The Changing Landscape for NGOs in China

I just did a consultancy for an NGO in Chengdu . I also did my master’s thesis on the politics of NGO work there in 2008. On one hand, everything is better. Almost ‘sea change’ better. This NGO was given a free office inside a marriage registry in Chengdu and remained 100% independent. That’s night and day from when the group I studied in 2008, couldn’t get any formal recognition and there were a dozen traps set up such that they were always doing something illegal and you could be crushed if you ever pissed the wrong people off (see Gongmeng 公盟). Rule by “one eye shut” created extraordinary discipline (see my paper here).

My critique is that there’s a difference between civil society and NGOs. The government is increasingly pleased with NGOs, especially those that are willing to tackle issues that they don’t really want to get involved in or otherwise throw money at issues missing in their budgets. I think it comes out in the names that these NGOs adopt, almost always “social work center.”

I believe the CCP is still repressive of genuine civil society. They will not allow military veterans, migrant workers, the unemployed, or any other marginalized group to organize autonomously in society. Groups like Huizhi can talk about policy, but they can never ‘lobby’ or even ‘advocate.’ Even simple suggestions I had, like ‘starting a conversation’ about affirmative action-type programs for migrant youth seemed completely off the table. Thus I don’t think these really represent a form of political pluralism and only a tiny increase in the power of organized non-CCP voices in society.

Things have gotten better, but from a very low baseline. Hu’s CCP was unreasonably afraid of NGOs, Xi’s CCP sees them as useful. In a lot of ways, this might yet be a bad thing because it’s coming to look like Washington Consensus-style loosening of governmental responsibility over issues that only it can fix – either because it created the problem or only it has the capacity. So this is to say that it might be better for the NGOs, but not better for the marginalized groups who they’re increasingly allowed to help.

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