Academic journal article China Perspectives

Graduated Control and Beyond: The Evolving Government-NGO Relations

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Graduated Control and Beyond: The Evolving Government-NGO Relations

Article excerpt

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In April 2012, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs completed the selection of 377 projects from 901 applications submitted by officially recognised social organisations across the country, and distributed 200 million yuan of the central fiscal budget - the "special fund for social organisations' participation in service delivery" - to support these selected projects. (1)On 30 June, the Chengdu Social Organisation Development Fund was established with a starting budget of 300 million yuan, the first of its kind in the country fully supported and financed by a provincial capital city government. (2) Starting from 1 July, the Guangdong provincial government relinquished the old registration regulations and made it possible for social organisations to obtain legal status without a "professional supervisory unit" (yewu zhuguan danwei). (3) Despite the dramatic events of last year, including self-imposed exile by a leading AIDS activist and the Guo Meimei incident, followed by scandals within the China Charity Federation and warning signals from the authorities due to the Arab Spring earlier this year, 2012 seems to be gradually providing more fertile ground for grassroots social organisations and the development of civil society.

As with Chinese politics in general, the issue of governing social organisations is filled with complex and sometimes contradictory trends. Thus, China observers have arrived at different conclusions on the topic. Some praise "remarkable" improvements in recent years regarding the regulatory framework of social organisations, while many remain very cautious about the overall policy environment for grassroots non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social activism, and advocacy.(4) Instead of relying on reading the nuances in policy documents, this research agrees with Guosheng Deng's approach of "in-depth exploration of the unwritten or unpublished rules" in examining government-NGO relations, and engages the debate by examining the interactions between governmental agencies and NGOs in daily practice.(5)To do so, the authors during the period of January 2011 to May 2012 interviewed 60 activists and stafffrom 17 provinces, who explained how they interacted with a variety of governmental agencies ranging from professionally relevant ones to those related to public security, foreign affairs, taxation, statistics, and state security. (6) In addition, the paper benefited from field research trips to Guangxi in March 2011, Heilongjiang in August 2011, Guangdong in March 2012, Sichuan in April 2012, Shanghai in May 2012, and Gansu in July 2012, during which the authors met with leading activists, civil affairs officers, and peer researchers in these provinces and discussed changing the local policies and policy environment for NGO development.(7)

This research seeks patterns in the dynamic relationship between local authorities and NGOs, and has found that, at the operational level, governmental monitoring and control of grassroots NGOs remain pervasive and effective to a large extent, in spite of recent promising changes in policies at both the national and provincial levels. The enforcement of such control is complicated by at least three layers of factors: First, the Chinese state system is massive and often fragmented, and NGO control and regulation therefore faces the common challenges of inter-bureaucratic and centrallocal coordination. Second, since the NGO community at its origin is highly diverse and continues to grow, NGOs' responses to various kinds of governmental control measures differ, which in turn triggers further complications. Last but not least, as voluntarism and establishing NGO are becoming widespread social phenomena in China, the politics cantering NGOs is gradually taking deeper root in local contexts.

This paper consists of four main parts. Part one reviews the evolution of the regulatory framework of social organisations in contemporary China in general over time and introduces the pattern of graduated control over NGOs in particular. …

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