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.

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