China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

Prospects for Chinese NGOs

Note: This article was originally written in April 2007

As of late 2003, over 142,000 non-governmental organizations in China led movements to postpone development of dams, establish environmental awareness, and provide AIDS-prevention education. And since the 1990s, then number of organizations has grown exponentially.

At first glance, reports on the growth of Chinese public organizations seem comforting. Chinese people appear to be developing rudimentary civil society. However, calling China’s “NGOs” “non-governmental organizations” is basically a misnomer.

Chinese Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) need to be registered with the State, and many are overseen by the Party to ensure their goals do not become too political. If an organization is seen as challenging the state, it risks being labeled “reactionary” and denounced as an “illegal organization.”

Chinese NGOs must be registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and pay a registration fee to both local and national governments. The fee, according to one China expert professor based in Beijing, is relatively large, and can vary widely based on whims of local officials. To successfully establish a NGO, a group must satisfy officials at all levels of the chain of command with clever arguments or even bribes. The Chinese governing system very much is one of “the buck stops here” since any official can obstruct appeals to higher authorities. China’s hierarchical Party-State apparatus makes it difficult to petition when an official blocks progress.

Therefore, the amount of China’s NGOs remains small. The focus of Chinese NGOs also tends to be regional. As of 2003 only around 1,736 NGOs were classified as cross-regional, and less than 50 cross-regional NGOs were established each year in the early 2000s. Slow progress in establishing more NGOs indicates that the Communist Party is interested in preventing Non-Governmental Organizations from growing large enough to present a challenge to the State’s authority.

The CCP, ever concerned with its “face” and reputation as the party of the People, does not want a repeat of 1999’s disgrace, when nearly 10,000 practitioners of the Fal_un G0ng religious sect appeared in Beijing and participated in a sit-down protest of government curtailment of their activities.
To prevent future challenges, Beijing suppressed the sect, terrorizing and threatening members, then imprisoning and torturing people who refused to renounce their beliefs. In the long term, Beijing continues monitoring religious groups and non-governmental organizations to ensure that such a shameful event does not happen again.

China also starkly limits the scope of permitted NGOs. Those dealing with “sensitive” political issues, such as political reform or the welfare of workers are prohibited, or their activities are curtailed.
Of China’s cross-provincial groups, many are infiltrated by spies for the Communist Party, are directly overseen by, or work hand in hand with the government.

In 2000, a group of students and young people with an interest in debating methods for practical political reform formed the New Youth Study Group in Beijing. Just a year later, in 2001, almost all of their members were placed in jail, save two who fled, one who spoke against the group under questioning, and one who worked as a paid state informant.

Even labor unions function under the watchful eye of the Party-State apparatus. Leaders of the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions), China’s only legal labor union, are Party members and they are ultimately loyal to Party dictates. Attempts to begin other labor unions, such as 1989’s Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Union have been ruthlessly crushed, with leaders imprisoned or executed for “subverting the state.”

Organizations which actually serve citizens where the CCP’s delivery of services has been subpar, have enjoyed greater success, but still are relatively ineffective compared to Western NGOs- particularly in the area of environmental policy.

NGOs opposing dam construction and establishment of “green belts” and planting of trees find their efforts hindered by both the state and society. Because of sharp rich/poor divisions in China, trees can even be “kidnapped” by hooligans to be sold. And although NGOs have successfully delayed development of some dams which could harm the environment or destroy ancient cultural sites, the NGOs have, for the most part, not prevented development.

Groups helping prevent and provide services for AIDS-infected Chinese also proliferate. However, for long- until after 2003’s SARS epidemic, the CCP ignored the AIDS problem, and still continues to harass AIDS-activists such as Gao Yaojie who had her telephone communication cut off after receiving an award from the women’s rights organization Vital Voices.

Then where can Chinese express political views if organizations are not enough? Through petitioning the state and participating in mass protests (some, such as the Zhushan incident in March 2007 involved over 20,000 people), the Chinese people have directly challenged the State.

In a later article, I will examine the relative effectiveness of petitioning and mass protests in changing the Government’s policies and the effect they have in developing a notion of Chinese Democracy.

Several Sources Consulted:
Gao Yaojie: My Three Policies, Other People Do Not Represent Me Nor Do They Speak on My Behalf

Goldman, Merle. From Comrade To Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China. Harvard University Press. 2005. 2, 169, inter alia.

Lam, Willy Wo-Lop. Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges ME Sharpe. 2006. 242-243.

  • According to Willy Lam; as of late 2003 only 1,736 of China’s 142,000 non-governmental organizations “could be classified as nationwide or cross-provincial.”
  • Zhushan— Originally source is from a CNN article March 12, 2007 (but I currently cannot locate it, so I will link to the next best thing- an article by the NYT: Kahn, Joseph. March 12, 2007. Police Restore Order in Hunan Province After Riots

    2 June, 2008 Posted by | China Democratization, NGOs | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment