Chinese civil society organizations (CSOs) are growing in number and engaging in valuable educational work and issue advocacy. However, relevant national regulations continue to hamper their development and limit the emergence of an independent Chinese civil society.
Although the Chinese government recognizes the value of CSOs that provide social services, Chinese authorities fear that these private organizations might emerge as a source of political opposition among disgruntled members of society.
Chinese CSOs include a range of groups, such as national mass organizations that Communist Party authorities created and fund, smaller citizen associations registered under national regulations, and loose networks of unregistered grassroots organizations. The Chinese organizational forms that most nearly correspond to the Western concept of a nongovernmental organization are social organizations (SOs) (shehui tuanti), nongovernmental and noncommercial enterprises (NGNCEs) (minban feiqiye danwei), and foundations (jijinhui).
The State Council issued the current national regulations governing SOs and NGNCEs in 1998, and those regulating foundations in 2004. The proliferation of different organizational forms stems in part from the fact that China has only recently concentrated on creating a comprehensive system of governance for the large number of private voluntary organizations that have emerged in the wake of the enormous social changes of the 1980s and 1990s. It is also a result of strict registration regulations that drive many CSOs to operate without government registration.
Social organizations are voluntary organizations. Of the estimated 153,000 registered SOs, most of them are local or county organizations. Less than 2,000 operate at a national level. The SOs include academic, professional, or trade organizations, as well as voluntary associations of individuals with a common interest.
The NGNCEs are nongovernmental service providers, which include schools, hospitals, sports organizations, or employment service organizations. Of the 135,000 NGNCEs registered in 2004, there are 69,000 educational groups, 28,000 hygiene organizations, 3,139 cultural groups, 5,824 science and technology groups, 3,441 athletic associations, 11,000 labor organizations, 1,275 social service providers, and 546 are legal service centers.
Foundations are nonprofit and non-governmental organizations that are managed through the use of funds voluntarily donated by foreign and domestic social organizations. Foundations often promote the development of scientific research, culture, education, social welfare, and social services.
Many Chinese CSOs officially register as businesses because the registration process is easier. Others simply remain unregistered rather than face the hassle of registration.
Althhough the total number of registered Chinese CSOs has risen steadily over the last few years, they represent only a small percentage of all CSOs. Chinese sources estimate there are roughly 3 million CSOs in China, of which only 280,000 are registered. In practice, unregistered groups generally experience little or no government interference as long as they avoid financial misdeeds or overt political challenges. However, Chinese citizens cite difficulties in registering as a significant obstacle to establishing even relatively nonpolitical, civic-minded organizations, such as those directed at helping Beijing prepare for the 2008 Olympics.
Civil Society Regulations
Subject to a vague and restrictive regulatory system, registered Chinese CSOs are much less independent than their Western NGO counterparts.
Restrictions on SO Subdivisions
In November 2003, three national organizations—the China Behavior Law Association, the China Life Sciences Association, and the Chinese Decorative Architecture Association—were suspended for one to six months for illegally establishing sub-branches.
National regulations require that CSOs have a government-approved “sponsor organization” to register. Official Chinese sources indicate that only designated Communist Party, government bureaus, and mass organizations may sponsor non-governmental organizations. Such organizations are often difficult to find. Chinese law provides no positive incentive (such as tax benefits) to act as a sponsor. Furthermore, the possibility that the sponsor organization might suffer legal consequences for unauthorized actions by the CSO serves as a significant deterrent against sponsorship.
Procedurally, the sponsor organization submits the registration application to the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA). Requirements for SOs include having at least 50 members, 30,000 yuan (about US $4,000) in capital funds, and a full-time staff. These requirements prevent small grassroots organizations with limited funds from establishing themselves legally. In addition, both SO and NGNCE regulations prevent the establishment of two organizations with similar mandates in the same administrative region. Such a policy limits competition and diversity of views and approach.
The 2004 Foundation Regulations also include the sponsor requirement; however, they do contain changes and some liberalization. The Foundation Regulations do not bar the registration of more than one organization addressing the same issue in a particular administrative region. The Foundation Regulations also differ from the 1998 regulations in that they permit representative offices of foreign foundations to register and be treated in a similar manner as Chinese foundations. Equal treatment is a mixed blessing, however, since the Foundation Regulations explicitly extend the sponsor requirement to the representative offices of foreign foundations operating in China.
If the CSO application is approved by MOCA, the sponsor organization and MOCA supervise the organization through a dual administrative system. This system severely limits the independence of registered organizations. For example, if the organization seeks to undertake a project not clearly stated in the original mandate, it requires both entities’ approval, which is a slow and complex process. The SOs are also limited in their ability to establish subdivisions and branches. The NGNCEs are forbidden from doing so. This restricts the growth of such organizations and limits their influence.
Control Over Registration
The annual registration renewal requirement gives MOCA a useful tool of control. For example, MOCA threatened Friends of Nature (the first officially recognized environmental NGO in China) with de-registration if it did not oust Wang Lixiong, one of its founders and its current secretary.
Registered CSOs are required to renew their registration annually through the dual administrative system. Such a provision firmly maintains the organization under control of the sponsor organization and MOCA, allowing for easy withdrawal of its legal status. This system does, however, have its advantages: Strict control may limit the possibility of corruption, a rampant problem in China today.
Additionally, Chinese CSOs, like NGOs elsewhere, suffer from insufficient funding. Many remain dependent on foreign funding, which can amount to over 90 percent of the budget of some organizations. China’s CSOs are tax-exempt in theory, but the absence of implementing regulations hinders their ability to raise funds. Local government agencies also seeking to raise money sometimes compete with CSOs for the same sources of funding.
Central authorities have long tried to keep CSOs under tight official control, but some Chinese officials support reducing restrictions and allowing them to play a more active social and political role. Both the MOCA and the State Environmental Protection Agency have been particularly supportive of civil society organizations. The MOCA officials have suggested publicly that the sponsor requirement should be eliminated. Subsequently, they have submitted multiple draft civil society regulations to the State Council that would remove it. Chinese news reports suggest that upcoming revisions to the 1998 regulations on social organizations will liberalize current rules somewhat, but will not change the sponsor organization requirement.
Chinese civil society regulations give some legal space to accommodate a growing non-profit sector. However, Chinese CSOs remain subject to restrictive and vague government regulations, which allow for arbitrary government crackdowns and discourages many citizen organizations from formally registering.