There are moments when I have reservations about grassroots NGOs in China. They are committed and passionate about helping society, and many work with integrity to achieve their goals in spite of working under difficult circumstances. But they are also small, receive little recognition from the government or society, and have little impact.
But then something comes along like the anti-Japanese protests that are taking place on the street where I live here in Beijing, and reminds me what I see in China’s NGOs. We are already into our fourth day of protests, and I’ve been out to observe them every day. Today is the biggest because September 18 marks the anniversary of the Mukden incident when the Japanese military invaded Manchuria, China’s northeast. The protestors are chanting slogans telling the “little Japanese” to get out of the Diaoyu Islands, and calling for a boycott of Japanese goods (which many Chinese already own such as the cameras they are using to take pictures of the protests). While the protests are generally peaceful, some protestors have taken to throwing plastic water bottles, eggs and other objects at the Japanese embassy which is just up the street from where I live. In other cities, there have been acts of vandalism against Japanese-made cars and businesses. Various sources – both foreigners and Chinese – have said that these protests are very organized, meaning not just that the protestors are well prepared, but that there is a scripted quality to these protests. Here is an email one Chinese friend shared with me:
I just spoke with a taxi driver a moment ago. He told me that the protests are organized by the government. the leader of the village told the members what they can do in the protest, what they can not do. They can throw eggs, they can shout, but they cannot beat the Japanese, they cannot beat the police. The government even buys eggs for them.
Like many other things going on in China, these protests and the security presence accompanying them are big, and they have impact. But they are being manipulated by the government for cynical, political purposes, and are really doing nothing to address the many social problems that loom large for so many Chinese – the widening gap between rich and poor, the treatment of migrant workers and their families, the environmental and public health crises just around the corner. They represent, in other words, everything that NGOs do not. They lack integrity.
In a country where so much that happens is big and manipulated by powerful political or corporate interests, and actions that make an impact are a dime a dozen, integrity is becoming a rare commodity. I think integrity is what draws me to China’s NGOs and why I’ve spent my last six year studying them and working for them. Integrity. It’s a commodity that is so difficult to find these days. What does it mean? For me, a commitment to a set of moral values, a set of progressive values. A mission to better society. But it is also about an approach to work that is evinced by sincerity and humility and a concern for the grassroots, for ordinary people and the communities in which they live. It is an approach that is above all humane, a concern more for the process than for the result. (Ironically, monitoring and evaluations of NGO projects tend to measure the quality of NGO work on the basis of outcomes, when what NGOs do best is process.) Of course, not all NGOs have this quality. Some are after fame (read: impact) and money, and others just after money. But most of the grassroots NGOs I’ve met in China carry out their work with integrity. They may not be the most professional, or the most effective, or make the biggest impact. But that’s ok. There’s already too much of that anyway.