Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival 2014
FUTURE PERFECT Civil Society in China in 2020
Li Bo, Friends of Nature
Zhai Yan, Huizeren Volunteering Development Center
Wang Liwei, Charitarian
Shawn Shieh, China Development Brief
March 15, 2014
Shawn: Thank you for coming and welcome to this session on civil society which is part of the 2014 Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival. I am Shawn Shieh and I am the English language editor at China Development Brief, a bilingual NGO which reports on the civil society sector in China.
For those of us who work in the civil society sector, who make it our job and our profession, of course, we think about these issues related to civil society all the time. We think about how we can best achieve our mission. We think about how to best develop our organization, our staff. We think about how to best collaborate with others in order to have the greatest impact. And of course, we always think about how to get more funding so we can keep our work going.
Today, I have gathered a couple of people from the sector. Together Zhai Yan, Wang Liwei, Li Bo and I have over thirty years of experience working in the sector both as individuals and as leaders of NGOs or publications that cover charity and NGOs. I have to say it was a challenge to put this panel together. When [the Bookworm’s] Peter Goff said he wanted to do something like this I really wanted to assemble as diverse a panel as possible, and one with Chinese voices, because after all we are talking about Chinese civil society. But we had to keep it to only three people, and I would have liked, ideally, to have ten. I also wanted to find Chinese who could communicate in English and I wanted people who had clear views about the civil society sector. I am glad to say that the people we have here fit all of those criteria.
What I am going to do now is ask each of them to give a brief introduction of themselves. After, I will tell you something about the format of this panel, and then we can get started. How about we start with Zhai Yan, then Wang Liwei, and Li Bo.
Zhai Yan: Thank you Shawn. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am Zhai Yan. You can call me Robin. I come from Huizeren Volunteer Development Center. I founded this NGO eleven years ago. Our organization is a grassroots NGO focused on capacity building. We organize school-based volunteers who come from companies and some universities to do training and coaching for grassroots NGO leaders. For the past eleven years we have been trying to promote civil society growth in China. Thank you.
Wang Liwei: Good afternoon. I would like to sit to talk because then we will be equal with each other. I am from Charitarian, which is a media group, but we are also observers of NGO civil society. We write articles and organize events but we also do some education projects.
Li Bo: Hello my name is Li Bo and I am originally from Yunnan province. I moved to Beijing about seven or eight years ago. I started my career in the NGO sector in 1994 with Oxfam in Southwest China. I also worked for the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Asia office based in Bangkok. In 2009 I became the director of a local environmental NGO called Friends of Nature. I am the board member of the organization right now.
Shawn: Thank you. I realize that there is a pretty diverse audience here. There are people who are experts on the sector and there are people who are just taking an interest in it. But one of the questions I would like to start with is one of language. We use the term “civil society”, but civil society is not a Chinese term, at least not that I know of. The first question I want to ask is what kind of words do you use when you talk about civil society?
Zhai Yan: I will give you an example for our organization. Our mission, our vision, is to promote a civil society where everyone can be a volunteer. But one day a government official came to our office and they asked to look at our mission. They asked me, “Why do you use “civil society” in your mission. You cannot do that.” Then I asked, “So what word can I use?” He just said, “harmonious society”. So I said, “Yes I see, but I do not know why I cannot just use ‘civil society’? I am a citizen and I do civil society work.” But he said, “Not in China. This is a political word, which should not be used for social work. So for non-profit organizations you cannot touch political work.” So until now, if I invite a government official to our organization then I use “harmonious society” in our slogans. But generally, I am still a supporter for our civil society, so yes I will still use that word. And because we give so much training for government officials, they just say if you come here, you have to use the government’s “harmonious society” term, but if you do training for NGOs then ok, you can use “civil society”.
Liwei: I think “civil society” is used by different people and for different purposes. In Guangzhou, for example, at Sun Yatsen University where they have a Civil Society Research Center, and the government owns that university. So, I think the government wants to do research on civil society. On the other hand, recently, you cannot use the term “civil society in mainstream Chinese media, whereas before three or four years ago you could. You can, however, find the term in mainstream newspapers like Southern Weekend (南方周末) so it is complicated. But in our organization, Charitarian, we use “equal society” (平等社会) because I think the basic value of civil society is equality. Every person is the same. We have the same dream, the same value, the same purpose and we also have the same right. It is not because you are rich or powerful that you should have more power then an ordinary person on the street. I think that if we can help improve civil society it will also help create equality. Migrant workers should have the same rights as the officials and millionaires. Speaking about civil society in China right now is very difficult because people do not have equal rights, so I think that if we really focus on civil society we can start with the equality issue.
Li Bo: I am aware that there is an academic debate about what civil society should be and how we perceive it in different societies, but as a NGO practitioner I do not like to get myself caught up in the definition. I am aware that under different leaders, depending on whether there is a big congress coming up, or something sensitive going on, often times they will become very strict with using these words. But after that, nobody really questions it. What I care about most in terms of NGOs is being able to register or being able to carry out what your mission.
Shawn: Thank you. I agree that it is not so much about how you say it, but about what you do. For China Development Brief, we also do not use civil society very often. We use words like, “grass roots organizations”, or “NGOs” or “non-profit organizations”. The second, more personal question that I want to ask these panelists is, “What is the meaning and the importance of civil society to you personally?”
Liwei: I think I already answered the question. For me, civil society means equality, and equal opportunities. I think that today in Chinese society, people know the gap is getting bigger and bigger. The gap is also getting bigger for kids. For example, if you compare a migrant worker’s child with a city child, the city child would know much more than the migrant worker’s child. Why? It does not mean that the city kids are smarter, or more intelligent than the rural kids. It just means that the city kids have more opportunities. Their parents can pay for the kids to learn how to play the piano or learn how to paint, but the rural or migrant worker’s kids have much less opportunities. This is why I think the opportunity gaps are becoming bigger and bigger.
Twenty-five years ago, I went to high school in a small town in Shenyang, northeast of Liaoning province. My teacher always said, “Ok, you’re in a small town, you have no chance of visiting Beijing, but one way you can go to Beijing is by studying hard and then you can pass the examination for university where you will be able to study in Beijing. You’ll be able to see Tiananmen Square, get a good job, and marry a good wife. You cannot not find a good girlfriend if you don’t study hard.” So at the time, I studied really hard, and then I came to Beijing. Today, I think even rural kids who live in small towns also study hard, however there are obstacles that prevent them from going to these Beijing universities. First, they don’t have good materials. The city kids have really good materials so they can learn. Second are the teachers. Rural areas do not have good teachers. In cities, however, they can have good teachers because they can afford to pay them. Lastly, the tuition for universities is expensive. When I was in university, I only paid 10RMB for the fall year tuition and for the dormitory. But today, you have to pay a lot of money. So even if the migrant workers want to study hard, their opportunities are still slim. For rural kids, the opportunity to go to Beijing to study, or to see Beijing, or marry a city girl, is becoming more impossible. So I think opportunities and equality is a big issue. If we talk about civil society we have to tell the government, the companies, and the NGOs how we can provide opportunities for those who cannot afford it.
Li Bo: I think the significance of civil society lies in public participation and the ability to monitor various environmental changes such as pollution and pollution control. As all of us are now able to physically experience the air pollution is getting very serious and the Chinese public tends to be convinced rather easily that the government is willing to combat these air pollution problems. We can certainly see that the government puts huge financial resources into various clean-up strategies but we do not see if that money is being used intelligently and effectively.
Over the last six or seven years since I started to work for Friends of Nature, we have repeatedly submitted a number of information disclosure requests to the government. I would say that more than 90 percent of those requests were rejected with ridiculous reasons, ranging from the information did not exist, to the requests were sent to the wrong government agencies, or simply because it was a national security issue. With that kind of rejection, even if you try to get a lawyer’s help to file an administrative appeal to disclose the information, you would still typically get the response that, according to their administrative appeal laws, your case is not valid either because you were not physically in the area where the environmental problem occurred, or because you are not a direct victim of that event. Some pollution problems are very local but others are not local at all. For instance, you cannot say that people who live in Beijing are not directly affected by dam building or major river projects, but we quite often still get that kind of rejection.
So the significance is that you, as an NGO, or you as a member of a civil society, still do not have a way to hold those government accountable for public finances or public projects. This is really bad for pollution control because you never know how much money the government has spent or whether the projects they invested in were effective or ineffective.
Zhai Yan: My understanding of civil society really came from a trip to the US more than 10 years ago. That is when I really started looking into the history of civil society, and up till now, 99 percent of Chinese still do not know what this means. To my understanding, the meaning of civil society has two layers. One is that of society as a whole. How is it constructed? Does it embody rule of law? And is it fair? Only if that is constructed well then we can actually start talking about things like democracy or public participation. For example, I used to give psychological assistance to criminals who had committed heavy crimes and at first I would think, these are bad people, and I have no way of really understanding them. But then I found that actually, the vast majority of them are very poor, received very little education and had very few opportunities in life. When I asked them why they had killed someone it was just because they had few choices in life. Another example is when I was studying in Hong Kong doing social work and we played this game where one person would be ignored and treated unfairly. When I was that person in this game, I found that I responded very emotionally. So I realized that if you do not have opportunities or equality, you cannot even start to talk about harmony.
The other level is the micro level. How do we as individuals serve voluntarily and participate in the construction of society? When I started this organization 10 years ago, I was told by a lot of people; scholars, politicians, everyone, that there are two things you cannot do under any conditions. One is to talk about politics and the other is doing anything related to religion. Just do what you have to do as an individual. In order to even talk about civil society we need that freedom and respect for each individual. We do not have that yet so I think that in China we cannot speak of civil society right now. As a citizen we do not have any political rights. We live in this world where we do not have the fundamental rights to live together in equality. But we do have people who want to build a better society together out of their own motivation and by working together in a legal environment. That is what is very important to China right now.
Liwei: Like Zhai Yan mentioned, I also agree that fairness is very important. In the United States, you can have a president from a rich family such as the Bush family, but also you can have a female president from the Clinton family, or a black president like Obama. In China, however, it would be very hard for a Uyghur to be president. Also, I think that civil society embodies independent freedom of thought. Right now, I think that in China we have a lot of freedom. For example there is a lot of karaoke and a lot of prostitutes in hotels. There is a lot of freedom in actions. But what we lack in China is freedom of thought. We have no independent thinking because our education system lets students follow and repeat existing answers. That is what Charitarian and I are doing. We are helping rural teachers have their own thoughts, and then what they will give the kids is an independent answer. Maybe they are wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Here in China, education is based on the idea that you must have the correct answer. You cannot have the wrong answer. So that is what is constraining our mind. I think we have to open and reform our mind, and then we can have action.
Zhai Yan: China has no intellectuals, at least no independent intellectuals. There is also nothing like an independent market or an independent spirit of entrepreneurs. Because everything is still very much controlled by the government, it is very important for members of civil society to start with ourselves and confidently understand our own thinking. That is really what is at the core of civil society.
Shawn: I think that equality, participation, public monitoring, public accountability, fairness, equal rights, and independent thinking are what all of you seem to use to describe civil society. My next couple of questions are about the future and looking toward the future of civil society. The Third Plenum in just came out in November and I think many people in the NGO sector were very happy about the Third Plenum because it stated that the reforms going on with NGO registration and other things in places like Guangdong, Shanghai, and Sichuan can go ahead. This made people say that the Third Plenum decision is a green light for the NGO sector, or that spring has come. One scholar even said that it is not just spring that has arrived, but summer! Would you agree with that? Are you also optimistic about this year being ‘springtime’ for NGOs?
Zhai Yan: We could speak of a sort of spring when we talk about social welfare and some basic care. The government is already purchasing services from NGOs that have relations with the government. When you talk about social service, sure, that is spring, but at the same time there is the impression that anything independent or anything grassroots is being brought into the government sphere and becoming controlled. So in that sense, when you talk about this form of independent society, you could even talk about winter. But we don’t really think winter has come. We recently had a meeting in which we received internal information and it looks as though things will not change. There will be no rapid turning point ahead in the next few years.
Li Bo: Environment is a field that, especially now, everyone is getting a sense of how bad it is. From working in this field for many years, I tend to think that an improvement in the environment will be extremely slow and the determination demonstrated by the government to improve has not been very effective. One of the reasons is that they do not allow environmental NGOs to stand up to challenge polluters or decision makers at many different levels. No matter how beautifully the 18th Party Congress puts it, or in the last National People’s Congress that has just been concluded, I am not holding my breath.
In the last couple of years, there are two different things that occurred, which made me realize why I should not hold my breath. One is from about two years ago when the Civil Law was being revised and an article was added to allow NGOs to file public interest lawsuits. The clause, or the article, however, became caught up in all sorts of debates over the definition of NGO and who is actually qualified to file a lawsuit. More interestingly, since last year, the Environmental Law have also been going through similar troubling discussions. In fact, I think the third draft has still yet to be improved. The most important reason is that NGOs felt angry about the fact that NGOs, by and large, are not qualified as a plaintiff in this amendment. Funny enough, in the second draft and third draft, they limited the qualified NGOs to one: the China Environment Federation [a government-run NGO]. So, for a country like China, a law is written only for one organization, which is ridiculous and I think there is still a long way to go. [Editor’s Note: The Environmental Law was eventually revised to open room for other NGOs to file lawsuits.] Probably one thing that I agree with is that we shouldn’t lose hope. I also believe things will get better but I think the cost of this process will be high and it will be long.
Liwei: In China there are two worlds. One world is full of Chinese officials. It is the government media’s China, or the rich Chinese people’s China. So if you look into these circles everything looks good. But then there is the other China, which is the Weibo China, or the Wechat China. It is the China full of restaurant people, taxi drivers, and NGOs. So what is spring, and to whom? There are a lot of complicated aspects, especially in the area of NGOs. Some areas will have springtime, such as education, health care, or poverty relief. Maybe the concept of volunteering is also becoming more popular. But for human rights and politics, I think that it is winter, and for the environment, it is in between. We cannot simply fight the situation because it is very complicated. We have to choose which NGO or which area we are in. Then we can see if you are in winter, summer, or spring, and it is only after that, that you will be able to know what kind of clothes you need in order to prepare for your season.
Shawn: Now I want to ask a question that is related to the last question. This is 2014, but the growth of civil society is a slow process. Is this because, the government does not trust independent NGOs? Is this a very basic lack of trust in NGOs? Or, is this because the government believes that NGOs, especially grassroots NGOs, do not have the capacity or are not professional enough. This is related to one of my questions about the change in the NGO sector. Now that we are seeing the NGO sector become more professional and more people are coming into the NGO sector from areas such as business, government or media, will this make the NGO sector more professional? Will it make the sector stronger? And finally, will it make it easier for the government to trust NGOs to do this kind of work that Libo was talking about, which is NGOs being able to file public interest lawsuits. Is the issue with the public interest lawsuit due to the fact that the government only believes the All-China Environment Federation? Does the government think that they are the only ones who have the professional capacity to carry out this kind of lawsuit? Or is it because they just don’t trust you guys?
Liwei: We believe that NGOs and civil society are very important. But I think that for the government, it is not that important. If you read the 18th Party Congress documents for China, the top priorities include economic development, political stability, the development of Chinese culture, which means maybe building some more Confucius schools outside of China, social development, and finally the environment. From this, we can see the five priorities. The first is the economy because the government believes that since the U.S. and Europe are strong and rich, they can criticize China, so China must be rich as well. Then, they will be able to criticize the U.S. and the UK for their human rights policies. The second priority, political development, does not mean there will be democracy or multiple parties. It means that we have to keep a one-party control. The third priority is culture. We always learn from Confucius books. I saw Confucius’ books in this bookshop. The fourth revolves around social development, which includes not only NGOs and foundations, but also religion. The government does not put these kinds of issues on their top agenda. They also have no time, resources or smart people to look at it carefully. They only choose one environmental association to deal with this because it is simpler. They do not want to spend time thinking or use up their brain energy on these social issues, so they just say that NGO work is irrelevant, but they still exist and make too much noise. The government believes that if they give them a piece of bread, they will shut up. That is why the government gives them work that they do not see as a top priority. They give the NGOs a piece of bread, not a whole loaf of bread, not even a half of a loaf.
I think that there are still trust issues because in order to build up trust you have to understand and know this area or this industry. You must be an expert. But in the government, there are not many experts on this subject. In order to cover these issues, you must be an expert on civil society, but you must also receive trust from the government. There are very few people who can actually meet these needs, and that is why they just choose one NGO. I think the fact that professional people or more media people are going to the NGOs and different foundations is a benefit, but it can also create some chaos.
Li Bo: I think I differ slightly from what Liwei just said. I actually believe the government has a reservoir for very smart people. If you just look at any recruitment of public servants, almost all of the bright university graduates first go to those opportunities. It is only now with this government’s anti-corruption crackdown that these smart graduates seem to express some disdain for government jobs. The problem is that it is a centralized government that is not used to being criticized from anybody else. They can criticize internally but nobody from the outside can criticize or challenge them. I think this is universal for all one-party regimes. It has little to do with professionalism. When there is a problem, no matter whether people put it harshly or professionally with figures and data, it is up to you to absorb that and come up with a new solution. Chinese government is hosting probably one of the biggest armies of technicians, and for so many years they have had so many smart and technically know-how people.
But I agree with the earlier conclusion that a lot of those experts or intellectuals do not have the independent space to express what they really believe. That is how a lot of projects have been pushed through, even if the environmental impact assessment is wrong. The environmental impact assessment is made to support the project of political will and is not based on scientific findings or real, feasibility, scientific studies. Chinese NGOs, no matter in what field, need to become more professional. We should not make professionalism more important than independent positions in order to express our views. I have noticed in the last couple of years that a lot of Chinese entrepreneurial foundations or quasi-NGOs tend to speak of professionalism too much. It is so dangerous for people to become so caught up in becoming professional that they end up with no confidence to speak out when there is a problem, especially when they do not have data. And if they say something even though they do not have data, they will be categorized as a lousy NGO.
Liwei: You said that there are good people in the government, which is right. The smart people will pass the examination to join the Chinese government, but after they join the government they will change. They will become stupid. Before they joined the government they were really smart but that is the situation because even if there are smart people in a very stupid system, you will be become stupid, and if you are a stupid person but in a smart system, you will become smart. So I think the system is very important. There are not very smart people in a stupid system.
Zhai Yan: I would like to add a sentence. Having a professional organization is very important and you really need this in order to satisfy the increase in demands the public has of us. I often compare professionals with volunteers and I’m finding that it is not just skill, but how you translate your skill into empathy and into showing that you care. That is real professionalism.
Shawn: I think that these points about independence are really important. Especially when Zhai Yan was talking about how right now, the government is preparing a big initiative to carry out government contracting of services to social organizations and there is a lot of money that’s going to go into the system as a result. I think Zhai Yan said that she is really skeptical about how this money is being used because it is all happening in a black box and we do not know exactly if this money is being used effectively or if it is going into someone’s pockets. So I think that is another reason to have independent monitoring. You guys have been so patient and I want to let you guys ask some questions, but I just have one more question that I have been dying to ask. I feel like I can ask this question because these people are my 老朋友 (old friends). I hope this question does not offend you. Do you think that Chinese NGOs are too timid? Some people criticize NGOs because they say that NGOs do not do enough to promote, to advocate, to try and change policies, to try and push for more public participation or for more social movements. Chinese NGOs are just doing服务, or community service. Do you think Chinese NGOs are too timid, too careful in their work?
Zhai Yan: We talk with up to thousands of NGO staff every year and it is probably because of how political the basic education system is. They do not have this drive for advocacy. They do not have this consciousness. They only think about service right now, so it all really starts with education. China has enough laws and regulations. I used to make recommendations and give advice on policy. But what effect does it have?
Liwei: I am an NGO member so you think that I should be brave. I think Chinese NGOs are already very brave. Look at the past twenty years. They have survived and existed. They have already shown that they are strong and are not timid. But, we should have a different way of talking about policy and advocacy. However, the purpose should be the same. To steal Obama’s word, the purpose should be ‘change’. China still needs to change. But how do we do that? Different NGOs or different people can do different things. Zhai Yan can do her part, Li Bo can do his part, and I can do my part. But we should have one goal, which is to change and improve our standard for civil society.
I agree with Zhai Yan that we must start from education. If people know things, you will not have to tell them what to do and they will know how to choose. The only problem is that in China, we only understand that we need food and an apartment. That is why apartments are so expensive because then Chinese people have to work more, which gives them no time to think about civil society. Why is it that in the U.S. and the UK you have so many demonstrations? It is because they have too much time. The government makes Chinese people want to make money. I think that is a good policy for the Chinese government because once you have some money, then you have to pay for education. You have to pay for health care. You have to pay for the apartment. So you never have time to sit down and think or read a book.
But I think for us NGOs, what we can do is we can give opportunities for the Chinese people in terms of education and independent thinking. Then we can let them know how to do it and make them understand that NGO members cannot be the leaders. People should be their own leaders. Chinese people always want a leader, but I think they have to learn that they are their own leaders. They should decide what their future is. For Chinese people, their future is always made by their leader and that is not right. If we know our future is in our own hands, then we will know what to do with it. I think NGO work should do the basic groundwork, and then when the time is right, everything will come into place. We should follow the Chinese philosophy that the right thing should happen at the right time. So in the end, timing is a big issue.
Li Bo: I agree with you on that. About two years ago I had a volunteer who came from Taiwan. He is a very seasoned activist in Taiwan. We had a lot of conversations about what happened in Taiwan and I still vividly remember one thing he said to me. He said that when the Guomingdang collapsed, there was a period of a sort of government coma when nobody knew who was responsible for what. Everyone felt like an orphan because nobody was in charge of anything. That period, according to this friend of mine, was extremely important for Taiwanese society because it was during this time that many self help groups formed on the corner of every street in places like tea houses. People came together to discuss what they should do.
I think that China, however, does not have an answer. Over time, either people will mature or there will be a bloody fight, and I can see how social instability could seriously happen. I tend to think we need to take time and we need some form of what the Taiwanese people have experienced. In Burma, for example, when there was a lot of control in the media, and then all of sudden, everything loosened up. However, you can see that they need time and they need to learn. It is very difficult thing to say, but what I strongly feel that people in this country need to take a lot more initiative in what they are doing in terms of trying to make a living, which is already very overbearing. Our political system will not change in one day. In fact, if China’s political system suddenly changed tomorrow, it would actually create a lot of chaos.
Shawn: Thank you. Alright, so now I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience. We will take three questions at a time and then ask our panel to respond to them.
Question #1: I wanted to talk about the problem of funding. I guess it depends on which field you are working in, but there has been a shrinking of international funding in China, generally speaking. I wonder if you suffer from that and if you see Chinese people or Chinese companies filling the gap or been interested in approaching you in any way. And what do you do to fund your work?
Question #2: My question is related to media. What it is the role of the social media and mainstream media in terms of increasing the respect for NGO work here in China?
Question #3: My question is a bit of a practical question because I guess if you work in the civil society sector, sometimes you might touch on grey areas where you are not one-hundred percent sure whether it is ok or whether it goes a bit too far. I mean obviously there are instances where NGOs have been closed down or activists are put in jail. Do you think that beforehand, they usually receive feedback and signs of stepping back so they are able to see what is coming?
Zhai Yan: These are all questions we often run into. As for the funding one, when the international funding started to dry up a little bit, a lot of grassroots organizations in China died, especially in remote areas. We still get most of our funding from either international organizations or from national contracting. Especially from company foundations and private foundations.
As for the question about grey area, we are an organization that is followed by the security bureau and they often get in touch with us even before we put out something new. They will give me a call and they’ll actually have a chat with me. So it is a good way of knowing where the red line is. As for he second point, we are now also doing a lot of policy research. At first we did not understand this, but now we know that we need a lot of expert advice. For example, from lawyers or from companies, to tell us how we can prevent anything negative from happening. As a Beijing based NGO, we cannot go to other areas in order organize anything. So now I know that we first let a local NGO organize, and then we follow them. This way, we prevent a lot of problems and this is very necessary for Chinese NGOs right now. We do not want to do anything illegal, but we often happen to do so without knowing. So it is very important to do as much research as we can in advance.
Liwei: Regarding funding, we know that if there is no money, there is no work. I feel a little bit sad that international NGOs have stopped answering Chinese NGOs because they think China is rich and that the Chinese government is rich, so they do not need to sponsor their NGOs. The Chinese government is rich, but they do not give their money to NGOs and instead they use their money to send spaceships to space. But of course, in the long term, Chinese NGOs should be self-supported. I think NGOs will get money from the government if they are lucky or if they have a good relationship with the government, but NGOs usually get their fundraising from friends. For Charitarian, we are sponsored by private friends who trust us and know what we are doing is legitimate.
For the grey area, I think you need practice. There are a lot of grey areas and the law cannot explain everything, so you need practice and experience. But of course the red line and the bottom line exists. Supporting the independence of Tibet or Xinjiang, for example, is the bottom line and you cannot get involved in that. There are a lot of other things that are in between. So in the end, you need experience, practice and also a good reputation. I do not think the police can look after all of the NGOs. They just pick some NGOs and then if you do your work, let them feel that you are not doing sensitive work and if you do not give them too many headaches, then maybe they will let you do your work within their tolerance. It does not have to be permitted or legal, but something they can tolerate. The space of tolerance is very big.
I also think that social media is very important and we can see that there is a lot of fundraising done by the social media. Information in social media travels very fast, and it can reach millions of people right away. Unfortunately, in China we do not have Facebook or Twitter, but we have Renren and Weibo. So we should increase our use of social media and use it more intelligently in order to successfully promote our products with pictures, and let people know what we are doing.
Li Bo: I think my two colleagues here have addressed the foreign funding question very well. Regarding media, I strongly believe that social media is a very important part of Chinese people’s lives now. I have personally seen a lot of cases, particularly with people who work in isolated areas. One good thing about China is that you cannot really find a place that does not have telephone signal, so that means everyone can share information. I have seen my friends who are part of different media sources and NGOs who found themselves in a very serious situation in regards to pollution. They were in an isolated site and ambushed by polluters. However, they were able to save themselves by sending information out very quickly. There is almost an unwritten strategy when NGOs go into dangerous situations, they learn how to relay information to other people ahead of time.
For the third question regarding the grey area, I think that through my experiences there are two kinds of grey areas. One concerns officials who’s hearts are in the right place and who share information with us, especially when there is an investment project facing some kind of situation. I would not say there are a lot of them but there are some that share quite important information with us in terms of how to push an issue. The second is public security as information collection technology today is so advanced. I would not be surprised if today, here in this room, what we discussed is being shared somewhere else because this has been my experience. For me, I like to take every opportunity talking to public security upon their request and use this opportunity to educate them.
I do have one experience which I thought I was very successful. For a long time these two public security people talked to me quite frequently. I always talked about environmental decision-making not being transparent, which has resulted in pollution or huge social costs to local people that has damaged the social harmony of the society. Normally, these public security people do not comment and just listen and take notes. So for a long time, I did not know what they thought until one day, after I told them that I was working on a report on Chinese rivers and dam issues, one of the public security agents sent me a report by BBC which was about WWF’s recent report on the critically endangered Yangtze river system at the beginning of this year. After he sent this BBC report to me, he asked if it would be interesting to me. And I said “Yes, of course. I actually read the WWF report and I believe that this is the situation.” However, there was no response. Then I asked him why his colleague did not come the last time we met. He answered and said that she had stomach cancer. Then he said that what I said is probably true. That environmental pollution is a serious problem and even though he could not say for sure that her stomach cancer was a direct result of pollution, it was probably related. This shows that these opportunities we have talking to public security allows us to understand what they do or what they think, and you realize that they also have a human side.
Question #4: What is your relationship, not personally, but as organizations with the commercial, business world. Not just with fundraising but also with credibility, protection for you, and the public security bureau coming to visit you. Our observations have been that philanthropy is a part of a very elite level and most famous Chinese philanthropists are not really interested, or do not even know and do not trust the grassroots or independent NGOs. I’d like to hear your experience with this.
Question #5: My question relates to the public’s trust of NGOs, which as far as I can see, remains fairly low. What I wanted to ask specifically is if that is a problem for your individual organizations or for the sector as a whole. And if so, what is your role as practitioners in addressing that issue? Or in other words, what can you do practically to raise public trust of the sector and NGOs.
Question #7: I think in a way, my question overlaps with the other two, very briefly. The experience in Eastern Europe when the totalitarian regimes eased up was that a horrifying proportion, something like 75% of the NGOs turned out to be completely dishonest and crooked. These were just businessmen who set up NGOs and stole all of the money. How can you be confident that the same will not happen in China?
Shawn: This is a question about the reliability and corruption within the NGOs. How many NGOs are set up to just make money?
Liwei: This is a difficult question for me. I think trust is important in every type of business. If we look at NGO work, it is still a business. So anything that happens to large industries can also happen to NGOs. This means that while there are financial crises for investment banks there are also crises and trust issues for big foundations or big NGOs. So we should not be surprised. Also we discussed the case about NGOs like the Angel Foundation started by the actor and actress, Li Yapeng and Wang Fei. NGO work is quite young, so there will be some problems and mistakes and we should be tolerant. But we should also not make excuses for ourselves. That is why we need supervision from the public, the media and the government. But the government doesn’t know how to supervise and they want to get money from corrupt foundations. They want another way to participate in corruption from big foundations. I think for all three of us, our organizations are not at that stage of corruption because we are still so poor. We do not have enough money to become corrupted but we still have to be careful. In Charitarian, when we have programs for rural teacher training, we invite our sponsors so they can see what we are doing and how much we are spending.
But also I think we cannot be too critical with NGOs. A lot of people think that NGO people should not have a reasonable salary, which is wrong because it is still a job. Of course we have compassion but also we need food and we need to be paid decently. People who work for international NGOs in China have good pay, but Chinese NGOs’ pay is very low. We see corruption in government NGOs because they have enough money. This question is targeted at the wrong group of people. You have to talk to Red Cross, China Youth Development Foundation or China Children Foundation because they are so big, so they are the ones that have to be careful. But for grassroots NGOs, I suggest that their salaries be increased. They should get a decent salary so the smart and capable people can work in NGOs. Otherwise only volunteers or retired people apply for the job which they cannot do very well. Also I think the relationship between NGOs and the companies is very important. Companies have CSR departments to sponsor the NGOs and to encourage working together, which I think is very good.
Zhai Yan: Very good questions. On this issue of public trust, actually it’s basically zero, which is very low but that makes sense because we always operated underground so the government would not see us, but that also meant that the public could not see us. The public still does not recognize us and even now that we are slowly moving a up a little bit, we are still used to keeping it very low key because showing off still does not work very well. Even now, of course we very much welcome donations and government contracting money, so we are trying to be more visible and transparent, and use legal means to carry out our work. But for now, over 90 percent of NGOs still rely on themselves and this is the phase we are in right now.
As for our relationship with businesses, we are linked up with companies and this is not just about money. One resource that companies offer is people with expertise who can provide professional training. NGOs really need to learn from the market, from companies about openness, competition and building professional capacity. NGOs really need the support of the private sector . So cross-sector collaboration with the business sector is really essential to building a strong civil society.
As for corruption, that is a legitimate concern because we already see many companies and businesspeople coming into the philanthropy sector. One reason is because government providing preferential policies like tax breaks and lots of government contracting money for NGOs. So businesspeople are taking advantage of this to set up their own NGOs and getting government money because they enjoy good relations with government departments. We have been seeing a lot of things like this happen. These people who entered civil society because of money rather than ideals might very well turn out to be crooks too.
Shawn: I think Zhai Yan also said that with the all the government contracting because of the tax exemptions and this government contracting, that businessmen might be more interested in getting into this area. I just wanted to say on the question on corruption that it is obviously connected to public trust. It is really strange that NGOs in China. One of the reasons being, even though there are certainly problems with corruption but it is not just because of NGOs but also because of the system. It is because there is no good regulatory system to regulate NGOs in China. In the U.S. there is a very clear system for registering NGOs. Here, a lot of NGOs, especially the grassroots ones, are not registered. So it is a very strange system. The security controls in China on NGOs are very good. But the regulations and supervisions of NGO finances are very lax and sometimes just not there. This is a system that does not help promote healthy development of Chinese NGO civil society. I think that is something that has to be put on the backs of government. The government has to do something to change the situation and to improve the regulatory system of NGOs in China, and of non-profits.
We’ve now come to the end of this forum. I’d like to thank all of you for coming and participating, and to thank the Bookworm for providing us the space to discuss these important issues.
(Transcription by Joanna Shieh, edited by Shawn Shieh)