It’s well-known that China faces diverse social issues, including a rapidly aging population, a yawning gap between rich and poor, and extensive environmental degradation. Although these issues are too vast and complex for the national government to resolve alone, Chinese people still demand accountability and responsiveness from the state and exert a certain amount of political pressure on officials. This tension, in turn, carries significant implications for Chinese civil society, particularly the country’s social organizations — institutions roughly equivalent to NGOs, but that nonetheless experience a certain amount of state oversight and guidance.
China’s social organizations emerged in the 1990s to amplify the voices of marginalized communities speaking out about the country’s social and environmental issues. Compared with other public feedback mechanisms — official petitions, for example — social organizations are often better able to articulate the needs and concerns of the communities they represent, source the required expertise to address problems, and negotiate solutions with state institutions. Ultimately, they are inclined to provide public services at the community level, simultaneously fostering public participation and enhancing trust among locals.
However, social organizations continue to suffer from a lack of capacity building — that is, the ability to obtain and strengthen the skills, knowledge, and other resources needed to do their jobs properly and attain a certain autonomy from the state via sustainable self-management, governance, and finance. Capacity building usually requires money, but money alone does not make social organizations capable of sustained development.
Back in the ’90s, Chinese social organizations frequently relied on international NGOs to forge and fund future development plans. But nowadays, as Beijing increasingly clamps down on foreign-linked interest groups, domestic foundations — as well as existing large social organizations — are stepping into the breach.
Despite the undisputed progress that social organizations have made in the last three decades in terms of capacity building, it is now becoming increasingly difficult for new and small-scale groups to grow in scope.
Most Chinese social organizations are bankrolled to a small extent by local governments, and to a much larger extent by foundations registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. These foundations’ donors include banks and other corporate entities. For instance, Green Camel Bell, an environmental organization based in the northwestern province of Gansu, received more than 99 percent of its funds from foundations in 2016, according to founder Zhao Zhong. The same year, New Citizen Program, a Beijing-based group providing education to migrant children, received nearly 70 percent of its financial support from foundations. And Wu Haoliang, founder of the Beijing-headquartered Heyi Institute, says his organization continues to depend on foundations for money.
The first problem with this model is that, because many foundations have absorbed the values and practices of their corporate donors, they are prone to cherry-picking social organizations and projects that produce quick, highly visible outcomes. This, in turn, discourages long-term approaches to deep-seated and complex issues, and encourages foundations to burnish the social reputations of their donors instead of ensuring the long-term sustainability of grassroots projects.
The Alashan Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) Foundation, one of the most renowned foundations in Beijing, exemplifies this issue rather well. SEE mainly helps small-scale conservationist groups build capacity. It teams up with the U.S.-based Global Greengrants Fund to deploy experts in various environmental fields, like chemical waste dumping, coal mining, or endangered species protection. But its annual reports repeatedly emphasize short-term achievements rather than long-term ones that help build capacity at the small-scale organizations in which SEE invests.
Second, the social organizations are struggling to find innovative growth models that work for them. This leaves many emerging social organizations less able to appeal to funders or resolve issues through their own ingenuity — and therefore less competitive than institutions with visible track records.
Peng Kui poses for a photo in Beijing, June 28, 2018. Hiroshi Hara for Sixth Tone
The issue is all too familiar to staff at the abovementioned Heyi Institute. Heyi is itself a social organization, but it also functions as a platform for other social organizations to access online courses on issues related to environmental management, such as how to apply for funding and write environmental reports. Moreover, Heyi encourages partner organizations to collect their own environmental data and share it with other groups — an important initiative in a country where the state often conceals important information about ecological decline.
Heyi also funds other social organizations, particularly grassroots initiatives considered too small to fall within SEE’s scope. Crucially, Heyi supports social organizations with no visible prior accomplishments and emphasizes the construction of long-term strategic models. “Having a model that can be replicated and applied to other environmental NGOs with a similar focus is key to the survival of any environmental NGOs,” says Wu, “so we focus on model-learning and building.”
Nonetheless, Wu struggles to find evidence of true creativity among China’s smaller-scale social organizations. “It is very challenging to teach people how to be original,” he says, adding that while it is healthy to emulate existing capacity-building models, some organizations refuse to diverge at all from well-worn paths to growth.
Third, social organizations continue to tackle issues without first consulting locals. Environmental groups, for example, often identify examples of ecological degradation but fail to discuss solutions with those affected before diving in to fix the problem. As a result, social organizations have, over time, grown incrementally more remote from the communities they claim to serve.
An example of a social organization that taps into local knowledge is the Global Environmental Institute (GEI). Founded in Beijing in 2004, the GEI’s framework for capacity building specifically targets local people. “When we go into a village with degraded ecology, we first ask residents what they think their problems are and how they think they can or should solve these problems,” says GEI program manager Peng Kui.
After establishing a model best-suited to the ecology and economy of a locality, GEI establishes an on-site cooperative to manage local for-profit work. (Legally speaking, social organizations are nonprofit by nature and barred from engaging in profit-making activities.) The cooperative ensures that 10 percent of the project’s profits go back into conservation. Meanwhile, GEI recruits well-regarded local leaders and involves them in grassroots environmental initiatives, with a view to having them assume greater responsibility for the work in the months and years to come. As Peng puts it: “Even after we have left a village, we can be certain that [locals] will be able to manage their own community well, preserving and promoting local ecology while enjoying sustainable economic gains.”
Capacity building cannot be achieved overnight. It demands patience, experience, and the ability to learn from failure. If social organizations continue to rely on foundations whose donors mostly comprise corporate institutions and banks seeking quick-fix issues or easy-to-showcase results in numbers that burnish their reputations for social responsibility, they will continue to find it difficult to articulate long-term, sustainable visions of capacity building. Most consequentially, they risk losing their autonomy.
Chinese social organizations have come a long way since they rose to prominence in the 1990s, but they now risk being co-opted as their funding structures are determined by business interests. However, the experiences of certain social organizations show that genuine capacity-building projects are feasible. Social organizations can work with, and fund, other groups to help make them more effective and sustainable, thus increasing the potential to enrich lives and solve contemporary Chinese society’s most intractable problems.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.
(Header image: A view of the grasslands in Minqin County, Gansu province, July 13, 2018. Hiroshi Hara for Sixth Tone)