DEVELOPMENT: Grassroots Groups Taking Root in China

  • by Tom Spender (beijing)
  • Inter Press Service

Their swift reaction to the devastating earthquake that struck south-western Sichuan province in May 2008, killing about 68,000 people, saw grassroots non-government organisations (NGOs) improve their image among Communist Party officials and the wider public, said Shawn Shieh, co-editor of a book on Chinese NGOs entitled ‘State and society responses to social needs in China’.

Meanwhile, new regulations have encouraged charitable foundations as part of China's drive for a 'harmonious society', according to Xu Yongguang, vice chairman of the Narada Foundation that aims to foster civil society in China.

'Social harmony has emerged as a buzzword in China and the importance of civil society to that has led the government to take a cautiously supportive view of NGOs,' said Xu.

Xu was speaking at a press event in Beijing in late February that cast the spotlight on the increasing debate among Chinese policymakers, academics and the NGO community about the need to liberalise the regulations governing NGOs in the country.

The aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake revealed the structural challenges faced by Chinese NGOs, which find it difficult to register officially, and the need for foundations to offer greater transparency and accountability to donors, Shieh and Xu said.

Some 204 grassroots NGOs responded to the Sichuan earthquake, with 36 arriving the day after it struck. They were active in fields such as the environment, HIV and AIDS, rights protection and education. Almost 100 travelled from Beijing, about 20 from Sichuan and about 10 each from Shaanxi and Shanghai, according to academics who surveyed them.

'The earthquake energised Chinese NGOs. It was a watershed moment and through their actions and networking, we can discern the outline of a Chinese civil society that is increasingly independent of the government,' said Shieh.

'It was astonishing to see how much networking there was,' he added.

The NGOs worked together with Chinese ‘government-organised non- governmental organisations’, or GONGOs, and mass organisations, such as the Women's Federation.

'Local governments were devastated, officials had died and they were looking for any assistance they could find. There was a willingness to work with NGOs and this really improved their image in the eyes of officials,' said Shieh.

Increased activity among grassroots organisations in China is reflected in the soaring donations to charitable causes from the Chinese public and the launch of big charitable foundations by wealthy tycoons.

The year 2008 saw 100 billion RMB (14.7 billion U.S. dollars) in donations, with the earthquake accounting for 76 billion RMB (11.1 billion dollars), up from 31 billion RMB (4.5 billion) in 2007, 10 billion RMB (1.46 billion dollars) in 2006 and 3 billion RMB (439.4 million) in 2005, Shieh said. The vast majority of these donations went to the government or to GONGOs, he added. Alongside the donations, private companies and individuals have registered 846 private foundations since 2004, when the Chinese government published a legal document that set the stage for such foundations, Xu said. In fact, almost as many as the 991 government-run public foundations developed over the past 30 years, he added.

'The rapid increase in personal wealth in China is leading to the emergence of massive privately-funded foundations,' Xu said.

Among them are the Heren and the Xinhua Du foundations, launched in 2009 by two wealthy Fujianese with donations of 4 billion RMB (585.87 million dollars) and 8.3 billion RMB (1.2 billion dollars) in stock respectively.

'Over the past 30 years, China's economic development has shocked the world. In the coming 30 years, the development of private foundations will see the same meteoric rise. The United States may be number one but China is definitely going to be number two,' said Xu.

Private foundations will allow for 'more reasonable' distribution of donated money, Xu said, some of which currently ends up in government coffers rather than reaching those in need, which in turn hinders the growth of civil philanthropy. They will also bring more professional administration of the charitable sector by hiring experienced managers on good salaries.

Yet there is still a long way to go, with China's non-governmental sector accounting for just 0.3 percent of the sector worldwide, and given concerns over governance and transparency.

In January this year, 30 public and private foundations set up the China Foundation Centre, which aims to raise standards among foundations.

'Foundations are important for China's civil society at large so we need to avoid making a big mess out of it,' said Xu.

Things are more difficult for grassroots NGOs, who still find it difficult to register with the authorities, which means they cannot set up bank accounts and receive donations. They have to be particularly careful with money because the government has used funding issues as grounds to close them down, Shieh said.

Many of the NGOs lack expertise. Some of the NGOs arriving in Sichuan after the quake did not have a plan for how they were going to help victims and ended up withdrawing, Shieh said. Most Chinese are not aware of what NGOs are, he added.

'Things aren't rosy,' he said.

Chinese NGOs and foundations are also unlikely to take on what are described as 'sensitive' issues in Chinese society, such as the migrant workers' rights. There are more than 200 million migrant workers in China, who move to the Pearl River delta to work in factories and to ‘tier one’ cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to work on construction sites.

Despite making up a significant chunk of China's population, they have little access to services and are vulnerable to exploitation because they are not allowed to form unions, according to Hong Zhang, a researcher with Colby College in the United States.

'Chinese people know that rights will cause trouble and so are more likely to donate to causes where things are likely to get done,' said Xu.

Instead, the NGOs support migrant workers in different ways, such as helping with their children's education.

'We address rights in a circumspect way that is acceptable to both the people and the government,' said Xu.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service