For many Chinese people, their exposure to the concept of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and their potential for civic action can be traced back to 1995, when Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. In early September that year, thousands of international NGO delegates arrived in Beijing to discuss issues of equality, development, and peace, and the event was widely reported in China’s national media. However, NGOs actually have a relatively long history in China. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of foreign NGOs, such as private foundations and public health organizations, were already operating in China. Also, soon after it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to organize semi-autonomous civic associations as part of its mass mobilization campaign. Although these were not NGOs in the narrow sense of the definition, they were the predecessors of the new “government-organized NGOs” (commonly known as GONGOs) that have emerged in recent years.
The idea of government-organized “grassroots” organizations may sound oxymoronic, but these newly emerged non-profit organizations represent an important mechanism for the government to gain popular support and claim political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, many of the GONGOs established in recent years are civic associations dealing with issues related to the business and professional communities. Meanwhile, an increasing number of international NGOs have also been allowed to operate in China.
In addition to these GONGOs and foreign NGOs, there has also been a surge of real grassroots NGO growth in the past decade. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, many of the private and spontaneous rescue and relief efforts soon cohered into professional organizations, and began to offer long-term recovery and mobilization programs, both in the disaster zones and beyond. Generally, these homegrown NGOs are small, local, and poorly funded. Many of them are keen on addressing urban middle-class concerns such as environmental protection, charity, cultural preservation, citizen participation, and community development. In short, their agendas are not incompatible with those of the government, and, by law, they have to be supervised by government agencies. Indeed, by playing a role in vital areas where traditional government-sponsored civic organizations have failed to serve meaningfully, these domestic NGOs help to maintain much-needed social and political stability. In a way, their existence is even consistent with the neoliberal trend of downloading the government’s responsibilities to the private sector.
Still, by cultivating citizens’ awareness of local affairs and establishing international links with foreign NGOs, grassroots Chinese NGOs are sometimes seen as competitors by local officials and even higher levels of the government. As such, Chinese NGOs often have an ambivalent relationship with the state. While it is not uncommon for them to receive funding for specific projects, it is also not unusual for them to run into government-placed obstacles in their work. In the long run, it remains to be seen how the government will interpret the kind of bottom-up social mobilization and citizen participation advocated by these domestic NGOs with mostly middle-class initiatives.