Monday, November 25, 2013

Civil Society Happenings in China for September and October of 2013

There have been a number of events going on in the civil society sector, too many for me to catalog, but below are some of the events that I and other CDB staff have been involved in over the last few months. November was a particularly busy month for us, so I'll summarize those happenings in a separate posting. I hope this post provides interested onlookers a glimpse into some of the issues being discussed in the sector.

A UNDP Book Launch: Working with Civil Society in Foreign Aid, September 26, 2013
Shawn Shieh, Editor of CDB (English) participated in a book launch of a UNDP China E-Book, Working with Civil Society in Foreign Aid: Possibilities for South-South Cooperation, which was published with the support of Australian AID. The launch was held at the UNDP China office. The author, Brian Tomlinson, of AidWatch China provided an overview of the book, and participants were invited to provide feedback. The UNDP plans to hold more forums on this topic involving other civil society representatives in China.

2nd China Charity Fair, Shenzhen, September 21-23, 2013
Shawn Shieh, Editor of CDB (English), was invited to speak about the operational characteristics of China’ grassroots NGOs at the Charity Fair’s Social Good Summit on “Innovating Philanthropy for Civil Society Development” on September 21, 2013. The Summit was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UNDP, and the UN Foundation which were taking part in the Fair for the first time in an effort to internationalize the gathering. The China Charity Fair is the only national gathering of foundations, NGOs, companies, and media interested in promoting philanthropy in China. The organizers include the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Shenzhen city government. Aside from the Social Good Summit, the Fair featured other forums and salons on various topics related to philanthropy, and booths and displays set up by various foundations, companies and NGOs. While the Fair went smoothly, some participants complained about the top-down nature of the event, the absence of NGOs engaged in more sensitive areas such as legal aid and labor, and the exclusion of one LGBT NGO whose materials were removed from the premises. Details of the Charity Fair can be found on their website at

China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation Forum on its Program to Assist Malnourished Children in Africa, September 29, 2013
CDB Editors, Liu Haiying and Shawn Shieh, were invited, along with other media representatives, to take part in a forum on media strategies regarding CFPA’s program to assist malnourished children in Africa. CFPA, which has already built a hospital in the Sudan, plans to send Chinese volunteers to work in African on this program and held the forum to get feedback on how to deal with the public relations aspect of the program. CFPA is one of the few Chinese NGOs active overseas and has plans to develop into an international NGO.

The 2nd China AIDS Walk, October 13, 2013
CDB organized a team to participate in the 2nd China AIDS Walk. See The China AIDS Walk 2013: Walking to Raise Awareness.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The China AIDS Walk 2013: Walking to Raise Awareness

On a chilly, grey fall morning, my wife and I rose early to join my colleagues at the Dongzhimen subway stop in Beijing for the 2nd annual China AIDS Walk.  We packed a lunch and snacks for the day - peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples and trail mix - and hopped into a taxi. When we arrived at the subway stop, we found other participants milling around, collecting their AIDS Walk T-shirts, and waiting to board the sleek tour buses that would take us up to the Jinshanling Great Wall near Chengde, about two hours drive northeast of Beijing. 

Over the next half hour, we were joined by the rest of the China Development Brief team, seven in all, including one staff member from Greenpeace International’s China office who was tagging along. One of our staff also brought her eight-year old son who goes by the English name, Howard. Two colleagues texted to tell us they were not feeling well and would not be able to join us.

My CDB colleagues had been preparing for this day for weeks, and we had one of the larger teams participating with 10 people signed up. Organizing a team was relatively easy. You went onto the China AIDS Walk website,, and registered a team. Team members were asked to make a minimum online donation to the Walk.  We could also ask their friends and family to make a donation to the Walk to support our team.

When my colleagues first told me about the Walk, I wasn’t sure why they were so excited about the event. These types of fundraising events were commonplace in the U.S. where I grew up. Then over the last few weeks, I began reading more about it, and had the chance to talk with staff at the Beijing Gender Health Institute, a grassroots NGO that is the driving force behind the China AIDS Walk, and I gradually began to realize what made the Walk so special.

The idea of an AIDS Walk was conceived in the U.S. The first AIDS Walk took place in Los Angeles in 1985. Since then, over a hundred AIDS Walks have taken place in communities around the U.S. and in other countries. According to the AIDS Walk Los Angeles website, the idea for the Walk was conceived by Craig Miller, a community activist whose approach was to combine “grassroots activism with fundraising and other campaign strategies to raise both awareness and urgently needed funds for the fight against AIDS.”  

That animating idea nicely describes the thinking of the organizers of the China AIDS Walk who “believe that social progress is achieved not by a few people doing a lot, but by may people doing a little.” Not surprisingly, Xiaogang, the Gender Health Institute’s executive director, was inspired to bring the Walk to China after participating in the AIDS Walk in San Francisco.  For Xiaogang, the AIDS Walk is part of a larger organizational strategy to bring together public advocacy, fundraising and community participation to address challenges in medical care and discrimination faced by those living with AIDS, as well as the LGBT community in China. Thus, in addition to organizing the Walk, the Institute is also engaged in educating journalists to report on AIDS and LGBT issues, and has a Queer China and Queer University program to encourage the use of media and film to shine a sympathetic light on the AIDS and LGBT community.

To understand why bringing the Walk to China is so significant, we only need to consider how challenging the Walk’s aims are: public advocacy, public fundraising, public participation, community organizing, and raising awareness about marginalized and vulnerable communities. And we are talking here about a grassroots NGO doing this, not the government. In China, all of these things can be sensitive, if not illegal.

Take what appears to be the most innocuous goal of public fundraising. The vast majority of NGOs in China, whether registered or not, are not permitted by law to engage in public fundraising. Only a small number of public fundraising foundations, most of them with close ties to the government, are authorized to do so. In addition, engaging in advocacy in public spaces, and inviting large numbers of people to join in, is very difficult, if not impossible in China.

In spite of these challenges, the organizers of the Walk managed to carry out an event that accomplished their aims, not once but twice. They organized a Walk on the Great Wall in 2012 that drew around 120 participants and raised more than 160,000 yuan. This year’s walk held on October 13 surpassed the 2012 numbers. It attracted more than 200 participants, about 150 of whom actually showed up to walk for about three hours on the Jinshanling Great Wall, and has so far raised more than 200,000 yuan which will be used to pay for the organizing costs and for medical treatment for those living with AIDS. How did they do it?  The answer: by collaborating and being strategic.

Collaboration involved partnering with a government-backed public fundraising foundation. In 2012, that partner was the China Foundation for Prevention of STD/AIDS. This year, it was the China Population Welfare Foundation. This partnership allowed the organizers to fundraise legally through a special fund set up in the Foundation, and made it easier to get approvals to carry out the Walk. Being strategic meant choosing a “non-sensitive” area outside of Beijing’s administrative borders. The Jinshanling Great Wall was chosen because it was close to Beijing but part of Chengde city’s administration.

The participants in the Walk this year were a diverse and colorful bunch. They included foreigners and Chinese, children and the elderly, gay and straight, the healthy and those infected with AIDS, and one person dressed as a bright blue condom. Some dressed up in flamboyant outfits, while others waved China AIDS Walk flags and banners. Some of the younger walkers like Howard dashed up the steep steps leading to the towers while others took their time, taking in the view of the Wall as it snaked its way up and down the spines of the distant hills. There were even small events held at some of the watchtowers, such as a Beijing opera performance, and “Free Hugs” for those infected with AIDS.

At the end of the walk, some of the participants, including the man-sized blue condom, gathered on a makeshift stage to do a line dance to pop music. As we watched the dance, one of the walkers summed up the day when he said, “How many times do you see this happen in China?”  

(This article was also posted to the China Development Brief website.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On the Eve of the Third Plenum, Are We Seeing a Depoliticization of the NGO Sector?

As we approach the much ballyhooed Third Plenum, here's my latest Policy Brief commenting on regulatory trends in the NGO sector and thoughts about what the Third Plenum should bring for China's NGOs.
In our last Policy Brief issued December 2012, we noted the continuation of “social management innovation” initiatives after the 18th Party Congress. The general idea behind “social management innovation,” which is also mentioned prominently in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), is to encourage the party-state at all levels to be more proactive in reaching out to NGOs (or what the government calls “social organizations”) in addressing common social goals. The party-state recognizes that it cannot address all of China’s daunting social problems and is beginning to realize the value of working with NGOs to provide social services to better “serve the people.”
We are now a few days away from the critical Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee. The Third Plenum has historically been the meeting at which major reforms have been launched. What can we expect for social management innovations in the NGO sector after the Third Plenum? Our answer: more or less a continuation of what we have seen in recent years.
 Over the last few years, social management innovations undertaken by the central and local governments have been quickening. Those innovations have generally come in three forms. One is reforms to lower barriers to NGO registration for certain categories of NGOs.  A second is the ramping up of government contracting of social services to NGOs.  A third is building the capacity and professionalism of NGOs by providing support services and creating standards for the sector. These three areas are interrelated. In order to compete for government contracts, NGOs will need to meet a number of requirements, such as being registered, having qualified staff, and being able to meet reporting requirements.  Currently, the government is having difficulty finding enough qualified NGOs to bid on social service contracts.  Recent measures to ease registration requirements and provide capacity-building support for NGOs are therefore meant to enlarge the pool of qualified NGOs.
Since last December, these “innovations” have continued apace as governments, government agencies and even GONGOs at different levels strive to come up with their own initiatives.  While the desire to innovate might be thought to be synonymous with the desire to be different, most of these initiatives predictably fall into one of the three forms discussed above.  (Perhaps we should not expect anything more from a top-down mandate to innovate.)
In terms of registration reforms, a number of well-placed sources including the State Council, MoCA officials and academics have suggested that the revised national-level regulations for registration of social organizations, which have been eagerly anticipated for a number of years, should be ready by the end of the year.  We may then expect to hear an announcement after the Third Plenum about these revised regulations. There have also been high-level signals that regulations for international NGOs will be forthcoming, but we think this is less likely given the sensitivity of international NGOs working in China, though it would be a pleasant surprise if it did happen.
In addition to the national level, there are reportedly 19 provinces now carrying out trial regulations allowing NGOs to register directly with Civil Affairs. If Beijing and Guangdong are any indication, however, the implementation of these trial measures has not been smooth. In Beijing, many NGOs still are unable to register directly with Civil Affairs. In Guangdong, many registered NGOs still do not get preferential tax treatment. It should also be reiterated that these reforms are aimed at certain categories of NGOs, generally economic and trade associations, public benefit and charitable organizations, and social service organizations. As one commentator stated, political and legal NGOs should not bother applying. The closing down of the Transition Socio-Economic Research Institute (Chuanzhixing) in July would be a case in point.
Regarding government contracting, contracting appears to be quite decentralized and taking place through different agencies. In Beijing, the Social Affairs Committee is carrying out contracting, and Civil Affairs is providing funding for NGOs to hire certified social workers in an effort to professionalize the sector.  At the central and local levels, a portion of the Welfare Lottery (gongyi caipiao) is being used to contract social services. Even mass organizations such as the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions are getting into the contracting act.  In terms of implementation, it is unclear if there are sector-wide standards and procedures for contracting, and there is a lack of transparency with some claiming government contracting takes place in a “black box”.  There are allegations of “rent-seeking” in which “qualified” organizations receive government funding only to outsource it to other social organizations after first taking a cut. Finally, there is a widespread perception that the government tends to contract out to “insider” NGOs such as GONGOs, rather than to grassroots NGOs.
Finally, local governments and party organizations are setting up a number of different platforms and organizations, and proposing more detailed standards and norms for the sector.  These include “hub”-style organizations built on the old mass organizations, and incubation bases to offer support and guidance to NGOs and cultivate new ones.  One interesting example of a “hub” organization that seems new and innovative is the China Charity Alliance, which is being created under the auspices of the China Charity Donation and Information Center, a GONGO set up under the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The Alliance’s aim seems to be to promote the philanthropic sector by bringing in business tycoons and celebrities as members. (When this author asked one of the organizers of the Alliance about whether CDB could join, I was politely informed that the Alliance was only inviting large, influential organizations and individuals.)
So far, so good.  The news about the lowering of barriers to registration is welcome, and the NGO sector needs clearer regulation and more support from the government.  But then came the spring and summer months of 2013 when activists in central China and Beijing were arrested or detained for calling for government officials to disclose their assets. Following that were detentions and arrests of activists associated with the New Citizen Movement in July, the closing down of the Transition Research Institute, an independent think-tank, and broader restrictions on social media and the ideological atmosphere. This year’s crackdown is not an isolated event. If we think back to 2012, we can also recall the harassment of labor NGOs in Guangdong. Clearly the call for social innovation does not always extend to those seeking to innovate from the bottom up.
These recent crackdown on civil society advocates seem to run counter to the social management innovations that are expanding the space for NGOs. But maybe there is a way to reconcile these seemingly contradictory trends. Perhaps what we are seeing is an agreement within the Chinese leadership to depoliticize the NGO sector. Some may argue that this arrangement has already been in place for a while: after all, the government actively discourages NGOs engaged in political or rights-based legal work. But the difference this time is that depoliticization is also being encouraged using positive incentives. Thus the thrust of social management innovation may be to create top-down, institutionalized partnerships with NGOs that fall into “acceptable” categories such as social service provision, seeking to guide, support and thereby co-opt them.  At the same time, the government will not extend the same treatment to more “critical” NGOs and activists engaged in advocacy and more sensitive issues; on the contrary, it will make life more difficult for them.  
Recently, one civil society scholar warned against allowing China’s third sector to grow while its civil society diminishes. We should keep these words in mind as we monitor developments in civil society over the next year.