International conference in Beijing hails emergence of Chinese NGOs

The emergence of Chinese NGOs under the umbrella of a powerful state does not fit the popular Western view of ‘civil society’. Yet the very fact that a conference on the Chinese non-profit sector took place in Beijing with diverse international participation is in itself an indication of significant change – and the popular Western paradigm may be too idealized.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, NGOs became the darlings of the international development community. Heavily supported and in some cases created by international donors to deliver services in a broad range of social and economic development fields, NGOs were widely believed – on minimal evidence – to be more innovative, less corrupt, less bureaucratic, more cost-effective and generally more reliable than governments in the delivery of those services.

In addition, many pioneering Asian NGOs were led by charismatic, mostly Western-educated, leaders who commanded wide respect among international donors. They were readily adopted by the donors as living proof of the superiority of private voluntary action over the encrusted bureaucracies of Asian governments.

From the early 1980s, changes in Central and Eastern Europe endowed NGOs with yet another powerful myth, especially those such as Solidarity in Poland that were in the forefront of democratic change. The term ‘civil society’ was resurrected and embellished to refer to the many new and usually unregistered organizations — literary societies, church groups, community organizations, farmers cooperatives, mutual aid societies, environmental conservation groups and trade unions — that become vehicles for ordinary people to assert their independence, express their hopes, and stand in opposition to the governing regimes.

The Western paradigm of civil society

The most common use of the term ‘civil society’ today reflects these two recent trends. The term is used to refer to voluntary associations and citizens’ groups working to create political space in which citizens can exercise their rights to free association and expression, to independent service providers in such fields as health, education, culture, the arts and social welfare, and to advocacy organizations in such fields as women’s and children’s rights and environmental protection.

The paradigm is further underpinned by what Lester Salamon has called ‘the myth of pure voluntarism’, the erroneous assumption that American and European non-profits are totally independent of government and derive most of their funding from charitable contributions.

However, as the Johns Hopkins study has documented for many countries, most Western NGOs actually derive most of their financial support from government grants and contracts, and for some a significant portion comes from earned income. Indeed, much of the recent literature on NGO–government relations in the West and elsewhere describes a much more complex interplay of state dominance and NGO autonomy.[1] Moreover, what is the proper weight to be assigned to NGO autonomy within the increasingly loud chorus of calls for ‘partnership’ between the state, corporations and non-profits all over the globe?

The dominant but overly simplistic ‘civil society’ paradigm, under which autonomous and often oppositional NGOs lead the charge towards more democratic societies, is a real obstacle to understanding the context in which non-profit organizations are emerging in China today.
The Chinese model

The rapid emergence since 1989 of Chinese NGOs (usually referred to as ‘social organizations’ in Chinese) is a direct consequence of profound state-initiated political and economic changes that are taking place under the policy of ‘opening and reform’. Many of China’s leading ‘NGOs’ were created by government bodies as part of the reform process, including the China Youth Development Foundation (created by the Communist Youth League in 1989), the China Charities Federation (created by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 1994) and the Family Planning Association of China (created by the State Family Planning Commission in the mid-1980s).

China’s leaders recognize both that maintaining China’s economic growth is essential to the continued legitimacy of the Party/State and that the role of the non-state sector must expand to ensure continued growth. President Jiang Zemin’s speech to the Fifteenth Communist Party Congress in September 1997 specifically recognized the need to ‘cultivate and develop’ more ‘social intermediary organizations’. Six months later, Premier Zhu Rongji told the Ninth National People’s Congress that China’s continued economic growth required massive restructuring and downsizing of the state bureaucracy, finding alternative employment for several hundred thousand state functionaries, and turning more state functions over to society – all three needs to be addressed in part by the expansion of social intermediary organizations.

In October 1998, the State Council issued new regulations on the registration and management of social organizations, replacing those that had been in place since October 1989. While more restrictive than many NGO advocates had hoped, some Chinese NGO leaders nevertheless viewed the new regulations as conferring a greater degree of formal legitimacy and official recognition on the sector as a whole.[2]

The Beijing conference

The International Conference in Beijing in July 1999, the first of its kind ever held in China, may be viewed as a further step towards the official promotion of social organizations as partners in China’s economic development.[3] The candour with which different perspectives on the current nature of the non-profit sector in China were discussed, and the wide range of international delegates invited to participate, were remarkable. The 131 participants included 43 representatives of international NGOs, universities, foundations and ODA agencies.

The central message delivered by the principal Chinese speakers at the conference was that the emergence and most likely future course of Chinese NGOs cannot be properly understood within the Western paradigm described above. They were hopeful, however, that previously strict state control will loosen, enabling NGOs to gradually exercise more autonomy and creativity within limits set by the Chinese State.

GONGOs on their way out?

Professor Zhao LiQing, research director of the new Tsinghua NGO Centre, pointed to a growing list of social and human welfare fields in which NGOs are able to contribute to China’s development. But that was not all. In addition to the provision of social services, he suggested, China’s emerging non-profits can ‘also mobilize, organize and support citizens to participate in social and economic development, facilitate government restructuring and the changing of its functions, advance the reform of state-owned enterprises, bring about the formation of a new ethical system compatible with the market economy, and finally, but not least, promote political democracy’. To realize these ambitious goals, social organizations must be separated from the government system step by step, ‘to enable them to become real non-profits which sink their roots deeply into civil society and are governed in accordance with democratic principles’.

The noted reformer Yan Mingfu, former Vice Minister of Civil Affairs and currently President of the China Charities Federation, argued that it is ‘natural’ that the State is still dominant since China is still in transition from a planned economy, but he stressed that China’s reforms are ‘irreversible’ and will necessarily require further devolution of state functions to progressively more autonomous NGOs. By the year 2004, he predicted, ‘there will be no more GONGOs’ (government-organized NGOs).[4]

Barnett F Baron is Executive Vice President, The Asia Foundation, and Co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium. He can be contacted at

The International Conference on the Nonprofit Sector and Development held at Tsinghua University, Beijing, on 26–28 July was co-sponsored by the new NGO Research Centre at Tsinghua University and the Asia Foundation, with planning and financial support from the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium.

1  On the US see, for example, Elizabeth Boris and Eugene Steuerle (1999) Nonprofits and Government: Collaboration and conflict Urban Institute Press, USA. For a global perspective, see David Hulme and Michael Edwards (eds) (1997) NGOs, States and Donors: Too close for comfort St Martins Press.

The debate over the interpretation of the new regulations appears to be more heated among foreign observers than within China. For a balanced review of the new regulations and how some Chinese NGOs view them, see Chinabrief (Feb 1999), ‘New rules for the non-profit sector’.

3  The banning of the Falun Gong exercise and meditation sect just four days before the conference opened illustrates the shifting limits of organizational autonomy. While Falun Gong’s spokespersons described their members as non-political, middle-aged and elderly practitioners of a form of Chinese exercise, the government declared them to be purveyors of evil, superstition and fraud, and ultimately a threat to state security.

Until the conference report is available later this year, see the interview with Yan Mingfu in Chinabrief (Aug–Nov 1999), ‘NGOs are an inevitable trend of the times’.

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