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June 11, 2018

A Censored Discussion on Chinese Civil Society in China

Wang Zhenyao was the Director of the Emergency Aid Committee in the Ministry of Civil Affairs when the massive earthquake hit Sichuan in 2008. The earthquake attracted millions of volunteers and billions of philanthropic donations from all over China and was said to mark the beginning of philanthropic activity in China.

With nearly two decades of experience working on philanthropy and nonprofits in China, Wang is familiar with both the weaknesses and the prospects of Chinese civil society. In a recent interview with Caixin, a private financial and business media company in China, published on May 11, he shared his opinions on the Charity Law and the Foreign NGO Law. The interview was dramatically shortened not long thereafter, leaving only two short paragraphs up on the Caixin website.

Wang raised some interesting points in the pre-censored interview that are relevant for NGOs working in China. One of Wang’s main insights in the interview was that public discourse about civil society organizations contributed to the 2016 Charity Law that regulates domestic NGOs. Wang believes that around 2011, Chinese citizens began to reflect on the transparency, professionalization, and organization of civil society organizations. These discussions led the government to start registering civil society organizations in 2013 and eventually pass the Charity Law in 2016. The entire process shows that discussions and debates as such are “constructive” (建设性) and are aimed at resolving specific problems rather than just simply complaining. This, according to him, is a sign that a society is growing more mature.

Wang also pointed out major shortcomings in China’s civil society management. These include a wage cap and lack of formal training for social workers, and the lack of coordination between society and the government. Wang contrasted these characteristics of Chinese civil society with those institutions in Hong Kong and the West.

Wang also discussed positive aspects of Chinese civil society for society at large. For example, he argues that a lot of social issues are effectively resolved by citizens with a “self-governing” and “do it yourself” attitude.

Further, Wang believes that Chinese civil society organizations should interact with the government to have a voice in agenda-setting, and the Charity Law involves huge improvements in this respect. The Charity Law also more systematically organizes domestic civil society organizations, which Wang considers to be an improvement.

Wang also specifically addressed the Foreign NGO Law. The following is The NGO Project’s translation of this portion of the interview:

Caixin Reporter: How do you evaluate the results of the Foreign NGO law?

Wang Zhenyao: It required a learning process. I think the results are generally good. Previously, before the law, only around 10 foreign organizations were able to get registered, but now there are more than 300. Through a year of formal implementation, the Ministry of Public Security also accumulated a lot of good experience.

In the future, I would recommend borrowing from international experience, absorbing foreign NGOs’ management and project design experience in particular. China is walking outwards, but one of our legs is shorter than the other—and that is our civil society organizations.1 They don’t match up with our level of economic development. Developed countries excel at developing civil society organizations. These organizations are global in nature and are often in lockstep with, if not even ahead of, the economy. They can help us understand foreign cultures. Objectively, then, they are a positive mechanism. And now, as China is putting so much emphasis on economically “going out,” with the civil society leg so short and the number of enterprises going abroad so great, it’s really not okay to not have those civil society organizations. If, in the course of its management, the Ministry of Public Security could actively facilitate collaboration between Chinese and foreign organizations, and encourage domestic organizations to use these channels to strengthen collaboration and learning, China would have hundreds and thousands of civil society organizations going overseas in the future.

Caixin Reporter: The Foreign NGO Law levied some restrictions on foreign NGOs’ activities in China, such as the ability to set up branch offices or to fundraise. What is your opinion on this?

Wang Zhenyao: I have a few conclusions about this from my past few years of experience. I think the law should be implemented for a while, and if projects require it, then it could be readjusted. We’ll have to look at the results of the implementation in the future. It shouldn’t be rushed, it should be done slowly. First explore it for a couple years. From my perspective, some foreign NGOs working on elder care-, children-, or disability-related projects are using their money to help impoverished Chinese, but they cannot fundraise. Now, couldn’t some adjustments be made to this? After certain verifications, we could work with them in the future, or even have the government purchase their services.

  1. Wang uses two terms interchangeably to refer to civil society organizations in his interview. One is “社会组织,” which literally translates to “social organizations.” Another is “民间组织,” which could be translated as “civil society organizations.” This article translates both to “civil society organizations.”

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