China's NGOs: Independent Actors or Government Puppets?
Hongying Wang, Wilson Center Fellow and associate professor at Syracuse University, placed the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China in its relatively recent historical context. She stated that in the 1980s, the Chinese state gradually withdrew from planning all aspects of the economy. Then in the 1990s, there was a new focus on the state's withdrawal from society which saw the initial emergence of NGOs. The theme, as advertised by the government, was "small government, big society." As of 2004, there were 285,000 registered NGOs in China, and a slightly larger number, 290,000, which were unregistered.
Wang asked, why would an authoritarian government like China allow for NGOs to exist? There are several reasons. They reduce the financial burden on the government, especially the welfare function; they help in the planning and coordination of the market economy; they create a channel for orderly political participation; they provide a forum for training and learning about best practices; and they respond to pressures from international organizations.
All registered NGOs are required to have sponsoring government agencies, commonly referred to as "mothers-in-law," to oversee their activities. While there is a certain ambivalence on the part of NGOs to the government and vice-versa, this ambivalence has not been a large problem so far. In the main, NGOs prefer to "lie low," and have adopted a far less confrontational approach to the government than NGOs in the West. In her opinion, the trajectory is for NGOs in China to keep moving toward greater autonomy.
Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University presented the case study of trade associations in Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang, China. Wenzhou, Fewsmith explained, was traditionally a poor area, with too many people and too little land. It is also across from Taiwan, so the government did not see much wisdom in investing there. However, Wenzhou also had a long commercial tradition. Its first chamber of commerce was founded in 1906. So, with little outside help, Wenzhou developed in the 1980s the "Wenzhou model," which was controversial at the time since it stood for private enterprise, mostly by single or family-owned businesses.
"Wenzhou got rich," said Fewsmith. Most development was from the bottom up. The government took notice, but mainly in the form of coopting business association leaders into the political process, as delegates, for example, to the township, city and provincial levels of the National People's Congress. Over 70 percent of these Wenzhou trade associations elect their own leaders, and the elections are hard-fought. There are still disagreements with government policy, such as the requirement for "mothers-in-law," but overall the movement in the commercial sector in Wenzhou toward a civil society is growing.
Jennifer Turner of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum stated flatly that environmental NGOs are the vanguard of civil society development in China. She said there were around 2000 registered environmental NGOs, and an equal number of unregistered ones. Recently, leaders of these environmental groups have received international recognition, such as being awarded the Goldman environmental prize for Asia. Turner asserted forcefully that the "greenies" in China are definitely not puppets of the government. Rather, they cooperate with officialdom. And these groups are everywhere, even on the internet. Turner pointed to a bird-watching internet group which has been successful in stopping construction in certain (bird-rich) forest areas.
Turner observed that from 1994-2003, most environmental NGOs stuck to safe topics, but now they are being more innovative, and more likely to push the envelope. As one example, she cited NGOs providing pro-bono lawyers for victims of pollution. Very few NGOs, thus far, have gotten into trouble with the government. Turner also noted the major role that journalists are playing in publicizing environmental issues and the environmental concerns of many of these NGOs. On the other hand, she noted that a certain tension with the government remains, and the government has been watching NGOs more closely in recent times.
John Callebaut is himself a member of an NGO, the senior program officer for Asia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), which is affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Callebaut says his organization is obviously pro-business and wants to see trade associations in China succeed. He clarified that he was talking about local business organizations in China. Callebaut noted that in 2002, Shanghai's municipal government extended an invitation for CIPE to come and teach better practices in business association management in Shanghai, which they did.
Callebaut also said these local associations were not puppets, although he admitted that there is an inherent tension between them and local government. Nevertheless, the two sides in the main manage to put aside their differences in pursuit of their mutual interest. He noted that originally, trade associations in southern China were mainly government organized NGOs, but these government sponsored organizations are being phased out, and their successors, lacking government financing, need to seek out their own sources of revenue. Since membership in these associations is voluntary, the associations themselves have to figure out ways to be more relevant to their members in order to collect dues. Callebaut concluded that he believed that private enterprise culture will continue to grow in China, and that the business associations serving this culture will also continue to expand.
Drafted by Mark Mohr, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program. Ph: (202) 691-4020