Thursday, December 13, 2012

Can the Chinese Government Both Support and Micromanage NGOs?

Here's one of the Policy Briefs I wrote for China Development Brief in November. It's about whether the Chinese government can have it both ways. It want to support the development of NGOs, but at the same time, closely manage and supervise that developmental process. But doesn't the latter ultimately subvert the former? Here's what I said:

In the run-up to the 18th Party Congress which opened November 8 and ended November 15 with the announcement of China’s new leadership core, the news falls into two categories of policy trends that we have been seeing over this past year.

The first of these trends involves policies that are more supportive of social organizations, the official term in China for nonprofits or NGOs.  These policies come in different forms.  One is the continuation of reforms at the local level to make registration easier for social organizations. This month, much of the news has been about reforms in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang, such as the cities of Ningbo and Wenzhou. Another policy involves local governments, in places like Guangdong and Sichuan, setting up special funds to support and incubate social organizations and contract services to social organizations. More localities are financing these special funds using public welfare lottery money.  Some environmental NGOs, however, have found that the funds used for purchasing services from social organizations are not sufficient to carry out their projects.
The second trend involves policies seeking to better regulate and manage the social organization sector. We have seen some of these policies and guidelines come out over the last few months. This month, we hear about other methods the government is using to standardize the sector. Both the Ministry of Civil Affairs and local Civil Affairs bureaus are providing ratings to registered social organizations, although it is not clear what goes into creating these ratings. With a 3A-level rating or above from the Ministry, a social organization may receive awards, and is given priority for government contracting. With a 4A-level rating or above, an organization can undergo a simplified process for its yearly inspection.  An organization’s rating is good for a three-year period and is based on a 1000 point rating system.

Ratings may not be a bad idea if done correctly, but another method that has been making the news is the Party’s efforts to become involved in managing social organizations. We touched on this in our last Policy Brief where we discussed the role of the Social Affairs Committee which is a newly formed agency under the local Party Committee responsible for social affairs which includes the development of social organizations. This month, we continue to hear more news about efforts to establish Party branches and groups within social organizations. This trend would mean both the government and Party would be involved in supervising social organizations.

It is not clear how the government and Party would coordinate their specific roles and responsibilities, but the involvement of both Party and government bureaucracies in managing social organizations is not a good sign. It runs counter to the first trend of supporting social organizations and making it easier for them to operate. Perhaps the Party and government see their efforts to manage social organizations as a good faith, paternalistic gesture to provide guidance and support. But they could also be interpreted as micromanagement, and an attempt to exercise stricter supervision over social organizations. As one article in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, makes clear, “loosening restrictions” over social organizations does not mean authorities should “become lax or complacent”.

Micromanagement not withstanding, some observers have been optimistic about the future for social organizations after the 18th Party Congress.  Professor Wang Ming, director of Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center and one of the leading authorities on China’s NGOs, is bullish on the future for social organizations, noting that the 18th Party Congress continued the same strong support for social organizations expressed at the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

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