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NGOs in China

Oct 31 , 2016
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

It is a growing trend for Chinese citizens to participate in political affairs, even people-to-people diplomacy, via non-governmental organizations.

NGOs rose in China in the second half of the 20th century, and grew rapidly in step with reform and opening up. Nearly 700,000 of them are now operating in such fields as education, science and technology, culture, environment, public health and social service.

The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs issued Regulations on Registration and Administration of Social Organizations in 1989, categorizing NGOs as academic, trade, professional, and confederate ones. Then Chinese authorities have gradually placed increasing emphasis on functions of NGOs, so much so that they are approached from the perspective of national development strategies. Meanwhile, they have strengthened administration. 

The Communist Party of China has made the following points on NGOs in its key documents: 1. Social organizations are an element in construction of national cultural soft power. 2. In order to build a management regime with Chinese characteristics, there has to be a system featuring Party committee leadership, government administration, societal coordination, public participation and legal guarantee. 3. It is important to establish and improve decision-making consultancy mechanisms, broaden channels for NGOs to participate in consultations, and promote extensive institutionalization of deliberative democracy at various levels. Meanwhile, there is a need to invigorate social organizations, guide them to practice self-rule with government “administration”, and make sure they operate in accordance with law. 

The above guiding principles have resulted in standardization of NGOs. They have played important roles in preserving public interests, making public policies more scientific and rational. Yet there still is room for improvement in further fine-tuning relations between NGOs and government agencies, and enhancing the former’s capabilities for participating in society’s overall progress.

Some people say Chinese authorities have always maintained absolute control over society, and are more inclined to suspect and suppress NGOs. Others say in a country featuring “strong state, weak society” like China, authorities are always on guard against NGOs. Such claims are not completely groundless. But since the inception of reform and opening up, with the emergence of a great number of semi-official and purely non-governmental organizations, the previous pattern of the authorities dominating social development has changed. It is thus important to take such changes into consideration while observing the relationship between the state and society.

China has always attached great importance to the functions of people-to-people diplomacy, actively promoting people-to-people diplomacy with Chinese characteristics by means of NGOs.

Indigenous Chinese NGOs have established themselves and been constantly enhancing communication with international NGOs in China, borrowing their fine experiences and ideas, improving capabilities and talent reserve, and actively participating in international affairs.

In recent years, more and more overseas NGOs have come to China. Currently nearly 10,000 are operating in the country. It was against such a background that the Chinese government on April 28 published Law on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China, which will take effect on January 1, 2017, aiming at standardizing, guiding their operation in China, guaranteeing their legal rights and interests, and promoting communication and cooperation. The law explicitly stipulates that “overseas NGOs means non-profit, non-governmental social organizations legally formed abroad, including foundations, social groups, and think-tanks, among others”. Under the law, they can engage in various activities conducive to public interest in many fields.

Corresponding oversight and regulation are mainly in the following forms: 1. The action plans their representative agencies present each year should cover fund use, and there are strict rules on the sources, collection and payment of funds supporting their activities in China, and on management of their accounts. 2. Public-security departments conduct supervision and regulation. 3. Authorities in charge of registration can at any time notify Chinese partners to suspend activities when they find registered provisional events may endanger national security. 4. Overseas NGOs suspected of such criminal activities as subversion of state power and splitting the country will be blacklisted, prohibited from maintaining representative offices in China, or carry out provisional activities. The law also stipulates that the state will commend overseas NGOs who have made outstanding contributions to advancing public welfare in China.

The aforementioned standardization and regulation of overseas NGOs operating in China are necessary for China at the present stage. After all, foreign NGOs’ roles in the “color revolutions” in Central Asia cannot help but make the Chinese authorities vigilant. But from the complete ban of overseas NGOs before reform and opening up to coming up with a national law to facilitate their presence and operation in the country, China has taken a conspicuous stride forward.

It will be a long-term process for Chinese authorities to practice effective administration and overseas NGOs in China to practice self-discipline and accept supervision. But as long as both sides can proceed from goodwill, strengthen collaboration, and work to eliminate misunderstandings and prejudices in a timely way, there will be mutually beneficial outcomes.

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