Just as the Party’s central leadership is gearing up for its 19th National Congress, a new document, which falls right at the top of the policy hierarchy, has prompted a flurry of excited discussion in the NGO sector.
The document acts as a guide to major reforms intended for the institutions currently in place to regulate NGOs and promises to help the sector develop in a ‘healthy’ way. NGOs, it tells us, will be encouraged to play a role in dispute mediation and to develop innovative new models of social governance. When it comes to the provision of public services, the document lists broad areas where priority will go to NGOs in government procurement. And they won’t be staying at home either. A section on ‘standardizing the foreign-related activities of NGOs’ tells us China’s own NGOs will be encouraged to participate in international non-governmental organizations and in ‘developing international rules and standards.’ The document covers everything from the major expansion of community-based NGOs to the delinking of chambers of commerce from government, and lists the responsibilities of different government ministries from the Ministry of Finance to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in helping this vast project in NGO development happen.
But at the heart of the debate that has filled the WeChat accounts of NGO experts over the last few days is what this document means for the autonomy of NGO actors. One thing the document promises is to create, by 2020, a ‘Chinese-style’ NGO regulatory system which will allow for NGOs that are ‘separate from government,’ in a system where ‘powers and obligations are clear, and autonomy is practiced in accordance with the law.’ It tells us that these reforms will help straighten out relations between government, market, and society. This statement alone, by its very utterance, suggests the enormity of this document, treating as it does NGOs as a bona fide part of the make-up of the country. This, in the context of a China where society was almost entirely subsumed by the government for decades, is cause for optimism.
The document goes into quite some detail as to how most NGOs will be able to secure status as legal person entities and enjoy preferential tax policies through procedures that are to be simplified. This breaks down formidable institutional barriers that had previously prevented NGOs from gaining legal status. For most NGOs, there will no longer be the need for a government organ or a government entrusted body to act as ‘supervisory agency,’ which used to be one of the basic criteria for an NGO to achieve legal status. This will cut down significantly on government meddling in NGO business. The document also aims to stop officials from taking up positions in or establishing their own quasi-NGOs, and demands that any official in active service already holding a concurrent position as an NGO director must resign from one or the other position within the next six months.
But here’s the most puzzling part: why would the leadership want to encourage the development of a sector of autonomous NGOs when its apparent worries about autonomous activism have recently been leading to crackdowns on groups like civil rights lawyers? The answer to this seems to be that the Party has by now realized that anything short of a level of suppression unseen in recent years will not stem the tide of NGO development and that the best thing to do about this is to make like this development was the plan all along. This enables the state to enjoy credit for its wise move in supporting the sector, hence in the opening of this document it claims: ‘since the beginning of reform and opening, with the significant attention and support of all levels of Party committees and government, China’s NGOs have been constantly developing, and have played a positive role in promoting economic development and helping social causes prosper.’ The development of NGOs can also help the government to pass the responsibility for all the things it can’t do properly, like providing quality public services, to someone else. And NGOs are already, as suggested in the document, beginning to help the state address the need for a complete overhaul in China’s model of governance.
So is the leadership really encouraging the development of an enormous army of autonomous NGOs, phasing out Party and government interference in their operations? Or is it simply moving one form of intervention out and sticking a different one back in? It seems there may be a little of both. Certainly genuine measures are already being put in place to build a modern sector of relatively independent NGOs that can access the resources and build the capacity to achieve the roles the authorities foresee for them. But the document also makes clear the intention is to consolidate and expand the foundations of the CPC’s position as governing party. NGOs with three or more Party members will continue to be expected to have an internal Party organization, and there is a whole section within the ten-part document dedicated to ‘strengthening Party leadership over the work of NGOs.’ It remains to be seen whether in practice this means NGOs will be playing a much more independent role or whether the Party will encroach so much on their business that they will simply become new vehicles for control. The latter is unlikely, although there will continue to be an element of Party ‘guidance’ in the sector.
But what this document does tell us unequivocally is that the central leadership is paying close attention to the development of China’s NGO sector and will continue to do so in the years to come.