Too many foreign funders prefer funding China’s officially-sanctioned, professionalized and bureaucratic NGOs over grassroots civil society groups, writes Anthony J. Spires.
In China, the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the creation of oxymoronic “government-organized non-governmental organizations,” or GONGOs. From Beijing’s standpoint, such groups can serve as tools for domestic control of new social forces while also attracting foreign funds for programmers the Chinese government itself is unwilling to support.
Yet over the past decade, growing numbers of bottom-up grassroots organizations have emerged. These non-governmental organizations have not been created by nor officially incorporated into the party-state. They sometimes engage in advocacy, but most frequently focus on much-needed social services in fields like health and disease, labor rights, environmental protection and education.
Because grassroots NGOs can provide alternative spaces for political organizing and mobilization, some Chinese officials view them as a serious threat to the regime. The legal requirements for registration are, in practice, prohibitively stringent for those that might wish to become properly registered legal entities. Many are forced instead to register as businesses or operate without legal identity. Unregistered groups run the political risk of being branded “illegal organizations,” while those registered as businesses risk being shut down for fraudulently presenting themselves as nonprofits to their funders and the public.
Although GONGOs may outnumber grassroots groups, a recent study led by myself and colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Civil Society Studies identified almost 300 grassroots organizations in Guangdong, Yunnan and Beijing. Extrapolating to the national population of 1.3 billion, this implies the existence of several thousand grassroots NGOs in China – all potential grantees of foreign donors.
Clearly, however, when US-based funders favor officially-sanctioned, professionalized and bureaucratic grantees that look and talk much like themselves over grassroots civil society organizations, they may be missing an opportunity to support some of China’s most innovative groups and the visionary people who lead them. While government partners can certainly be effective in some fields, denying grassroots groups the support they need is holding back the broader good of society that grant-makers say they aim to nurture.
Unless such patterns change, the impact of US grant-making on Chinese society as a whole will be limited, at best.
Anthony J. Spires is associate director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies and assistant professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This is an extract from a longer article on Yale Global Online, A Publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.