Monday, 1 March 2010

NGOs say they adapt to survive in China

While it is becoming clearer that Oxfam Hong Kong has fallen foul of the mainland’s education departments, crucial questions remain unanswered, including what the charity has done to deserve such treatment and what it means for other NGOs on the mainland.

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Guanyu 道 said...

NGOs say they adapt to survive in China

Ng Tze-wei
26 February 2010

While it is becoming clearer that Oxfam Hong Kong has fallen foul of the mainland’s education departments, crucial questions remain unanswered, including what the charity has done to deserve such treatment and what it means for other NGOs on the mainland.

NGO activists have long described the environment for survival on the mainland as “precarious” since most non-governmental organisations are technically illegal due to stringent registration requirements. However, many said this week that despite the apparent stepping up of government regulation of the NGO sector, as exemplified by the Oxfam incident, overall freedom for NGO work in the country had actually expanded.

There’s a catch though: one must become an “NGO with Chinese characteristics”.

“In China, to be a successful NGO, one must find the middle ground between maintaining independence, and working with the government,” said Wang Liwei , editor-in-chief of The Charitarian, a magazine on China’s charity work and corporate social responsibility.

“Governing NGOs is still a new thing for the Chinese government, and currently the relationship is still rather like a song we have here: I want to love you but it’s not easy,” Wang said. “The trend is to welcome international NGOs, but it wants to keep NGO work under government leadership.”

While international NGOs have long been allowed into China and were pretty much ignored before due to their limited size and influence, they have been looked on more suspiciously in recent years, especially after the colour revolutions in former soviet states alerted the central government to the harm that international NGOs could do, experts said.

The “Shun Oxfam” notice, posted on a Minzu University website on February 5 but now taken down, did not give much explanation as to why the Ministry of Education called Oxfam “ill-intentioned”, but the apparent crime is that Oxfam arranged volunteer training programmes for university students and internships at so-called rights organisations.

Wang said he was not surprised to hear of the Oxfam incident, since there were signs of tightening regulations on NGOs last year with the closing down of the Gong Meng Open Government Initiative, a legal aid association best known for helping families affected by the melamine-tainted milk scandal.

However, some big, international NGOs are still not alert to the need to actively reassure the central government about their activities.

“In order to carry out work here, international NGOs must be careful in the partners they choose, appoint local executives familiar with the nuances of the Chinese officialdom, as well as put a strong emphasis on making their work transparent,” Wang warned.

Dr Deng Guosheng , of Tsinghua University, who specialises in NGO research, said the central government’s overall attitude towards NGOs was positive - there are at least 2,000 unregistered international NGOs working in China, according to his estimate. But the Oxfam incident highlights the sensitivity surrounding NGO activities which “promote rights awareness”.

“The government’s top goal right now is to maintain stability,” Deng said. “Rights-promotion NGOs must strike the fine balance between helping the needy assert their rights, while maintaining stability.”

Another NGO activist, who asked not to be named, said that Oxfam’s weakness might have been its size. Having been on the mainland since 1987 - with hundreds of projects in more than 27 provinces and influence in many sensitive fields - Oxfam’s work was likely to attract government scrutiny.

International environmental group Greenpeace said it was not worried about its future work on the mainland after the Oxfam incident since “the nature of work carried out by the two organisations is very different”. Greenpeace China campaign director Sze Pang Cheung said: “We have been carrying out public work in China since 2002 and this itself shows tolerance.”

Guanyu 道 said...

But is tolerance good enough?

NGOs are still being closed down under the pretext of illegal association, tax evasion and conducting unauthorised surveys. And a recent tightening up on transfers of foreign funds to charities on the mainland could stifle some cash-strapped NGOs, mainland activists said.

But they still harbour hope.

“There is still immense pressure on us, but I’d say on the whole we see positive developments for our work,” said Wan Yanhai of outspoken Aids organisation Aizhixing. “Yes, Gong Meng was closed down, but the founder was released in the end. This again gives us hope.”