China’s NGO Sector A Reality or an Illusion?

Post the reform era that began in 1978, the NGO sector in China has mushroomed greatly. According to the official statistics of the Ministry of Civil Society, the number of NGOs rose from the 6000 mark before 1978, to 186,000 in 2006. Private NGOs that were absent in China prior to the reform era have now come into existence. But does the increase of private NGOs really imply the existence of a ‘free civil society’ in China? Does the law of the land stem the independent growth of non-official NGOs and monitor the official NGOs? What exactly is the role and impact of NGOs within the Chinese society?


In China, NGOs are officially called ‘popular organisations’. They are clubbed into two broad categories i.e. officially organised (she huituanti) and popular NGOs (min ban feiqiyedanwei). The first category is initiated and operated by the Chinese government. The staff members are mostly on a government payroll. On the other hand, popular NGOs are initiated by private individuals and they receive no subsidies from the government.The post liberalisation phase has given an impetus to the non-official NGO’s to mushroom in China – a possibility which did not exist at all before the reforms. Now, they are allowed to use non-state controlled resources and pursue independent interest and agendas. In 2006, there were around 159,000 private NGOs in the country. However, many factors have hindered the ability of the non-officialNGO’s to work solely for the benefit of the public.


According to its internal policies, the Civil Affairs Department does not approve applications from any ‘specific social group’ like migrant workers, laid off workers, ex-servicemen, religious groups and so on. This clause is in place in order to safeguard the Chinese government from the formation of any political, social or religious organisation in disguise of a NGO that could lead to any movement challenging the party or the state. There are many instances wherein associations formed by migrant labourers were ‘persuaded’ to dismantle themselves after the members threatened further action if their demands for increase in salaries and decrease in working hours were not given attention.


Other than this the government does not want any NGO to grow in size and infrastructure so that it has networks all over the country. This would help in preventing a movement in one part of the country from having an impact on the rest of the region, or on the neighbouring regions. Thus there is a clause which restricts NGOs from opening regional branches i.e. national NGOs are restricted to Beijing, while provincial and county level ones remain within the provincial capital or county seat. This has curtailed their growth potential. The third controversial clause restricts new NGOs from opening if there is already a NGO doing similar work in the same administrative area. Thus, if there is any official NGO working for the welfare of disabled persons in a particular area, a popular NGO cannot work for the same cause in the same area.


Effect of the Clauses:


These clauses not only restrict the growth of NGOs, but also limit their resources. Their existence implies that even popular NGOs have to look up to the government for support. This in turn means collaborating with government agencies for projects and relying on their administrative networks to implement projects. This heavy dependency on the government hindersthe progress of work and also restricts the direction of NGO work. To add to this, there is constant monitoring and restriction on campaigning for certain causes – the prevention of which is beyond their limits. For example, popular organisations working for women issues can only touch on certain issues through their websites, and social media but cannot focus on gritty issues such as forced abortions, the One Child policy or any issue that will show the government officials in a bad light. This also reflects the attitude of the NGOs towards people who feel that officials and government policies are more important than the citizens that they are actually working for.



Official NGOs also face a lot of problems. The Party wants government agencies to transfer some of their functions to NGOs but the agencies refuse to do so, as they fear a reduction in their power and resources. Thus, NGOs do not have a huge impact on the region in which they are established, as no real power or resources are transferred to them by the local governments. These NGOs are usually staffed by retired or serving government officials whose income security is not related to the NGO’s status. Thus, they hardly show any entrepreneurial flair. However, the most important flipside of these official NGOs is that they are created by government agencies, as fronts for agency slush funds, to which unaccounted income can be transferred.




These controversial clauses have also led to the growth of an overt mistrust of Chinese citizens in this sector. The trust of citizens and their participation is vital not only for its growth but also attributes to its true survival. The lapses in setting up a proper citizen friendly atmosphere even by popular NGOs due to all the controversial laws and the growth of internet as a source for fighting for a cause is a major reason why NGOs do not enjoy a good rapport with the Chinese citizens. Besides, there is also another side to this story as had been highlighted in a public speech by Meng Weina, a Chinese NGO activist for more than 20 years. She said that not only is the government responsible for the slow development of the NGO sector in China, but so are the citizens. She added that if she ever sharply criticises the government for its policies, the citizens and even members of her own NGO refuse to support her. This is out of fear of the backlash that they can suffer from the officials. Their attitude can be understood in context of the fact that China’s one-party system exerts a totalitarian control over all aspects of polity and society. Understandably, then, the societal culture in which the average Chinese citizen exists has left little space for NGOs to flourish.


Many surveys have been done which show that people come together for a cause but once their own problems are solved they do not take any interest in the organisation. For example, a group of parents came together to demand special education for autistic children. However once the problem was solved many including its founding members left the organisation. They did not fight for new parents who had joined the association and were still facing the same problem. There is, then, a collaborative and corresponding mix of government policy, the inability of citizens to carry movements forward to their natural fruition and a real social fear of government backlash that has restricted the growth of the NGO sector in China.However, despite these flip sides, there are certain areas where they are making a mark.


Sectors Touched by NGO’s


In recent years, Chinese NGO’s have impacted certain sectors like natural resource management, HIV/AIDS, protection of environmental rights, public advocacy and education, etc. Moreover, since 2007, they have endeavoured to make an impact in a more challenging and promising area—China’s clean energy policy. The workings of these NGO’s are closely entwined with the government and thus, the major works of these NGOs have been on ‘softer issues’ related to environment. For example, Friends of Nature works with environmental education, mainly in elementary schools. In addition, the NGO sponsors wildlife conservation campaigns, with a special focus on the Tibetan antelope. The group is creating awareness among children on how and why to save the environment so that at least the coming generation understands the ill effects of a degrading environment on society.


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


In 2013, the Chinese government declared that by the end of the year it will introduce revised administrative regulations for NGO’s. Administrative regulations are the biggest obstacle for the launch of an NGO. The new law would allow four categories i.e. industrial association, charities, community services and organisations associated with promotion of science and technology a direct registration with the Civil Affairs without the lengthy procedure of pre-examination and approval by other regulators. However, even if the new law comes into force by the end of this year, following the party line will hamper the growth of popular NGOs in China. Though the new law might help in setting up more NGOs yet the problem lies in the restrictions that they face in their functioning due to political and institutional structures in the country. Although NGOs in China are heavily dependent on Party funds and have to toe the Party line they have still impacted many sectors of Chinese society to a great extent under this control.


Nevertheless, despite the good work being done within the limits of their functions, talking about a free civil society is not correct at this point in China. Civil society does exist in China but, unfortunately, a ‘free’ civil society is non- existential.


Namrata Hasija is Research Associate at Center for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. She has recently published a book titled ‘Medieval Chinese Perception of India: Two Medieval Chinese Accounts of Foreign People and Places, and their Representation of India’. She can be contacted at: hasija.namrata@gmail.com