China’s NGO Sector: Reality or Illusion?

04 Nov, 2013    ·   4163

Namrata Hasija analyses the role of NGOs in China and their areas of impact

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer

Post the reform era in 1978, the NGO sector in China mushroomed greatly. According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Civil Society, the number of NGOs rose from 6,000 before 1978, to 186,000 by 2006. Private NGOs that had previously been absent in China before 1978 also came into existence. In 2006, there were around 159,000 private NGOs in the country.

What aspects of Chinese law are stemming the independent growth of NGOs in China? What is the role of NGOs in China? What impact have they had on Chinese society? What has this impact been on?

NGOs are officially called ‘popular organisations’ in China. There are two broad categories under which the NGOs are divided in China i.e. officially organised, and popular NGOs. The first category are initiated and operated by the Chinese government. The staff is mostly on government payroll. Popular NGOs are initiated by private individuals and they receive no subsidies from the government.

According to its internal policies, the Civil Affairs department does not approve applications from any ‘specific social group’ like migrant workers, laid off workers, ex-servicemen, religious groups and so on. This clause is in place in order to safeguard the Chinese government from the formation of any political, social or religious organisation in the guise of a NGO that that may lead to a movement challenging the party or the state. Apart from this, the government also does not want any NGO to grow in size and infrastructure that will allow it to have networks all over the country. This would help in avoiding a movement in one part of the country to have an impact elsewhere. Thus a clause restricts the NGOs from opening regional branches i.e. national NGOs are restricted to Beijing, and provincial and county level NGOs are restricted to provincial capitals or county seats. This has curtailed their growth potential. The third controversial clause is restricting new NGOs from opening if there is already a NGO doing similar work in the same administrative area. Thus, if there is an official NGO working for the welfare of disabled persons, a popular NGO cannot work for the same cause in that area.

These clauses not only restrict their growth but also limit their resources. Thus, popular NGOs have to look to the government for support. This in turn means collaborating with government agencies for projects and relying on government administrative networks to implement projects. The heavy dependency on the government hinders their work and also restricts their direction of work which does not go beyond the interests and values of the government. This also reflects the attitude of the NGOs who feel that officials and government policies are more important than the citizens that they are actually working for.

Sectors most impacted by NGOs in China
Due to these clauses, a very strong NGO sector in China has not developed. The Chinese government initiated this sector to share its growing social responsibility. It wanted NGOs to share and provide for China’s social sector. In recent years, Chinese NGOs have impacted certain sectors like natural resource management, protection of environmental rights, public advocacy and education etc. Moreover, since 2007, they have endeavoured to make an impact in a more challenging and promising area - China’s clean energy policy. The working of these NGOs is closely entwined with the government and therefore most of their work has been on ‘softer issues’ related to environment. For example, Friends of Nature works with environmental education, mainly in elementary schools. In addition, the NGO sponsors wildlife conservation campaigns, with a special focus on the Tibetan antelope.

Pesticide Eco-Alternative Centre (PEAC) provides training and information on pesticide issues and ecological alternatives to pesticides, consumer advocacy, gender equity, and indigenous pest reduction practices. NGOs like this educate farmers who in their haste to produce more do not pay heed to the ill effects of pesticides. By imparting education, this NGO has provided an alternative to the government in Kunming by reducing chemical farming and engaging the farmers in organic farming.

Certain NGOs have taken up women issues although they cannot touch issues like forced abortions and the one child policy. They are however educating women on domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, and counselling rural women to control the growing suicides among them.

Although NGOs in China are so heavily dependent on party funds and are expected to toe the party line, they have impacted many sectors of Chinese society to a greater extent under this control. With growing international pressure on China to commit to a clean environment, the NGOs working on this issue have greatly impacted society.