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November 30, 2018

How Outsiders View ‘Civil Society,’ the Stages of Chinese Charity, and Partnering with Domestic NGOs

A Roundup of Recent NGO-Related Content from around the Web

Several of the recommendations made during the UN Human Rights Council’s recent Universal Periodic Review of China’s human rights record pertain to civil society and NGOs. Civil society consultant Shiwei Ye examined and classified these recommendations in an analysis on Medium. The recommendations include the following (the country making each recommendation is included in parenthesis):

  • Consider further measures to ensure a safe environment for journalists and other Civil Society actors to carry out their work (Greece);
  • Guarantee freedom of opinion and expression, enhancing efforts to create an environment in which journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs can freely operate according with international standards (Italy);
  • Continue ensuring legal protection of foreign NGOs activity as provided by the relevant law (Russian Federation);
  • Expand the list of Professional Supervisory Units to accommodate registration of NGOs that seek to work in China (Denmark);
  • Consider further measures to ensure a safe environment for journalists and other Civil Society actors to carry out their work (Greece);
  • Enable all members of civil society to freely engage with international human rights mechanisms without fear of intimidation and reprisals (Estonia)

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The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China recently posted an interview with Bin Xu, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emory University. In discussing how the Sichuan earthquake affected civic engagement in China, Xu also explains the differences in domestic and international perceptions of “civil society.” He maintains that foreign communities are generally focused on Chinese dissidents and human rights lawyers—as well as foreign NGOs—rather than on small, local, voluntary associations. He also says that the international community generally uses the term “civil society” in a normative sense that invokes civil society in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s when the term necessarily connoted opposition to government. Xu notes that it is this exact framing of civil society that so unsettles Beijing; it is not a coincidence that the government never officially uses the term “非政府组织 (non-governmental organization)” to refer to domestic civil society groups, but rather “社会组织” (literally: “social group”) or “民间组织” (literally: “group among the people”).

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Huo Weiya, founder of a charity-related social enterprise, writes in China Development Brief that the development of the People’s Republic of China’s charity sector can be divided into four phases:

  • Stage one was from 1978 to 1992, when most organizations working in the sector were those that had ties to the government or were international NGOs entering or re-entering China. Groups at this time focused on service provision to make up for a lack of government services.
  • Stage two was from 1993 to 2003 and witnessed the birth of many grassroots NGOs. “Middle class” citizens became newly engaged in charity work at this time.
  • Stage three was from 2004 to 2010. During this phase, enterprises and entrepreneurs began forming non-public fundraising foundations, injecting large amounts of capital into the sector. Increased public participation, as reflected in a society-wide response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, also defined this stage.
  • Stage four began in 2011 and is still ongoing. It is a period of government-driven restructuring during which all actors are still trying to determine how they fit into new regulations and expectations from the authorities.

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Ding Yongqing, Shin Shin Education Foundation (欣欣教育基金会) Chairperson and Chief Representative of its Beijing office, recently gave an interview (in Chinese) to China Philanthropy Times about “transmitting a charitable spirit to more entrepreneurs.” (Shin Shin is a U.S. non-profit and was among the first foreign NGOs to be registered in China under the Foreign NGO Law.) According to Ding, Shin Shin has already developed a close strategic partnership with the Beijing-based, domestically-registered New Horizon Charity Foundation (向荣公益基金会), which was established at the end of 2017. In discussing this relationship, Ding explained how such a partnership with a local organization can benefit a foreign NGO:

We are a very by-the-book foreign NGO, approved by the State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and the Ministry of Public Security. But even with this background, there are still some things that become challenges when we carry out our programs. For example, in terms of physical distance, if you want to deeply understand program needs, you need to be deeply engaged and participating, but most of our volunteers are in the United States. In this respect, New Horizon has no worries.

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