will introduce a skills-based volunteerism model in China to leverage corporate human capital to build NGO capacity.
SEPTEMBER --Bill Gates and Warren Buffett held a dialogue with Chinese billionaires about investing their money in philanthropy. The dialogue generated a nationwide discussion on how China’s growing class of wealthy entrepreneurs in China can make social investments and become strategic philanthropists.
About this time, news also came out about the Shenzhen experiment to make it easier for NGOs to register. Jet Li’s One Foundation was able to use the more liberal rules to register as a public foundation (see below). These experiments have been going on for some time and in different localities for different types of social organizations, and illustrate just how complex and fluid the regulatory environment for nonprofits is in China.
OCTOBER -- Liu Xiaobo receives the Nobel Peace Prize.
JANUARY 2011 (Ok, technically not a 2010 event but close enough!) The Jet Li One Foundation was the first private foundation to be legally registered as a public fundraising foundation in Shenzhen— yet another sign that the government is loosening its control over philanthropy.
The Worst of 2010
FEBRUARY -- the Ministry of Education issued a notice asking all Chinese universities to not work with Oxfam HK and other international NGOs that seek to recruit college volunteers for their projects.
MARCH (This story did not come out in the media until March, 2010 when these new regulations went into effect but other sources say the regulation was first issued in December of 2009) -- the State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued a new set of regulations that made it more difficult for Chinese enterprises to receive donations from foreign organizations by asking for notarization and additional paperwork. These regulations have especially made life harder for grassroots NGOs registered as businesses who are receiving funds from international donors.
MARCH – Peking University announced that it was disassociating itself from the well-known NGO, Peking University Women’s Legal Aid Center. The Center continues to operate and has registered as both a law firm and an enterprise.
MARCH -- NGOCN (NGO Development and Exchange Network), a Kunming-based NGO that serves as a information clearinghouse and training center for grassroots NGOs was closed down, supposedly for encouraging NGOs to participate in activities to combat the drought in southwestern China. It has since reemerged as NGOCN.info.
MAY -- Since January 14, 2010, Beijing Aizhixing Institute, one of China’s foremost HIV/AIDS NGOs has been investigated and harassed by numerous government departments, and faced difficulty in getting its funds. In May, saying he could no longer tolerate the harassment, Wan Yanhai, founder of Beijing Aizhixing, left for the U.S. with his family.
SUMMER – Authorities sought to restrict NGO participation in the Yushu earthquake, asking a network of Qinghai NGOs to disband, and restricting NGOs from fundraising for the earthquake. The Ministry of Civil Affairs asked 15 national-level foundations to turn the relief funds they had raised over to relevant government agencies so the funds could be better managed.
NOVEMBER – One the eve of World AIDS Day 2010, another AIDS organization, Ai Yuan, “Beijing Loving Source Information Consulting Center" announced that it was closing its doors because of tax audits by Beijing tax authorities.
NOVEMBER – Liang Congjie, founder of Friends of Nature and one of the leaders of the first generation of China’s NGO leaders, passed away in Beijing.
DECEMBER – A number of activists who were invited to Oslo for Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony were not allowed out of the country.
Finally, the Charity Law that was expected to come out this year was held up for further review in the NPC. Revisions of the registration and management regulations for social organizations continue to be held up as they have for the past few years.
The big question of course is why we’re seeing this schizophrenic pattern in China’s civil society. I’ll address this question in my next blog.