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January 29, 2020

A Better China Strategy for International Civil Society

In Europe, as in the U.S., 2019 was a challenging year for advocates of civil society cooperation and engagement with China. A crackdown on even very moderate activism continues unabated, as exemplified by the arrest of three employees of the domestic NGO Changsha Funeng on charges of “subversion of state power,” as well as the continued detention of Belgium-based NGO International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig on dubious “national security” charges. This is not even to mention the concerted, large-scale human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which remains one of many taboo topics for any foreign organization with project activities in mainland China. Moreover, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) intransigent response to them have widened the pro/anti-China cleavage, making the Special Administrative Region a much less hospitable hub for Sino-Western engagement—and even creating a public backlash against several international NGOs accused of taking an “impartial” stance in the conflict or “self-censoring” on human rights violations. Yet, at the same time, more internationally active NGOs than ever before are debating internally how to develop their China strategies and find Chinese partners willing and able to support their missions relating to social justice, humanitarian relief, or the climate crisis. Given China’s tremendous impact on these global challenges, international NGOs have every reason to sharpen their thinking on China, and they would do so better as a collective rather than on their own.

Indeed, much of the European and American debate about China’s Foreign NGO Law has revolved around the trade-offs and opportunities associated with continuing activities in mainland China. However, the issues internationally operating NGOs face are far bigger than that. Chinese investors are influential in virtually every country and region of the Global South, the Chinese government has a pivotal role in climate diplomacy, and China’s influence is growing in the UN system and wherever else the rules of civil society participation in global governance are discussed and defined. Organizations’ strategies for working in and with China can no longer be just a country strategy, and cannot be confined to a China team based in Beijing or Hong Kong alone.

This explains the need for international NGOs—whether or not they have on-the-ground activities in mainland China or a dedicated China country team—to develop a specific, organization-wide, global China strategy. This global strategy must incorporate a candid assessment of the organization’s mission and values as compared to relevant Chinese actors’ international approaches, identifying areas of both complementarity and conflict. Thus, the International Civil Society Centre (ICS Centre), a Berlin-based platform and capacity-building organization owned by 15 large international NGOs, focused last year on the “implications of China’s rise on the future work of [international civil society organizations]” at a global scale. Based on insights from rights-focused as well as service-oriented organizations, all of whom have very different histories of engagement with China, I worked with the ICS Centre to develop a Sector Guide with strategic pointers and practical entry points for leaders of international NGOs.

The guide argues that both “insider” organizations with good ties to Chinese partners and decision-makers, as well as “outsider” organizations with the ability and freedom to address negative repercussions of China’s global presence, are needed to maximize civil society’s positive impact and promote global public goods. Internationally active NGOs need to go beyond solitary approaches and improve cross-sectoral coordination and cooperation. This could include regular information-sharing, jointly commissioned trend analyses, and joint pilot projects for working with Chinese actors overseas.

Furthermore, as Beijing’s heightened policing of civil society—domestically and abroad—raises the administrative and moral costs of cooperative “insider” strategies, International NGOs should avoid engagement just for engagement’s sake. This means, for instance, that they need to introduce mechanisms to regularly reassess the longer-term costs and benefits of maintaining a physical presence in China. Similarly, international NGOs should weigh the relative merits of collaborating with the increasing number of Chinese organizations working outside of mainland China. As Chinese multinational companies expand their corporate social responsibility programs and as Chinese non-profit organizations “go abroad,” the potential for international NGOs to develop strategic partnerships with these groups also grows. However, the actual value of such partnerships should be judged by their on-the-ground impact rather than their signature lofty declarations.

China’s future role in global civil society will also be defined by its capacity for technological innovation. Already, Chinese-originated technologies show great potential for solving health-, energy-, or education-related developmental challenges in poorer countries. They also bear conspicuous dangers for personal freedoms and democracy worldwide. While some technology-related issues are China-specific, such as those touching on information and communications technologies, most related issues would better be addressed as broader international concerns rather than as simply China-specific. For example, global civil society coalitions should advocate for better global standards on the ethical uses of technology generally, not just with regard to China.

Finally, international NGOs must listen to and work closely with local activists and civil society organizations in the Global South, rather than simply present ready-made solutions for “dealing with China.” In so doing, NGOs can address the legitimacy challenges and risks stemming from the Chinese government’s portrayal of them as “Western” organizations interfering in China’s “South-South relations” with “Belt and Road countries.”

That the strength of C.C.P. decision-makers lies in their capacity for concerted long-term planning is an oft-repeated truism. Although global civil society necessarily works in a totally different and much more decentralized fashion, it is high time for internationally active NGOs to address China’s global role in a more strategic and holistic way. The international civil society community must strengthen sector-wide coordination in order to take advantage of Chinese overseas financing and technological innovation to better support on-the-ground efforts. At the same time, it must confront the potential threats that arise from the C.C.P.’s increasingly assertive global influencing strategies.

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Bertram Lang is a research associate at Goethe University Frankfurt. His academic interest includes China’s non-profit sector, EU-China relations, and the politics of anti-corruption. Lang has also...

Scanning the Horizon,” Bertram Lang for the International Civil Society Centre