The following post is Part 2 of a guest blog by Ryan Etzcorn a Fulbright Research Fellow (2018-2019) and a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies (MPP & MA).
Leaning on hub-style organizations to bridge the gaps: the theme of cross-sector coordination
If the attitudes and goals regarding hub-style organizations are sorted into themes, cross-sector coordination is the first. Hub-style organizations have become a dominant force in the region’s discussion on future public welfare provision, and they bring with them a determination to scramble the boundaries between enterprise, government, and nonprofit activity in hopes for better integration and efficiency. In some ways, the core ideas behind this drive for intersectoral coordination resemble the “collective impact” wave in the U.S. in the early 2010’s, when leaders across sectors experimented with long-term, coordinated social solutions to some of their communities’ most intractable problems.But collective impact in the U.S. has since come under fire for (among other things) too often failing to provide a central “backbone” authority able to bridge differences among institutional partners.
Social service leaders in Guangzhou and Shenzhen wonder less about who will coordinate a new and multisectoral harmonious society -- that’s clearly the Party's job. Despite the major differences between these cities, all agreed that “hub-style organizations” at the intermediary level are becoming the indispensable “bridge and belt” of a new era in Party-led cross-sector social welfare provision.
“Building capacity” for the nonprofit sector
The second dominant theme emerging in my interviews is a fixation on the role of hubs in “building capacity” for social organizations. This term has also long been a fixture in western debate and seems to take on new meaning in the Chinese context. Several SO leaders I talked to expressed suspicions that “building capacity” was a red herring for preparing SO to take on top-down government purchasing projects, but others working with hubs also occasionally emphasized the necessity of promoting resource diversification among social organizations.
Each interview with the leaders or staff in hub-style organizations expressed a desire to build genuine links between community members and institutions and to build a healthy social sector. During several of these same interviews, my counterparts even expressed an expectation that their hub would be granted more autonomy in their daily affairs once the MoCA and other government ministries had determined that fledgling hubs could graduate from a “development phase”, though it was unclear when that day might come. On the other hand, hub-style organizations in Shenzhen and Guangzhou invariably envisioned a future where social organizations were either contracting from the government or providing social services to supplement state goals.
Exchanging capacity for loyalty at China’s new hubs
To many in both these cities, there is no smooth bullet train to a future with secure resources, but a clear emphasis on government contracting persists among social organizations, hub-style organizations, and government officials. For many social organizations in Guangzhou, the struggle for revenue diversity may look especially bleak. MoCA in Guangzhou has so far constructed a much more centralized and “systematic” approach to building social organization capacity through hub organizations, with selective support flowing down each administrative level starting from the municipal MoCA. In response to a MoCA directive to set up ten social organizations in every community (shequ) by the end of the year, one social organization leader said he saw this as hopeless due to the immense difficulty of finding enough competent and experienced professionals to staff new organizations in an industry notorious for weak remuneration.
In the view of the government-led hub-style organizations, the cure for civil society’s stunted growth lies less with easier registration requirements, open fundraising channels, or clearer tax incentives for charitable donations, and more with a constant drumbeat for professionalization. When it comes to administrative capacity, they may have a point. social organization leaders I spoke with complained of an explosion in paperwork over the last two years, especially if an organization was so foolish as to seek status as a “charitable organization.” Unfortunately, efficiency gains for government ministries captured by outsourcing administrative functions to hubs may be accelerating the administrative burden for grassroots groups as these intermediary organizations grow into a “second government.”
In many ways, intermediary organizations play a vital role in civil societies across the world, but as my interviews have so far suggested, active discrimination by hub-style organizations plays a growing role in determining which versions of civil society are connected to critical revenue lifelines. In Guangdong’s resource-strapped social sector, hubs offer a rare lifeline to “incubate” Party-friendly social organizations and “hatch” them out into society for greater roles in social welfare provision, but as the incubation kitchens reach capacity, they also double as a means for local governments to exclusively “kai xiao zao” (to open a special oven or grant preferential treatment) in the name of stability maintenance. It remains to be seen how well these southern hatchlings will earn public trust, provide effective services, and bear witness to society’s structural challenges.
This blog is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed in this blogpost are entirely Ryan’s and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.