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May 9, 2016

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NGO draft regulation indicates deepened commitment to strengthening civil society

ONE of the products of a rapidly changing Chinese society has been a dramatic increase in NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

NGOs of every conceivable kind have cropped up, and are playing an ever bigger role in what is often called social self-governance.

Among them are plenty of registered foreign NGOs. According to media reports, there are now approximately 1,000 foreign NGOs operating within China on a long-term basis. However, this number could be expanded to 7,000 if we count in those NGOs engaged in ad-hoc projects.

To the delight of these entities, Chinese legislators have offered a shot in the arm that will have the potential effect of encouraging their further growth.

Authorities are mulling a draft regulation governing foreign NGOs registered on the mainland, in which several significant restrictions will be removed.

For example, the proposed regulation would remove curbs on the number of foreign NGOs’ representative offices in China as well as limits to their allowed time of stay. They would also potentially have a freer hand to recruit volunteers and hire staff.

In the opinion of Yang Xiong, director of the sociology department at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, the loosening of straitjackets imposed on foreign NGOs is a sign of a sea change in official attitudes toward civil organizations and their role in social self-governance.

During a recent talk, Yang briefed local media on the development of NGOs in China, which mainly fall into five broad categories: foundations, social entities, non-governmental nonprofit units, nonprofit organizations, and unregistered community social organization.

Foundations are the fastest-growing among them, having increased from 1,834 in 2009 to 3,496 in 2014. As of this year, their figure may approach 4,000, Yang predicted.

The other four kinds of entities also have experienced high growth, but none represents the vigor of grassroots society in China than the community social organizations. Yang estimated their number to be in the hundreds of thousands — although there could be more than a million since many went unregistered and are thus off the official radar.

“They choose not to register because there were no state regulations requiring them to do so,” he explained.

Benefits of scrapping registration include exemption from taxation, which could be a huge boon for self-organized groups of square dancers and book readers. The dramatic development of NGOs owes a lot to the Chinese leadership’s governing philosophy, which began to evolve around the time of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

This is best demonstrated by Premier Li Keqiang’s catchphrase that “autonomy should be granted to society and the market to deal with matters within the purview of their ability.”

High hopes for NGOs

Ideally, the growth of social and market forces would accompany the retreat of the state in certain areas. And this is indeed happening. Chinese authorities are relaxing controls on NGOs, and also promoting the purchase of public services from such organizations.

As Yang explained, the Shanghai government set aside 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) in 2015 to buy services from NGOs.

A typical example of this can be found in the funds authorities dispense every year to privately-owned and -operated nursing homes for the elderly. The government also subsidizes social workers who visit the homes of senior citizens to help with chores such as washing, laundry and cooking.

This relatively new practice of purchasing services indicates the government’s genuine hope that NGOs can be partners in managing Chinese society. This hope is expressed in more definitive terms in official documents, such as quantitative goals anticipating bigger involvement of NGOs in social affairs. For instance, the proportion of NGOs to residents is projected to reach 8 per 10,000 by 2020, with full-time staff accounting for 3 percent of the total labor force.

An even more aggressive goal is that officials taking senior positions in NGOs — such as the Disable People’s Federation, and various industry, commerce and writers’ associations — should also quit their jobs in order for these organizations to gain true autonomy.

Yang said Chinese NGOs still have a lot to do to restore their credibility in the wake of recent scandals — like the one in 2011 in which a high-living, Maserati-driving girl claimed she was an employee of the Red Cross Society, angering the nation with her luxurious lifestyle, supposedly financed by public donations.

Stepped-up government supervision is also necessary where the emergence of new situations puts outdated regulations to the test. As a member of the local political advisory body, Yang cautioned that many “zombie rules” lag behind the times, and need either to be amended or scrapped altogether.

He added that Chinese government generally welcomes “friendly” foreign NGOs engaged in lawful activities, but no such good will will be accorded those involved in sedition or mobilization of anti-government protests.


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