Sunday, November 14, 2010

Global Village's LOHO Community project in Sichuan -- excerpts from a volunteer's blog

Below I've posted some excerpts of a blog written by my son, Simon and his friend, Wen who are volunteering at the LOHO Community project started by one of China's earliest and best-known environmental NGOs, Global Village. I've written about this project in some previous posts.

The entries below were posted October 17, 2010 on their blog which can be accessed at

We arrived at Da Ping Mountain on Wednesday, October 13th. Da Ping Mountain is located in SiChuan, two hours west of ChengDu.

It is very different from the city life style that we led in Beijing. The toilets are squatty potties, and showers are taken right outside the cubicles. -.- The food is good. (: So far we have been eating the same dishes, fresh vegetables cooked in various ways along with rice. These plain dishes contrast with the oily, MSG-filled food in Beijing, which turns out to be a nice healthy change of diet.

Day 1:

We were woken up by the hustling and bustling of the other volunteers - preparing breakfast for the sleepyheads. Walking out of our dorms to the smell of man tou's and fresh clean air (unlike Beijing's polluted weather), we were prepared for whatever the villagers had planned for us. We were also greeted by an American volunteer called Ted that had been at Da Ping Mountain for a week. After a filling and warm-welcomed breakfast, a retired volunteer called Lu Lao Shi guided us down to a field (what was it called??) to pick yams (called shan yao zi in Chinese). These yams are not what you think, as to my surprise, they were pea-sized yams. Crawling on our knees in the muddy earth and picking pea-sized yams was definitely a first. On top of that, dodging massive spider webs that would appear out of nowhere at eye-level was also on our minds (I saved my friend from a huge spider web). After doing that for the whole morning, Ted, Simon and I carried three bags full of yams back to the village (a bag per person... but of course Ted - with experience - had the fullest bag).

When we arrived at the village, lunch was served. Man, we were hungry from picking all 'em yams. After lunch, we had an opportunity to use our free time however we wished; we used that time to read, play solataire on our iPods, wander around and enjoy the scenery and natural environment. Then we had dinner and went to sleep.

Day 2:

Today Wang Pan (the station director) went with Ted and some others to the city at the bottom of the mountain, Tongji, so Wen and I slept in until 9 am. and decided we should probably wash some of our clothes. We brought out the plastic basins and detergent, hand washed everything then hung it out to dry. Ted warned us that is normally takes longer for clothes to dry up here which makes sense considering we're up in the clouds most of the time, but we've been lucky with the weather so far-clear skies during the day and sun enough for t-shirts. With weather like this during the day and mostly cloudy skies and mist in the afternoon and through night, our clothes took a day to dry.

Ted, looking to get some photos and explore the mountain, wanted to go for a hike and we, having nothing else to do and eager to get better aquainted with this moutain, decided to join him. We hiked up muddy paths, if you could call them paths-most of the paths have been washed over by rain and muddled by small landslides and mudslides, but we managed. A motif on this mountain, we noticed for the first time, is the vegetable that serves as a medicine called Hua Lian. It's grown in large patches of land and covered by black tarp as it prefers the shade, but covers a surprising percentage of the mountain and is grown all the way up to the highest peak. But between dodging spider webs woven in between cedars and slipping up muddy hills, we saw some great views and got a better idea of the layout of this huge mountain and it's agricultural inhabitants.

Lunch today consisted of fried rice, left-over xifan from breakfast and some pickled vegetables...also left-over from breakfast. But don't worry, Wen has a secret stash of cookies that we share. After lunch was down time where, again, we read, napped, talked etc. until it was time to get farming.

We walked down the mountain through a corn field to another "team" of houses and fields, of which there are a total of 11 on Daping. Here we planted rows and rows of vegetables that we don't know the name of but which will probably either feed the next wave of volunteers or go down to the city to be sold. What we planted weren't seeds, but plants in their ealy stages of growth-with stems and leaves about 6-10cm. tall and with which we buried the roots into the tilled soil. Once all of the vegetables were planted we watered them and by this time were both ready for dinner.

On our way back we noticed the sunset and how nice it was up there, with the hills rolling up all around us and the leaves starting to change color, and curtains of harvested corn hanging in front of every house. We walked through the corn field again to get back to the station where the office and dorms are and where we eat every day. Dinner was squash, sichuan style (spicy) which was really good actually, and the sichuan specialty Huiguorou which is basically steamed slices of pork fat that's not quite as tender as you'd expect, but good nonetheless. After dinner was more down time which Wen and I used to sit outside and talk, read, and talk some more. Then bed at around 10 pm, and by that time we're pretty dead. So far we have a good feeling about this place.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An exchange between Meg Davis of Asia Catalyst and Shawn Shieh on regulation of Chinese NGOs

In a recent posting on her Asia Catalyst blog, Meg Davis reprints an exchange between the two of us on how China's new nonprofit regulations - including new regulations on international NGOs in China's Yunnan Province (for a text of the regulations, see -- were affecting grassroots groups. The essay was reposted to Chinapol (aka C-Pol), an email list of professionals working on Chinese policy issues.

I'm posting it here as well because it gets to an important issue that Meg and I disagree on, and that is, whether or not new regulations (when there were none previously as in the case of Yunnan) represent a tightening of control over NGOs. This is an important issue because China currently has very few laws and regulations governing the NGO/nonprofit sector, and we'll undoubtedly see more laws and regulations. Will this be beneficial or detrimental to NGOs? I realize some people will see regulations as an effort by an authoritarian state to control NGOs, but I'm keeping an open mind. I think having some kind of regulatory structure is better than having none at all for reasons I state below.

Shawn Shieh writes:


Thanks for writing this up. I'm actually in the middle of translating the Yunnan regs, so if anyone has the translation already and would be willing to share, I'd be most grateful.

I had one question and a comment. In your discussion of the Yunnan regs on foreign NGOs, you note that foreign NGOs will have to apply for approval with the provincial Civil Affairs and then go on to say that this will make them [government-organized NGOs, or] GONGOs. I didn't understand the connection. How does applying for approval translate into becoming a GONGO?

My comment has to do with the larger question of NGO regulation which has been the subject of some lively discussion on this listserv. You call the Yunnan regs a tightening of control over foreign NGOs, but let me present another way of looking at it. My understanding is that foreign NGOs in China at this point aren't really clear how to register because there are no specific regs governing them, except for foreign chambers of commerce. It's a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy where different govt depts and local govts have to deal with them on a case by case basis. Foreign NGOs have been able to work in China by entering into some creative arrangements with their local counterparts, but it's not an ideal situation. I think it's in this context that the Yunnan govt is now experimenting with clearer regulations governing foreign NGOs, just as other provinces are experimenting with regs for other kinds of NGOs such as community-based organizations (CBOs), trade associations, and foundations. Perhaps the experience with these different experiments may eventually percolate upwards to the center and shape the revisions of the NGO regs that we've been expecting to come out for so long.

So I see these regs as a way to clarify the regulatory environment, rather than as a tightening. It seems preferable to have some kind of clear standards and guidelines for foreign NGOs than to have none at all, although of course the devil is in the details and the implementation. If foreign NGOs continue to be stymied by bureaucratic red tape and are unable to register using these regs, then they may just go back to the old way of doing things. Either way, with or without these Yunnan regs, foreign NGOs that are not registered with Civil Affairs are technically illegal.

I'd be interested to hear what people working in foreign NGOs think about this, on or offline.

On the issue of regulating both domestic and foreign NGOs, I'd like to highly recommend Deng Guosheng's article that just came out in Spring 2010 issue of The China Review, "The Hidden Rules Governing China's Unregistered NGOs: Management and Consequences". It sheds a lot of light on a murky subject.


Meg Davis replied:

Dear Shawn and colleagues,

Many thanks to Shawn for his thoughtful comments and questions. I'd like to start by referring to Shawn's useful interventions on other C-Pol threads about the fact that there are a lot of different kinds of GONGOs, some of which are empty shells for the purpose of collecting grant money, and some of which do valid and life-saving work (Shawn, I was hoping to find a post to this on your blog that I could cite in the article - if there is one, could you send it offline?). Saying a group is "like a GONGO" is not necessarily a statement about the value of the work the organization does, but more a comment on the restrictions and controls on that work.

When I wrote the blog post on China's NGO regulations, I would have spent more space elaborating on the Yunnan regs, but the post was already quite long; I'm happy to have a chance to do so now. To start, I need to make reference to international rights law, quoting from the report I wrote for HRW in '05 on restrictions on AIDS NGOs in China:

"Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, China has the right to restrict freedom of association, so long as those restrictions are 'necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others'. Any restrictions should be interpreted narrowly, and be proportionate to the reasons for them; a government should use no more restrictive means than are absolutely required. While the state has the right to ensure that NGOs are honest and transparent, legal requirements should be minimal, clear, and attainable, permitting maximum flexibility for NGOs to establish themselves and perform their daily work. They should be enforced without discrimination."

In other words....states do have a right to restrict registration or establishment of NGOs, and this is something that all countries do. To take the US as an example (not because it's a model, but because it's the system with which I'm most familiar), someone registering a nonprofit needs to first file incorporation papers with the state, and then file much a much longer application with the federal government in order to obtain tax-exempt status. In founding Asia Catalyst, I went through both those processes with the help of a pro bono lawyer. While this was certainly a lot of annoying paperwork that had to be done carefully, the requirements were clear, attainable, non-discriminatory, and did not prevent our organization from getting down to business right away. I didn't have to have guanxi [personal connections] in the state attorney general's office, or in the IRS. My lawyer and I didn't have to buy gifts or take anyone out for expensive meals. We sent in the paperwork registered mail and got a letter of determination back within the legally-mandated time frame, end of story.

The Yunnan regulations are not minimal, clear, and in many cases will not be attainable. They also are not simply a matter of filling out paperwork and mailing it in. They require foreign NGOs to obtain "approval" for their work from multiple different, sometimes vaguely defined departments; the documents required are left to the discretion of those departments.

More to the point, because of the vague way in which these regs are written, in practice there is broad leeway to implement them in a discriminatory manner. In practice, in order to register with the Civil Affairs Bureau, the foreign NGO in question is going to basically need a "mother-in-law" agency (a la the GONGO registration requirements); that is, some senior official or friendly high-ranking department that can pull strings, make calls, maybe take some people out to lunch, and smooth the way to registration. That official or agency will then be held accountable for whatever the foreign NGO does, and will have some say over decisions the foreign NGO makes. If the foreign NGO plans something that someone in power finds anxiety-producing, the first call is probably going to go to the Chinese friends who helped facilitate registration.

Of course, to some degree this is already what happens for foreign NGOs that open offices in China, as most of them will say off the record. Most of them won't say it or anything critical about NGO management on the record (as one journalist pointed out, writing to me offline about how she'd like to write about the Yunnan regs but can't find any foreign NGO to comment for the article). This is just part of why some ticked-off Chinese AIDS activist friends tell me they already think of most foreign NGOs working in China as being GONGOs. If Asia Catalyst ever tries to open an office in Beijing, I expect we'll have to become the same way - it's the nature of the game.

That said, Shawn, I'm intrigued by your reference to "other provinces...experimenting with regs for other kinds of NGOs such as community-based organizations (CBOs), trade associations, and foundations" and would be grateful for references/info, either online, offline or on your blog. If this is part of a larger trend, it would be interesting to do some comparing and contrasting.

However, I'm not persuaded by your prediction that organizations that fail to register in Yunnan will just go back to doing things the way they were before. But I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the regs are implemented.


Shawn Shieh replied:


I think we have somewhat different interpretations of what a GONGO is, and maybe that's where my original confusion came from. To me, a GONGO is an "NGO" established by a party or government agency but registered with Civil Affairs as an NGO with the agency that established it being its "mother-in-law" or professional supervising unit. The state provides funds and staff for the GONGO, and determines its leadership. Most GONGOs also have an administrative rank. Then there are "real" NGOs, some of which are registered with Civil Affairs and have a professional supervising unit, but nevertheless are private, formed voluntarily and self-governing. I think there is an important and very real distinction to be made between the former (e.g. GONGOs or top-down NGOs) and the latter (e.g. bottom-up NGOs), and we shouldn't conflate them simply because they have a "mother-in-law". It's one thing to have a "mother-in-law" for registration purposes (and as a number of NGOs I've spoken to indicate, the "mother-in-law" is largely pro forma and doesn't really supervise the NGO that closely). It's quite another to have your funding, staff and leader come from the party-state.

I've written a post on the distinction between GONGOs and NGOs in my blog that is available in the June 2010 section of this blog.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The passing of Liang Congjie, China’s environmental and civil society pioneer

On a personal note, Liang Congjie is one of the few first-generation NGO founders that I never had a chance to interview due to his illness. I hope to gain a better understanding of this fascinating man and his impact through the eyes of those who were close to him.

November 1, 2010

On October 28, 2010, Liang Congjie died in a Beijing hospital after a long illness. His death marks the passing of one of the leading lights of the first generation of civil society activists in China. Amid all the post-Nobel Peace Prize buzz about Liu Xiaobo who received the award for advancing “fundamental human rights in China,” Liang’s life and legacy should be remembered and celebrated for contributing to the same cause. His work as one of the founders of Friends of Nature has been less dramatic than Mr. Liu’s but equally important in advancing many of the human rights laid out in the Charter 08 document that Liu coauthored.

Since its founding in 1994, Friends of Nature has been the standard-bearer for a rapidly growing community of environmental NGOs and activists that is widely-regarded as the most independent, assertive and successful civil society sector in China. As the head of Friends of Nature, Liang emerged as one of China’s leading public intellectuals and advocates on behalf of environmental protection and civil society.

Mr. Liang’s distinguished pedigree is already known to many. He was the grandson of Liang Qichao, the famous Qing-dynasty reformer, and son of Liang Sicheng, a famous architect known for his work in trying to preserve Beijing’s city walls, and Lin Huiyin, a poet and writer who contracted tuberculosis during the war and died in 1955 when Liang was 23.

Liang followed in the footsteps of his parents, training to be an academic, but for the next few decades, did nothing particularly remarkable. During the 1950s, he studied history in college and entered graduate studies at Beijing University but his studies were interrupted by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. In 1958, he was assigned to Yunnan University to work as a lecturer. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent down to the countryside in Jiangxi for nine years. In 1978, he was allowed to return to Beijing where he was offered a position as editor of a general knowledge magazine, Encyclopedic Knowledge.

Liang’s big break came in 1988 when some prestigious intellectuals set up the private Academy of Chinese Culture, and invited Liang to join them. Liang accepted, quitting his position at Encyclopedic Knowledge. It was a risky move but as he said later, “I gained my freedom.” Shortly thereafter, he was invited to be a member of the Population, Resources and Environment committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). It was a position he would later leverage with considerable success in various environmental campaigns.

When the Tiananmen protests began in 1989, he was overseas in the U.S. to speak to overseas Chinese student communities in California. He returned a few days before June 4 and observed the crackdown from the sidelines as colleagues and friends were either arrested or criticized.

Liang became aware of China’s environmental problems when he was editor of Encyclopedic Knowledge. In the early 1990s, he began talking with his friends about what could be done to address the environmental problem in China. Liang and three of his friends who became cofounders – Yang Dongping, Liang Xiaoyan and Wang Lixiong – talked about establishing an NGO. They knew that NGOs outside of China were playing an important part in informing and mobilizing the public to address environmental ills. They came to the conclusion that China could use a few good NGOs even though they only had a vague idea of what NGOs were. At the time, the only environmental NGO Liang could recall was Greenpeace because he had seen their protests on the television.

By 1993, when Liang was already in his 60s, he and the other co-founders came up with a charter for their NGO and went about finding a government sponsor so they could register with the Civil Affairs bureau. They went to the State Administration for Environmental Protection (SEPA) to ask them to serve as their sponsor, but were rebuffed. Unable to find a sponsor, Liang and the other co-founders gave up trying to register Friends of Nature as a NGO, and in 1994 affiliated with Liang’s employer, the Academy of Chinese Culture which is itself registered as a NGO. Friends of Nature retains this affiliate status to this very day.

Under Liang’s leadership, Friends of Nature’s achievements came first in environmental education. They worked with the public schools in delivering environmental education, carried out tree planting trips, organized bird watching groups, and established a mobile environmental education classroom. They also built up a membership base that now includes around 10,000 members nationwide. A number of the new generation of environmental activists counted themselves as members, or worked and trained there, before going on to establish their own NGOs.

Then in the mid-1990s, Friends of Nature embarked on a series of widely-publicized campaigns to save the snub-nosed monkey and Tibetan antelope, and to oppose illegal logging in southwestern China. Liang played a crucial role in these campaigns, using his position and connections as a member of the CPPCC, to bring these issues to the attention of the media and government leaders. These campaigns are credited with transforming the environmental movement in China, demonstrating to NGOs and activists that civil society could play a role in shaping policy. They also signaled a broadening of Friends of Nature’s mission to include influencing public policy through a multi-pronged strategy that involves working with government allies, the media and the public to pressure government authorities to enforce environmental laws. In the mid-2000s, Friends of Nature joined forces with several other environmental NGOs to form the China Rivers Network which used similar advocacy techniques to raise concerns about plans to build dams along the Nu River in Yunnan. In 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the dam project to be suspended until further review. Friends of Nature continues to be a part of the China Rivers network, and other environmental advocacy networks operating in China.

Liang has received many accolades for his work as a leader of Friends of Nature. In 2000, he was recognized by SEPA, the agency that refused to sponsor him, as an “environmental ambassador”, appointed an environmental consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. In 2004, he was named one of China’s 50 most influential public intellectuals by the Southern Weekend magazine. He should also be recognized for another achievement rare in the Chinese NGO world – shepherding his organization through a leadership transition. Many first generation NGO leaders tend to view their NGOs as their personal projects and devote little time to grooming a successor to take over. Liang was different and began to look for someone to replace him as executive director of Friends of Nature in the mid-2000s, thereby setting an important precedent for other NGOs.

Liang, and by extension Friends of Nature, have been called moderate forces within the environmental movement. If moderate means working with allies in the government and media to highlight environmental abuses, and being circumspect about when and what methods to use to criticize and pressure the government, then the term fits. At the same time, Liang has always been a vigorous defender of the need for an independent civil society in resolving China’s environmental problems. He believed grassroots NGOs played a critical role in informing the public, encouraging public participation, and supervising the work of the government and businesses.

More than 16 years later, China’s civil society has grown immeasurably since 1994 when Friends of Nature was one of a handful of NGOs. Now, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of NGOs like Friends of Nature and they are becoming more assertive, networked and professional. Liang can rest easy knowing that he played no small role in their advancement.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Volunteering at Global Village's "Lehe Jiayuan" project in Daping

October 18, 2010

My son and his friend are currently volunteering with the Global Village project, Lehe Jiayuan (Happy and Harmonious Home) rebuilding the village of Daping that was damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. I provided some background on this project in some earlier posts. If you're interested in getting some idea of what volunteering in this project involves, and what NGOs like Global Village are doing to rebuild rural communities using an approach that emphasizes sustainable, low-carbon practices and traditional Chinese values, you can go to their blog and follow their latest adventures at

Friday, October 1, 2010

Can Bill Gates and Warren Buffet start a philanthropic revolution in China?

October 1, 2010

On September 29, two days before National Day, the Bill and Warren show came to town to engage with some of China’s richest men and women about philanthropy. Their timing was good. As I’ve said in previous postings, the growth of private foundations is one of the brighter stars in the firmament of civil society in China, so it’s good to hear it getting attention from two of America’s biggest boosters of private philanthropy. News of this philanthropic gathering created quite a buzz in the Chinese media world, and it must have created quite a stir in the Chinese business world as well. But will it start a philanthropic revolution here in China?

Well as any student of revolutions knows, a revolution requires at least three things. It needs participation by elites, a weakened system, and participation by the masses.

We’ve already seen a significant number of entrepreneurs participate in private philanthropy since 2004, and this trend has been pushed forward by the establishment of the China Foundation Center and other similar initiatives, as well as the Bill and Warren show. There is still a ways to go, and the media reports of entrepreneurs who reportedly refused Bill and Warren’s invitation to attend certainly reflects a widespread assumption that many Chinese businesspeople are not yet ready to let go of their money. But progress in this area is probably the most promising.

The system however remains strong and does not favor the growth of private philanthropy at this point. There are new tax incentives that came out in 2008 giving tax benefits to enterprises that donate, and there are also tax benefits to individuals, but it’s unclear how much these tax incentives are actually used. Also, enterprises and individuals only get tax benefits if they donate to legally-registered NGOs. Thus, many grassroots NGOs that are registered as businesses do not benefit from this law. More importantly, according to the 2004 Foundation Law, private foundations cannot raise money publicly. Neither can other NGOs. Only public foundations, which are GONGOs, can do so. After the Wenchuan and Yushu earthquakes, we’ve seen the Chinese government maintain their near-monopoly on public donations, even going so far as to insist that some private foundations and NGOs transfer any of their donations to GONGOs or to the government. The system may change a little when and if the Charity Law, and other pieces of legislation relating to public donations, comes out, but I wouldn’t bet on any earth shattering changes.

Finally, participation by the masses has a long ways to go. The 2008 Wenchuan earthquake was certainly a watershed, but most of the public donations went to the government or GONGOs because of the above-mentioned systemic restrictions. When foundations and NGOs are prevented from fundraising publicly, and public donations go to the government, citizen participation and awareness suffers. Charity and philanthropy are seen more as a duty to the state than as a voluntary act. We see this after every disaster when people are pressured by their work units to cough up a donation. Still, one can see some movement in society. For example, the same day China’s richest came together to hear Bill and Warren speak, a group of about 90 “commoners” came together at a buffet dinner costing 38 yuan to show that philanthropy not only requires participation by the rich but also by the masses. Apparently, the response was much bigger than expected and organizers had to turn people away because of lack of space. But their point was well taken.

So I applaud Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet for coming to Beijing and spreading awareness among China’s richest, but we should see this as only one prong of the revolution. Still it’s an important prong, and the only one these foreigners could possibly hope to influence, and it may eventually lead to changes in the system and in mass participation in and awareness of philanthropy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Profile of Gao Guizi, coordinator of the 512 Voluntary Relief Center

September 21, 2010

The 512 Voluntary Relief Center (wuyaoer minjian jiuyuan zhongxin) is one of two large NGO networks that emerged in Sichuan right after the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008. It was set up by several people with diverse background in NGO work in the office of a legally-registered NGO, the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. Some of these people had worked together on a previous project in Sichuan involving a Hong Kong foundation that brought Hong Kong students to Sichuan to work on community projects. Unlike the other large NGO network started by Lu Fei (see my profile of him in an earlier post) and his friends, the 512 Center is still operating but last time I visited them in June of 2009, they were eking out an existence on a shoestring budget, and looking for someone to donate a SUV to replace the car they were using to drive into the earthquake-stricken areas. Gao is the coordinator of the 512 Center. We’ve met twice to discuss the NGO network that is part of the Center, and each time spent several hours sitting at a desk in the Center’s office talking, drinking tea, and eating tangerines. During our conversations, Gao would chain smoke. He’s an affable, grandfatherly-looking guy who liked to joke with the two women working in the office. Every so often, he’d also take a poke at me for being an “impatient American” but with a wink and a smile.

Gao was born in 1954 in one of the first group of students to attend university after the Cultural Revolution. He attended Yunnan University in 1978, the year after Yu Xiaogang, the celebrated founder of the Kunming-based environmental NGO, Green Watershed, and one of the members of the 512 Center’s network. After he graduated, he went to work for the provincial social science federation (shehui kexue lianhehui), a social organization (shetuan) for those specializing in the social sciences to exchange views and share information. In the early 2000s, the provincial government was engaged in streamlining its bureaucracies, and encouraged some of its officials to retire early. He was one of those officials, retiring at the age of 48 in 2002.

His interest in NGO work came from his participation in a Ford Foundation project while he was still at the social science federation. The project was an investigation into the problems with migrant children not having access to schools. He worked on a report that encouraged the government to improve the situation. After he retired, he went to work on another project funded by UNESCO and a French organization helping children in poor areas.

Since 2005, he’s also been trying to register an NGO that he calls Sichuan Shangmin Social Development Research Association. He describes it as an independent, nonprofit, research institute that would provide research on social problems to the government, public and other NGOs. Gao said he was encouraged by a government policy put out in 2004 promoting grassroots social science organizations. Apparently, the officials at the Civil Affairs office didn’t get that policy document because everytime he’s applied to register, he’s been rejected.

When asked why he went into NGO work, he said it was a combination of things. One is socialism. He grew up in the Maoist era, and he believes not all of the old education and propaganda was bad. “Socialism is better than capitalism,” he said. “Capitalism is about money, socialism is about people.” But he prefers to use the terms, “social development” or “sustainable development” in place of socialism.

Another reason he’s doing NGO work is that he’s retired, has time on his hands and economic security. He can now do what he wants to do, and what gives his life meaning. He’s also been influenced by his work with international organizations. He does not agree with everything they do, but he likes the idea of using participatory methods for promoting social development.

Gao might have one more influence that I did not ask him about – his wife who happens to be Guo Hong, a sociologist at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences who teaches classes on civil society, has been an advisor to the 512 Center, and an advocate for NGOs in China.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Profile of Ma Yinling, founder of (Yuexi county) Poverty and Development Research Center

September 2, 2010

I was introduced to Ma Yinling by a common friend in Beijing. Ma was nice enough to arrange a cheap room for me at the guesthouse of her university, Southwest Nationalities University in Chengdu, where she teaches anthropology and does research on the Yi minority. Ma herself is a Yi.

The morning I arrived in Chengdu, Ma showed up at my guesthouse door armed with several books she had edited or written on the Yi. One of these was a Yi-English dictionary, probably the only one of its kind, edited by her and two American linguists. She is clearly passionate about what she does.

Ma’s NGO is called the (Yuexin county) Poverty and Development Research Center, and is registered as a social organization (shetuan) with the county Civil Affairs bureau. Her NGO, which she started around 2000, targets minorities in poor areas through education, health and economic development programs. One of her projects, funded by the UN, is to help the Yi understand PRC laws and policies relating to the Yi. She has another project funded by the World Bank Development Marketplace to educate Yi women findmarkets for their handicrafts, and thereby earn money to pay for their children’s schooling. This project involves working with the local Women’s Federation and county officials.

Like other NGO leaders I’ve met, Ma can be single-minded in her devotion, seeing her NGO as her own personal project. She told me that she after working in Yuexi county for several years, she decided to build a house there so she could share her experiences with others from the city. When she brought up the idea with her husband and son (both of them are also Yi), they opposed it, but she went ahead anyway and built the house without the help of her family. Most of the building materials and appliances had to be transported from Chengdu, a two day drive from Yuexi.

Ma sounded reluctant to build up her NGO. She has a small 3 person staff which works mostly on a volunteer basis. When I asked why she doesn’t pay her staff full-time, she gave several reasons. One is that she doesn’t want to raise their expectations too much in case her NGO should fail, and she has seen too many NGOs go under because they devoted too many resources to their staff. She also said that her funding tended to be project-based and didn’t pay for staff salaries.

Ma talked to me about what motivated her to spend so much of her time and effort on her NGO work. She spoke about Yuexi, a poor county located on the Sichuan/Yunnan border with a diverse population of Yi, Tibetan, and Han. Yuexi, she said, faced a number of problems. – high infant mortality, alcoholism, psychological problems, spousal abuse, medical problems like Hep B. At the time she was considering setting up her NGO, a logging ban had been in effect since 1998 and a new policy in force which stopped assigning university graduates jobs. These two policies had a negative effect on minority graduates, so many minority families encouraged their kids to work rather than go to the universities.

Ma wanted to address both of these problems. One of her early projects was to teach minorities how to fix and use the gas burners that replaced the wood ones as a result of the logging ban. She also wanted to educate women about the importance of going to college. She said she started with 10-12 women, and was moved when many more than 10 women showed up to learn Chinese.

Ma also spoke to me about having to educate the officials about her project. A number of the local officials initially showed interest in her project because they saw it as a source of revenue, so she had to tell them that the money was for the women in the county. She found she also had to educate the officials about gender equality, and the use of participatory methods to lessen the gap between farmers and officials. One of her goals is to change the attitude and view of local officials so that they can see the bigger picture, and the importance of working with her NGO and the larger community.

When I asked her what pushed her into this line of work, Ma talked about her own anthropology work on ethnic minorities. Another important influence for her was the Fourth World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995 where she participated in a forum on minority women and first learned what gender equity and NGOs were. But most of all, what’s kept her going has been her work in Yuexi which opened her eyes to the many needs in the area and the desire of local women to participate in improving their lives.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Important trends among Chinese NGOs

August 26, 2010

Despite some of the recent concerns about restrictions on NGOs in China, there are some important trends in China that civil society watchers should keep an eye on.

One trend that has been written about here, and elsewhere, is the rise of private foundations and their growing influence in China. A number of the more prominent private foundations like Narada and Youcheng have taken the lead in supporting grassroots NGOs, and encouraging the government and GONGOs to support grassroots NGOs.

Another trend that has been not been as visible or discussed is the rise of social networks. I hesitate to use the term, NGO networks, because these networks are generally quite informal, varied and fluid in their composition. NGOs and NGO leaders are an important component, but these networks also include individual activists and individuals from GONGOs, mass organizations and even the government. In the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, we saw many networks form in response to the relief effort. We also see networks forming in the environmental, HIV/AIDS and foundation sector.

A third trend is the outsourcing of government services to NGOs in the area of community development, migrant education, poverty alleviation, and industry and commerce. This trend is important not just because it provides new sources of revenue for NGOs, but also because it may evolve into a more institutionalized channel by which NGOs can participate in the provision of public goods, and in shaping public policy.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Talking to some NGOs in Sichuan

August 13, 2010

I’ve been talking to some international NGO people here in Sichuan and the impression I come away with is one of frustration and caution. Frustration at the Chinese government’s inability to make life easier for international NGOs, either with regard to registration or carrying out public activities.  Caution about visiting Tibetan NGOs in western Sichuan and Qinghai.  

Talking with these INGOs, I realize why the Chinese government would be so concerned and conflicted about INGOs.  On one hand, they see these INGOs as a source of funds and a conduit to the larger international community.  On the other, they know that these INGOs represent very different agendas, and are concerned about their role in fomenting social conflict. There are INGOs that want to help China solve problems such as poverty and disease, but there are also those with an agenda that the Chinese government views with suspicion.  These include NGOs that want to help workers, farmers and those infected with HIV/AIDS enforce their legal rights, NGOs like the NED that had a hand in the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics, and NGOs funded by Tibetan exile groups.

What the Chinese government faces in the international NGO community is, in short, a microcosm of the pluralist interest group community that we are used to in democratic societies.  Only the Chinese have to deal with them in their own backyard.  I’m not condoning the Chinese government’s behavior, but if I was an authoritarian government concerned foremost about stability and staying in power, I might be doing what the Chinese are doing to international NGOs now – letting many of them operate here, but making life difficult for them.   In that way, the Chinese hope to have their cake and eat it too.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Visiting the Global Village project in Daping village

August 7, 2010

It’s not easy for a NGO in China to have a vision and translate that vision into a reality, but something like that is happening in the village of Daping, Sichuan.

After taking two buses and a small “breadloaf” van (mianbao che) that we didn’t think would make it up the steep mountain road, we are here in Daping village on top of a mountain in the administrative area of Pengzhou city about 2 hours drive northwest of Chengdu. Daping is the site of an ambitious project appropriately named “Home of Happiness and Harmony” (Lehe Jiayuan) conceived by Liao Xiaoyi, founder of the Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village. Daping’s houses were badly damaged by the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and when Liao first came to the village in July of 2008, she saw in it a chance to not just rebuild the infrastructure, but also to restructure the economic and social life of the village.

With funding from the Chinese Red Cross Foundation, and Jet Li’s One Foundation, the building began in earnest in September of 2008. When I was here in June of 2009, many of the houses, and the medical clinic, were going up. Now, most of the farmers’ houses, the medical clinic, and the academy are finished. They have been built with timber from the mountain’s plentiful reserves of cypress and cedar. Together these structures at the top of Daping mountain make a statement about Liao’s vision.

Global Village is also working on reviving the village’s economy by exploring new sources of revenue such as marketing handicrafts and tourism. Lehe Jiayuan is already hosting various NGO training groups who come up for several days at a time, and is hoping to attract other groups who come to learn to about this unique project and participate in various cultural activities that are in the planning. It is also trying to restructure village governance and social life by introducing an environmental association (shengtai xiehui) which will give villagers a voice in the redevelopment of their village. Decisions about Lehe Yuan’s development are to be made jointly between GV, the village committee, and the environmental association.

Global Village has also brought in the YouChange Foundation, a well-known private foundation in Beijing, which now has a station in Daping and is responsible for managing the volunteers who help out on the ongoing projects. The reason for coming here a second time was to bring my son, Simon, who will be volunteering in Daping with his friend later this fall. They’ll be working with Wang Pan, the YouChange station director here at Lehe Jiayuan.

Lehe Jiayuan is an ambitious project and it remains to be seen whether it will succeed and serve as a model for other villages, as Liao hopes. Transportation to the village needs to be improved to allow groups to visit. There is also a mine operating in the neighboring mountain, and the occasional explosions are a reminder that not all is harmonious in Daping.

Still, one can’t sense that Liao has created something special here, a sense of community. The place is full of energetic and good-natured staff, volunteers and villagers. At night, when people congregate to play games, dance and talk, you feel that Lehe Jiayuan lives up to its name.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visiting NGOs along the faultline: Sichuan to Qinghai

August 5, 2010

It seems my life these days only revolves around NGOs, but hey there are worse things to be addicted to! Next week, I'll be bringing my son to look at a project in Sichuan started by the well-known Beijing-based environmental NGO, Global Village, with funding from the Chinese Red Cross and Jet Li's One Foundation. The project involves not just rebuilding Daping's houses, many of which were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, but also revitalizing the social and economic life of the village and using the village as a platform for promoting tourism and traditional Chinese culture. I visited this project last year when doing research for a paper I wrote about the Wenchuan earthquake's impact on grassroots NGOs.

My son will be working with the YouChange (known in Chinese as Youcheng) foundation which is collaborating with Global Village on this project. YouChange, along with Nandu (Naruda), is one of a number of private foundations that has sought to create a new philanthropy model that emphasizes volunteerism, individual initiative, and support for grassroots NGOs. It also has other projects located in poorer areas in western China, as well as a project on the outskirts of Beijing.

After visiting Daping, we plan to head out west to the Tibetan areas in Sichuan, stopping in Kangding, and then making our way via the Sichuan-Tibet highway to Yushu, Qinghai where there was an earthquake earlier this year. I've never traveled in these parts before, and have heard it is both rugged and beautiful. I'm looking forward to it, and hopefully visiting some Tibetan NGO projects along the way.

I guess you could call this our "earthquake and NGO" trip because we're going from the site of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to the site of the 2010 Yushu earthquake, and seeing what kind of work NGOs are doing in these areas. As I've blogged about in other posts, the role of NGOs in disaster relief has been growing in China and deserves more attention and support.

I'll try to post news about our trip on this blog, so stay tuned!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Grassroots activism and public-private partnerships in the Hudson Valley

August 2, 2010

Grassroots activism and nonprofits in the Hudson Valley

Last month I went back to see family and friends in the Hudson Valley region of New York. While there I had the chance to see and walk across the Walkway Across the Hudson. The Walkway is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world with a span of over 1.28 miles over the Hudson River connecting the cities of Poughkeepsie on the east and Highland on the west.

The Walkway ( is also the name of the nonprofit that is responsible for revitalizing the bridge and transforming it into a pedestrian skyway with gorgeous views of the Hudson River.

 The bridge is more than 100 years old, and was shut down after a fire in 1974. In 1992, a handyman named Bill Sepe formed the Walkway nonprofit, but his ideas of using volunteer labor and funding to revitalize the bridge was voted down by the board. Under the new leadership of Fred Shaeffer, a local attorney, the Walkway began working with private foundations and the state of New York to make the Walkway a reality. The Walkway has been designated a State Historical Park, and the nonprofit is headed by a friend of ours, Elizabeth Hart.

I went across the Walkway three times while I was there, and was impressed at what it has done in terms of energizing the area’s business, civic and recreational scene. Every time I went, there were many people out walking with infants in strollers, with dogs, roller skating, and biking over the bridge. A New York Times article noted that there have already been more than double the estimated 250,000 visitors per year since the Walkway opened last October. At each end, there were several businesses/vendors selling drinks and food, renting bikes, in addition to Walkway volunteers selling T-shirts, cups, and hats to raise money to maintain the bridge. There are also plans underway to connect the Walkway to other bike trails in the region.

The Walkway is a great example of the kind of impact that grassroots activism can have. The initial vision and impetus comes from a single person who starts a nonprofit which then partners with private and public agencies to make their vision a reality.

On the bridge, there is a sign thanking the many supporters of the Walkway. They include a number of private foundations in addition to the state of New York. Let’s hope that we begin to see this level of collaboration in China.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Discussing the future of China’s NGOs

July 23, 2010

My second day back in Beijing, I’m riding my bike out to the China Development Brief (CDB) office which is nestled in a courtyard amid the hutongs northeast of Jingshan Park. Here's a picture of me in front of the CDB courtyard door.

There’s a meeting that morning among some NGOs to propose ideas for how they can integrate climate change into their poverty alleviation programs. The meeting is organized by Oxfam Hong Kong which is working closely with the State Council’s Poverty Alleviation Office on various projects around China, and attended by some well known NGOs such as Friends of Nature, Global Environment Institute, Green Earth, Action Aid, and China Dialogue.

I asked the Oxfam people about the incident with the Ministry of Education's notice warning universities not to let their student volunteers work with Oxfam.  One Oxfam person said that project was stopped, but otherwise said Oxfam hasn't been affected and is still going strong with their many projects in China.

After the meeting and lunch, I chatted with Fu Tao, who has been the Chinese editor of the CDB since it’s inception, and knows the Chinese NGO sector well. We started talking about the recent measures that make it difficult for foreign donations to get to Chinese NGOs. Fu Tao felt that this was a clever measure by the government to make life difficult for NGOs, particularly those registered as businesses by cutting their pipeline to foreign funds.

When he asked me for my take on the situation. I told him I thought these measures could be seen as part of an effort by different government departments to better regulate and control a growing NGO sector, and not necessarily a coordinated attempt to repress the entire sector. Fu didn’t seem convinced. He said there were cases where the crackdowns on NGOs did represent a coordinated effort, even if they appeared to be driven by one department. He noted the case of Gongmeng which tax authorities investigated and closed down for failure to pay taxes on funds from foreign donors. I agreed that Gongmeng was an example of the government’s coordinated response because several different government departments showed up at the same time to close Gongmeng down, but said not every case is like that.

The more we talked, the more Fu Tao seemed to be of two minds about the future of NGOs in China. He was concerned about the recent measures, including new regulations on foreign NGOs in Yunnan, but then admitted that the NGO sector was expanding in other ways. He noted that some grassroots NGOs that were previously registered as businesses, such as Facilitator (xie zuoze) and Shining Stone (canyu shi), were able to get registered as NGOs with Civil Affairs. He believes this is because the government is willing to encourage NGOs that provide services but don’t engage in more sensitive advocacy work as Gongmeng and Yirenping had. He also noted the rise of private foundations, and thought this was a significant trend in China because some of these foundations (Nandu, Youcheng, Vantone) were following a new philanthropy model supporting grassroots NGOs, rather than the old philanthropy of supporting government and GONGOs. What you are seeing are private entrepreneurs with a different set of values and priorities.

Before we parted ways, I asked him if he was pessimistic about the future of the NGO sector. I thought he was going to say yes, but then said he really wasn’t sure.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Defining NGOs in China 1.0

June 29, 2010

I'm on vacation in the U.S. and will be posting to this blog, but more infrequently than normal until I return to Beijing in mid July.

Here's a post I've been meaning to post for some time now about the problematic issue of defining NGOs in China.

This blog is about Chinese NGOs, but that begs an important question: what is an NGO in the Chinese context? This is a difficult question to answer because NGOs have had such a short history in China and have emerged in an inhospitable landscape dominated by the state. As a result, the forms NGOs have taken at this early stage often do not resemble the NGOs we are familiar with.

When we think of NGOs, well-known nonprofits and foundations come to mind -- Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Common Cause, Oxfam, United Way, Ford Foundation. These are organizations that fit a generally accepted definition of NGOs (also known as nonprofits, civil society organizations (CSOs), or voluntary associations) as having certain properties: they are private (e.g. institutionally separate from government), nonprofit, self-governing and voluntary . The above named NGOs are also formal organizations legally registered as nonprofits, with a staff, office, charter and board of directors, though scholars like Salamon and Sokolowski include not only formal organizations but also informal organizations and groups as long as they meet on a regular basis.

Why is it so difficult to apply this definition to China? One source of confusion has to do with the Chinese practice of calling organizations set up by the government (what we call government-organized NGOs or GONGOs) NGOs. In China, the term NGO is used very loosely in official parlance to refer to a wide range of organizations including those set up by the party-state. To give an example, corporatist-type “mass organizations” (qunzhong zuzhi) which were established by the Communist Party after 1949 to “represent” specific constituencies such as youth, women, and workers, sometimes present themselves as NGOs. These include the well-known Communist Youth League, All-China Women’s Federation and All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Then in the 1980s, as China opened up to the outside world, other organizations were established by government agencies to cooperate with overseas organizations on environmental protection, population control, trade promotion and other issues. These GONGOs often present themselves as NGOs to overseas organizations that were interested in working with Chinese NGOs, even though they are funded and staffed by the government, their leaders are appointed by a government agency and have an administrative rank. Wang Ming, a leading NGO scholar at Tsinghua University, calls these top-down NGOs . Many Chinese scholars see GONGOs as the first wave of NGOs in China, even though GONGOs do not meet many of the commonly accepted criteria for NGOs. They are clearly not private, voluntary or self-governing. Yet many are registered with Civil Affairs departments as “social organizations’, a term the Chinese government uses interchangeably with NGOs.

So what about real NGOs in China, what Wang Ming calls bottom-up NGOs? These NGOs do meet the criteria of being private, voluntary, self-governing and nonprofit, but it’s not always easy to spot them because so few are like the well-known nonprofits and foundations we are familiar with in the U.S. and other developed countries. Some are legally registered with Civil Affairs as “social organizations”, and have an office, staff, charter, etc., but many more are registered as businesses, or unregistered, but in reality they operate as NGOs. Many of these business or unregistered NGOs have an office, staff, governing board, etc, but some are loosely organized volunteer or community groups, while others may be just a one person, or virtual online operation running out of someone’s home.

In short, the difficulty with defining NGOs in China is that appearances are deceiving, as many things are in this country. On the surface, GONGOs or top-down NGOs look more like the NGOs we know so well. They are legally-registered organizations with an office, staff, branch offices in the provinces, public visibility, respectability and influence. Yet they are not NGOs according to the criteria above. Now take the bottom-up NGOs. On the surface, they do not look like the NGOs we know. They tend not to be legally registered, to be small operations that avoid the public eye, and yet they meet the definition of NGOs. They are in many ways similar to private enterprises and businesses in China during the 1980s that operated in a grey area of illicitness between the legal and illegal.

This blog is dedicated to the real NGOs in China, those that are established voluntarily by citizens with a sense of purpose, self-governing, nonprofit and not part of the state apparatus. At the same time, I don’t believe in drawing a hard and fast line between GONGOs and NGOs. Some GONGOs have become more independent in recent years and may evolve into something resembling NGOs in the future, and thus need to be included in the story of NGOs in China for reasons that I’ll write about in a future post.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why the chill in the air for NGOs?

May 10, 2010

I’ve generally been an optimist about the future of NGOs in China, but recent events have gotten me thinking otherwise. In the last few months, we’ve witnessed the Oxfam Hong Kong incident, the SAFE regulations on foreign donations, the closing down of NGOCN’s website, the Beijing University Women’s Legal Aid Center’s losing its Beijing University affiliation, and just today, the news that China’s leading AIDS activist, Wan Yanhai, has left China for the U.S. because he was being harassed by multiple government departments. So what does this all mean?

First of all, let’s get some perspective on these events. Last year (2009), Xu Zhiyong’s legal aid NGO, Gongmeng, was closed down on tax evasion charges, and Yirenping, an anti-discrimination legal aid NGO founded by Lu Jun was raided. The Olympic year saw the Sichuan earthquake, a coming out event for Chinese NGOs which played a visible role in the earthquake relief. The year prior (2007) saw the closure of an Lu Jun’s support group for Hep B carriers, a magazine called Minjian that published stories of NGO development projects, and most notably Nick Young’s China Development Brief.

In addition, the last few years has seen significant growth in grassroots NGOs, persistent rumors of revisions to the NGO registration and management regulations, a new Charity Law, and easing of the registration and management procedures for private foundations.

In short, what we have here is a mixed bag. Some bad news, and some good news. How do we make sense of all this? A few possible explanations come to mind.

One explanation is that the government is of different minds about NGOs and is trying to figure out how to best manage (codeword for control) them. The Chinese government is a very diverse, not always unified collection of agencies and individuals. The Civil Affairs department is only one of the agencies charged with supervising NGOs. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of NGOs in China that are not registered with Civil Affairs and thus not under their supervision. Because many NGOs are registered as businesses, the Commercial and Industrial department also plays a role, as do tax authorities, and now apparently so does the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). And last but not least, there are the security people. It’s not clear to what extent there is a coordinated campaign among all these agencies to regulate NGOs. Civil Affairs seems to be the most supportive. They are encouraging various experiments around the country to make NGO registration easier, and they support a change in the NGO regulations that would make it easier for NGOs to register with Civil Affairs. But other agencies seem to just be interested in controlling NGOs, and not figuring out a way to regulate them in ways that would improve the effectiveness and transparency of NGO work.

If this explanation is right, then we’ll see authorities continue to adopt an ad hoc approach to regulating/controlling NGOs, and continued swings in the government’s attitude to NGOs. We’ll also see further delays in the much-anticipated NGO legislation as debates and deadlock over the value of NGOs continue in policymaking circles.

Another explanation is that government leaders have arrived at a consensus about how to deal with NGOs, and that consensus is not to liberalize the environment or find a smarter way to regulate them, but to continue restricting their development. This means tightening an already restrictive regulatory environment, and cracking down on “illegal” NGOs that are engaged in advocacy and sensitive issues such as migrant worker rights, and are particularly open to foreign influences. What seems to be new here is the way in which the government is cracking down on NGOs. They are doing so not by closing down NGOs as they did with China Development Brief, but by harassing them for improper finances, or fire codes, or not properly registering their website. But they are not doing this across the board, but only targeting selected NGOs. A form of “salami tactics” or “death by a thousand cuts”.

If this explanation is correct, then recent events represent the start of a chilling trend. It means we won’t see revised NGO regulations come out, or if they do come out, they will reaffirm the status quo or be even more restrictive.

Still another explanation is a combination of the previous two explanations. That is, authorities have arrived at a consensus but that consensus represents a compromise whereby certain sectors are encouraged, but NGOs with more foreign connections or engaged in more sensitive work are targeted for harassment.

If this explanation is right, then we should see the revised NGO regulations, and other related legislation, coming out soon. Those revisions will probably represent a gradual change, e.g. liberalization, and their content will give us a better idea of what sectors are being encouraged.

Which of these explanations is closer to the mark of course requires an understanding of what is going on in high-level decision making circles. Unfortunately, that arena is a black box that we can only speculate about.

At this point, I favor the first explanation because I don’t see a consistent line or approach toward NGOs which suggests there is still debate and deadlock over just how to regulate this growing sector. But I may change my view as I get more information. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

NGOs participation in disaster relief in China

April 28, 2010

I do plan to get back to discussing the previous cases of restrictions on NGOs in China, but wanted to highlight the role of NGOs in responding to natural disasters in China given the drought problem in Yunnan and the recent earthquake in Yushu, Qinghai. I wrote in a previous blog about the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 being a watershed event in energizing the NGO community here. We haven't seen a similar grassroots response in the drought and the Yushu earthquake. But NGOs are playing a role in both, whether we see it or not, and it's worth tracking their efforts in both disasters. Disasters and other crises seem to expand the space for NGOs by creating an urgent need for assistance in a short period of time that the government itself is unable to fully satisfy. But not all disasters are equal. The Sichuan earthquake was located near urban areas where a number of NGOs were concentrated. The same cannot be said of the Yushu earthquake, which is in a more remote area. Still, some of the websites I have listed on this blog, such as China Philanthropy, have articles about the Yushu earthquake relief. And below is an article by Yu Fangqiang, coordinator of an NGO and a thoughtful commmentator on the Chinese NGO scene. Thanks to Asia Catalyst for translating this article and making it available on their blog.

Where are the NGOs in China's Natural Disasters?
April 27, 2010 1:23 PM | No Comments

By Yu Fangqiang

The other night, a little after midnight, I was about to turn off my computer and go to sleep when I noticed, with surprise, an article in China Development Brief's Community Times: "Droughts in the Southwest Test Emergency Response: Where are the NGOs?"

China has recently been hit by a number of natural disasters, including the epic drought in the southwest and an earthquake in Qinghai. After reading this article, I had a few thoughts I had to share.

Certainly, NGOs were very visible and powerful during the Wenchuan earthquake. While the public could not see the challenges China's NGOs face, they could definitely see the impact they can have. But droughts raise another set of challenges. What exactly should NGOs contribute in these circumstances?

First of all, we need to bear in mind that not all NGOs have the technical ability to respond to a disaster like the current drought. Second, of those NGOs that have the capacity to respond, not all can dedicate their limited time and energies to the drought. And third, even those NGOs that have the ability and the capacity can't measure up to the ability and capacity of the state. NGOs do not exist to replace the state, but to widen the competitive environment for public interest work. Within this environment, NGOs can monitor official organizations and government departments in order to improve their effectiveness, and urge them to work more efficiently. If NGOs were better at everything than the government, we wouldn't need the government.

In the response to the southwestern drought, we do indeed see the government playing a positive role. However, has this response been efficient and effective? What we see are an increase in state funding while the drought continues. The state's response has largely channeled mandatory donations to the same old officials, institutions and cronies as in the past. In a particularly outrageous instance, school teachers have compelled students to donate at least 2 yuan (about 30 cents) each to drought relief efforts - an immoral and illegal action.

Getting back to the NGOs, however: most NGOs are grassroots organizations in a state of malnutrition. To start with, most cannot register in the Bureau of Civil Affairs. After struggling for several years, they began to register in the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, which compelled them to pay taxes. After a few years of continuing with program work while paying taxes, the Bureau of Civil Affairs and Trade and Industry Bureau began to launch investigations into the discrepancy between the commercial names these groups used to register, and the names they used to do their NGO work. Those NGOs that survived this process now have to deal with the new foreign exchange regulations. In addition, we had the shutdown of migrant workers' schools in Beijing, in advance of China's Two Sessions, the shutdown of the Chongqing Sensen orphanage on March 15, and the restrictions on civil charity activities during the Shanghai World Expo.

Some groups have attempted to resist the restrictions on NGOs, as in the case of the tax resistance campaign which some two dozen organizations signed onto earlier this year. As of late April, I do not know what the results were of this effort; even if they are successful, this will be a long, hard fight. And of course, the case of Oxfam's treatment as a class enemy by the Ministry of Education, which recently warned colleges not to participate in Oxfam programs. Oxfam has carefully managed its government relations, and must have felt like a woman whose lover refuses to marry her after making love to her for twenty years. Oxfam is one of the few NGOs with the capacity to respond to the drought crisis - but unfortunately, they're otherwise occupied now.

We cannot accuse NGOs of failing to help respond to the drought when their difficulties are caused by the state. NGOs have no funds to donate, no institutional capacity to respond to crises, and struggle with all kinds of internal and external challenges. But nonetheless, I recently saw a report online which said that "more than twenty NGOs called for water conservation in the north". Does this make us feel better? It is simply not true that NGOs are unconcerned about the drought. The truth is that their movements are hampered.

Yu Fangqiang is chief coordinator of the Chinese civil rights organization, Yirenping. This article is translated and adapted from the Chinese original at

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shutting down of NGOCN's website

April 21, 2010

Sometime in early April of this year, the website for NGOCN was shut down. I profiled one of the founders of NGOCN, Lu Fei, in an earlier blog. NGOCN was established in 2005-2006 in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and serves as an information platform for NGOs. It also started to offer capacity building training to NGOs, mainly those located in southwestern China (Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou). It appears that only the website has been affected up to now. NGOCN still operates, maintains a blog, and sends out newsletters on a regular basis, msot recently about NGO participation in the Yushu earthquake in Qinghai.

There seem to be several reasons for the closing down of NGOCN’s website. One has to do with a national trend to reregister websites and blogs in China. If this is the main reason, then the closing of NGOCN’s website will most likely be temporary and we can expect it to resume in the near future. Another reason that has been mentioned is that NGOCN was involved in rallying NGOs to participate in drought-relief activities in Yunnan. If this is the real reason, then NGOCN may have a bigger problem on their hands.

I called the director of NGOCN to ask her about the situation, but she didn’t want to talk about it over the phone, suggesting that the reasons for the shutdown were sensitive, but she did say that the shutdown was temporary and she seemed quite confident that their website would be back up soon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Peking University Women's Legal Aid Center loses its affiliation

April 14, 2010

On March 25, Beijing University announced that it would rescind its relationship with 4 organizations: Beijing Finance and Economic News Research Center (caijing xinwen yanjiu zhongxin); Beijing University Public Law Research Center (gongfa yanjiu zhongxin); Beijing University Constitutionalism Research Center (xianzheng yanjiu zhongxin); and Beijing University Law School Women's Legal Research and Services Center (funu falu yanjiu yu fuwu zhongxin).

The first 3 organizations did not get much attention because they were pretty much empty shells, but the mention of Women's Legal Research and Services Center attracted a lot of attention because it is one of the best-known legal aid NGOs in China. Established by Guo Jianmei and others in 1995, the Center has done a great deal in advancing women's rights in China, and has been visited by Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright and other dignitaries.

Some people at first thought the Center had been shut down, but all the notice did was disassociate Beijing University from the Center. The Center had been affiliated with the Beijing University's Law School which meant that it did not have to register, but was “attached” (guakao) to the Law School. In reality, the Center was an independent NGO that had its office outside of Beijing University, but it used the Law School’s bank account and had to get approval for its finances from the Law School. A number of NGOs in China have this arrangement which brings with it a number of advantages. They don’t have to go through the difficult process of registering with Civil Affairs as an NGO, yet they derive a measure of legal status and protection from being affiliated with a government-backed organization. The disadvantage is that the NGO is not entirely a free agent, and its affiliation can be canceled at any moment, as the Center found out.

Below is a statement issued by Guo Jianmei, the founder of the Center, about their disassociation from Beijing University:

2 April 2010

Statement by Guo Jianmei and Her Team

Farewell, Beida!

On 25 March, the Division of Social Sciences, Peking University, published a Notice of Cancellation of Organisations on the University’s official website. The Center for Women's Law & Legal Services was one of the four on the list. The days that followed were filled with calls of concern and support from the media, NGOs, partners, the relevant authorities, friends and persons whom we have helped. We are touched, and we are grateful!

To an entity that has been single-minded in purpose and enterprise for the last 15 years, expulsion from the Peking University family is a major and unexpected setback which affects more than just the entity itself. For the Center for Women's Law & Legal Services of Peking University is a symbol of deep significance. To the country, it is an industrious pair of hands that helps build social harmony. To the weak and the vulnerable, it is a ray of light that offers warmth and hope. To NGOs and our partners, it is a fellow comrade on the frontlines, enforcing the rule of law and advancing good for the civil society. To the people at large, it is a deliverer of social conscience and the spirit of law. And to every member of the Center, it is our common home.

As such, to those who have cared and still continue to care, I would like to say a few last words about this name that has become history:

I. In 15 years, we have lighted up more lives than the sun has.

Since the Center’s inception in 1995, our aim was to provide legal aid, protect women’s rights, and promote gender equality. Equity and justice were not only the Center’s tenets, but the belief and ideal espoused by every member. As the first public interest organisation in China that specialises in providing legal aid for women, we were one of the earliest private legal aid practice. While demand for legal aid among the vulnerable was high, State legal resources were scarce. The Center thus became an expedient complement that plugged gaps in the government’s legal aid services. It has since, helped more than 100,000 women victims obtain recourse to justice.

In 2004, to meet the increasingly diverse needs in women’s rights protection, the Center began providing public interest litigation services, and was soon to become an important force in public interest legal practice. Absent a public interest litigation framework, the Center set itself to legal and policy improvement and reform by working on typical cases, incorporating the protection of the individual rights of women into the overall rights of citizens, to ensure impact. The cases involved important and difficult issues as gender discrimination in the workplace, labour rights of women, sexual harassment in the workplace, violence against women, rights of female migrant workers, and rural women land rights. And by employing different approaches in legislative advocacy, the Center has expanded its beneficiary population.

Our efforts have rendered power to the law and to legal aid. A victim once told us, “the Center is like a lamp, glowing of equity and justice, exuding warmth in the cold, and shedding light on the darkness ahead. She spoke not only for the many weak and poor women, she spoke also for the meaning of our enterprise.

The Center has become a sphere of influence that motivated many later-comers. Consciously, it took on the responsibility of providing legal aid, conducting public interest litigation, organising public interest legal advocacy, and training public interest lawyers. In 2002, a legal aid collaboration group was established, so as to enable more organisations and institutions to participate in the delivery of legal aid. In 2007, the Center founded the Public Interest Lawyers’ Network for Women’s Rights, and in 2009, the name was changed to China Public Interest Lawyers’ Network. The Network currently comprises more than 300 brilliant lawyers from more than twenty provinces and cities, providing legal aid for thousands of poor and vulnerable people. I still remember the Network’s launch ceremony on 15 March 2009 at the Centennial Lecture Hall at Peking University, where leaders from authorities as the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Legal Aid, Center for Legal Assistance, All-China Lawyers’ Association and the Beijing Lawyers’ Association turned up to show their support. The speech given by Professor Zhu Suli, Dean of Peking University Law Department remains vivid in my mind.

In September 2009, Ms Guo Jianmei, public interest lawyer and head of the Center founded Qian Qian Law Firm. Specialising in public interest law and public interest legal activities, and comprising professional public interest lawyers, Qian Qian has expanded its scope to benefit a broader spectrum of vulnerable persons such as the disabled, migrant workers and the aged.

15 years of innovative approaches and effective outputs have not only profited the poor and vulnerable women; the Center has also grown to become an influential and credible NGO. It has earned praises and won awards. In February 2006, in their congratulatory note to the Center’s tenth anniversary, Professor Min Weifang, the Party Secretary of Peking University, and Professor Xu Zhihong, President of Peking University, said, “the Center for Women's Law & Legal Services of Peking University has observed Peking University’s glorious tradition of patriotism, progress, democracy and scientific approach. By seeking relentlessly, developing aggressively, and improving constantly, it has achieved commendable results, contributed to the progress and advancement of women’s rights protection and legal aid delivery, and served its role in fostering harmony. Its work has won interest, support and tribute of the society and its peers, recognition and respect from women at large, and glory for Peking University!”

As Premier Wen Jiabao said, “Equity and justice glow brighter than the sun.” Indeed, equity and justice are of supreme value and significance to every individual, every country, and every nation. The Center shall be a faithful and determined perpetuator of this worthy cause.

II. Hurdles deter us not, but spur us on.

Cancellation by Peking University was not our first setback. The Center was nearly closed down during its initial days, only to be followed by one challenge after another. Funding was a major problem, as those days, funding channels were few and funding systems unregulated. Fund shortage stymied NGO development, and was the major obstacle to the Center’s growth.

Talent is another problem, especially when the Center, as a professional organisation, was in need of well-qualified legal professionals. Attracting and retaining talent in a society of low public interest awareness and driven by utilitarianism was a huge difficulty. So were balancing ideals and the reality, dedication and compensation, and spiritual fulfilment and material satisfaction.

Our work is also hampered by a deficient legal environment, flawed enforcement systems, administrative interference, local protectionist policies, industry protectionism, even corruptive practices within the judicial system. Persistent overwork leading to physical and mental stress of the Center’s members is also a permanent problem.

Cancellation is also not the gravest difficulty we have faced. We were even threatened with physical harm. When angry villagers in that remote village let go of their tightly clasped sticks, convinced by our steady and determined gaze, we knew we could never be beaten. Because justice is what we pursue, and justice will always triumph.

Difficulty is only an excuse of the weak and the feeble. To go-getters with conviction, difficulty is impetus to move mountains. Difficulty is but snowfall before spring comes. And snow melts. Thereafter, a spring breeze will blow away, bringing forth myriad blossoms and an enchanting fragrance.

III. Farewell, Beida! But our pursuance of equity and justice shall endure, and our belief in the rule of law shall prevail.

We have several members on our team who are Peking University graduates. They were inculcated with knowledge and intellectual depth, and nurtured with democratic sensibilities and humanistic values––the motivation for their choice of a public interest career. Cancellation was saddening to Guo Jianmei. This is not the Beida that she once knew. Guo’s resolute embarkation on a public interest career was guided by her Beida predecessors and the Beida spirit. She hopes that many will understand her sense of desolation and feeling of betrayal.

But desolation is one thing, Guo Jianmei and her team are as eager and as passionate as ever. They are convinced that legal aid and public interest work is what the people need, and what a harmonious society must have. These needs are revealed by the Center’s work during the last 15 years, spoken by the sacks of millet and sweet potatoes, and the hundreds of thank-you banners from those poor and vulnerable clients, and proven by the numerous awards that the Center has won.

The Center may have become a chapter in history, Qian Qian is for now and the future.

The Center has devoted itself to serving women’s rights, giving legal aid, and growing as an NGO. The least it has done is to have sent this message: Private legal aid organisations must and will play an indispensable role in China. Given the national circumstances, charting new frontiers, will require dedicated and valiant fighters, and they should be recognised and encouraged.

The future will be bright, and we will stick to our goal and continue on. The road may be treacherous, and the view along the way may not be always pleasant. But the meaning of life is about keeping our feet on the ground, undeterred, and making our way toward our ideals.

We have no complaint, we have no regret.

We thank every entity and every friend who cares for and who supports us. We have you, who will walk with us.

Formally Center for Women's Law & Legal Services of Peking University

Friday, April 9, 2010

Notice on administration of donated foreign funds

April 9, 2010

Last month, a notice by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange was issued calling for tighter controls over foreign exchange donated to Chinese institutions. This notice was not aimed specifically at NGOs/nonprofits, but probably disproportionately affects them because many Chinese NGOs rely heavily on overseas donations. The translation below was provided by Yirenping, a Chinese legal aid NGO.

The Chinese version of this Notice appears on the official website of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange,24&id=4

Promulgation date: 12-25-2009
Effective date: 03-01-2010
Department: State Administration of Foreign Exchange
Subject: Foreign Exchange

Notice of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange on Issues concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to or by Domestic Institutions

(No. 63 [2009] of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange)

In order to improve the administration of donated foreign exchange and facilitate the donated foreign exchange receipts and payments, according to the Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on Foreign Exchange Administration and other relevant provisions, we hereby notify you of the issues concerning the administration of foreign exchange donated to or by domestic institutions as follows:

1. The term “donation” as mentioned in this Notice refers to the gratuitous endowment and aid of legal foreign exchange funds between domestic institutions and overseas institutions or overseas individuals.

2. The receipts and payments of foreign exchange donated to or by domestic institutions shall comply with the laws and regulations and other relevant administrative provisions of China and shall not go against social morality or damage public interests and the legitimate rights and interests of other citizens.

3. The receipts and payments of foreign exchange of domestic institutions shall be transacted through a donated foreign exchange account, which shall be set up at the designated foreign exchange banks (“Banks”) and incorporated into the foreign exchange account management system by the Banks.

Except as herein provided, the opening, use, altering and closure of the donated foreign exchange account shall be dealt with in accordance with the regulations on foreign exchange accounts under current account. The scope of receipts include donated foreign exchange from overseas and foreign exchange funds for the purpose of overseas donation(purchased or allocated from foreign exchange accounts under current account in the same name). The scope of payments include payments stipulated in the donation agreement and other donation payments.

The scope of receipts and payments of donated foreign exchange accounts of the representative offices within China of overseas non-governmental organizations include donated foreign exchange appropriated from their headquarter as well as the legitimate expenses of those organizations.

Where the donations occur between domestic enterprises and overseas for-profit institutions or overseas individuals, the opening, use, altering and closure of domestic enterprises’s donated foreign exchange accounts shall be dealt with in accordance with the regulations on foreign exchange accounts under current account.

4. Domestic institutions shall present correlative documents as stipulated in this Notice for the examination and approval of the Banks to proceed the receipts and payments of foreign exchange donations.

5. Where the donations occur between domestic enterprises and overseas non-profit organizations, the domestic enterprises shall present the following documents so as to proceed in the Banks:

1) an Application(in which the domestic enterprises shall truthfully promise that the donation is not against national prohibitive regulation, that the transaction has, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, been examined and filed in record, that the overseas institution is a non-profit institution, that the domestic enterprise shall strictly follow the agreement in making use of the donation and bear the legal responsibility thus caused. For the format of the Application, see Attachment I);
2) a copy of its business license;
3) a notarized donation agreement with the purpose of donation prescribed;
4) a certificate of registration of the overseas non-profit organization (with its Chinese translation attached);
5) Where the above materials fail to sufficiently establish the authenticity of the transaction, other materials required;

The donation between domestic enterprises and overseas for-profit institutions or individuals shall be dealt with in accordance with the regulations on cross-border investment and external credit or debt.

6. Where the donation is made to or by state organs at or above the county level and certain organizations that, according to relevant regulation provisions, do not have to register or are exempt from registration, they shall present the Application to proceed foreign exchange receipts and payments at the Banks. (For the list of such organizations, see Attachment II.)

7. The representative office established by the overseas non-governmental organization within China shall present the Application and the donation agreement between its headquarter and the Chinese Beneficiary so as to handle the entry of the donated foreign exchange.

8. Other domestic institutions not listed in Article 5, 6 or 7 of this Notice shall present the following documents so as to proceed the receipts and payments of donated foreign exchange:

(1) An Application(in which the domestic institution shall truthfully promise that the donation is not against national prohibitive regulation, that the transaction has, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, been examined and filed in record, that the domestic institution shall strictly follow the agreement in making use of the donation and bear the legal responsibility thus caused.)
(2) a copy of the certificate of registration issued by relevant administrative departments
(3) A donation agreement with the purpose of donation prescribed

Where religious groups on the national level accept a donation of foreign exchange equivalent to or above 1 million yuan RMB, they shall also present the approval of accepting the donation issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Where local religious groups and sites for religious activities such as temples, monasteries, mosques and churches accept a donation of foreign exchange equivalent to or above 1 million yuan RMB, they shall also present the approval of accepting the donation issued by its Provincial People’s Government.

9. Where domestic institutions make a donation to overseas, they shall, in addition to the correlative documents stipulated in this Notice, submit as in accordance with relevant regulation provisions the Tax Certificate for Foreign Payments under Trade in Services, Benefits, Current Transfer and Some Capital Items.

10. In processing the receipts and payments of donated foreign exchange for domestic institutions, the Banks shall examine the documents submitted according to relevant regulation provisions and report to local SAFE departments suspicious and unusual cases in a timely manner.

The Banks shall indicate on its examination and approval the date and amount of the transaction with its official chop for business. All correlative documents shall be kept for five years for future reference.

11. The SAFE departments shall in accordance with relevant laws and regulations supervise and administer the receipts and payments of donated foreign exchange . They shall further enhance off-site supervision of the donations.

12. Violations of this Notice and correlative foreign exchange administrative regulations shall be punished in accordance with Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on Foreign Exchange Administration and other relevant regulations.

13. This Notice shall enter into force as of March 1, 2010. In case of any contradiction with previous regulations, this Notice shall prevail.

On receiving this Notice, all branches of the SAFE shall transmit it promptly to the sub-branches, city commercial banks, rural commercial banks and foreign-funded banks under their jurisdiction. All Chinese-funded Banks shall promptly forward the Notice to their branches. Any problem encountered during the implementation shall be fed back to the SAFE in a timely manner.

Attachment I Application for Receipts and Payments of Foreign Exchange Donation by Domestic Enterprises

Attachment II List of Certain Organizations Exempt from Registration According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs

December 25, 2009

Attachment I.

Application for Receipts and Payments of Foreign Exchange Donation by Domestic Enterprises

Bank :
The Enterprise hereby applies to receive/pay donated foreign exchange in the amount of , mainly for the purpose of .
The Enterprise solemnly promises, that the receipt/payment of the donated foreign exchange is not against relevant national prohibitive regulations, that the transaction has, in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, been examined and filed in record, that the overseas institution is a non-profit institution. The Enterprise shall strictly follow the donation agreement in making use of the donation and bear the legal responsibility thus caused.

Contact Person: Contact Phone Number:

The Enterprise: (With its Official Chop/Seal)

Date: Year Month Day

Attachment II

List of Certain Organizations Exempt from Registration According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs

1. Organization that took part in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference:

All-China Federation of Trade Unions、China Communist Youth League、All-China Women Federation、China Association for Science and Technology、 All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese、All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots。All-China Youth Federation、All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce。

2. Organizations that are exempt from registration according to the State Council:

China Federation of Literary and Art Circles、China Writers Association、All-China Journalists' Association、Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries、Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs、China Council for the Promotion of International Trade、China Disabled Persons’ Federation、China Soong Ching Ling Foundation、China Law Society、Red Cross Society of China、China Society for the Study of Ideological and Political Work among Workers and Staff、Western Returned Scholars Association、Huangpu Military Academy Fellow-Student Association、National Association of Vocational Education of China。

3. Eleven Artists’ Associations under China Federation of Literary and Art Circle: Chinese Theatre Association、China Film Association、Chinese Musicians Association、China Artists Association、Chinese Ballad Singers Association、China Dancers Association、Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society、China Photographers Association、China Calligraphers Association、China Acrobats Association、China Television Artists Association。

4. All Provincial, Autonomous Regional, and Municipal-level Federations of Literary and Art Circle and Writers Associations