The other day I was talking to a friend who works in a Chinese NGO. He pointed something out to me about the contemporary Chinese NGO sector that I thought was worth writing about. According to him, the people who have a voice in the sector are usually societal elites. They are intellectuals, government officials, businessman, or the family members of business executives. Those who are associated with philanthropy in the government (e.g. the Ministry of Civil Affairs) and in business (e.g. Corporate Social Responsibility departments) are actually usually the groups with least resources in their respective fields. Therefore NGO elites must work closely to partner with relevant government and business actors to promote CSR investments and lobby government policies. At the same time, nowadays the government and business sectors also values cooperation with NGO elites, in order to positively affect developments in society.
Needless to say, although CSR departments and the Ministry of Civil Affairs are themselves underprivileged in their own fields (business and government respectively) they represent the upper-middle class in Chinese society as a whole. This partnership between NGO elites, business, and government actors is often called philanthropic cross-field cooperation (公益跨界合作) and is something similar to the unions between business and government, and between business and academia, that have been popular in modern China.
Cooperation between elites obviously has many potential benefits. For example, the cooperation may result in an increase in business donations or more favourable government policies, which are both necessary for the development of an NGO sector. On the other hand, CSR and the Ministry of Civil Affairs are both open doors to power and wealth. As unions between elites are formed, the question needs to be asked: are professional Chinese NGO elites still representing the diverse interests of China’s different social groups? While they are mixing with wealth and power, do they still remember their devotion to philanthropic causes? Do they continue to push the development of civil society and represent underprivileged groups?
Doing philanthropy is essentially pushing for the greater good of the public. It is not an elite game. Many scholars point out that government and businesses are becoming increasingly elitist. What will happen if NGOs also become elitist and blend with elites in other industries, eventually merging with an elitist mainstream? NGOs that by their very nature are representatives of social interests, will become detached from the real situation on the ground. If the result of cooperation between elites is to form closed circles with the high level NGOs living alongside high level government and ignoring the day-to-day challenges facing underprivileged groups, what negative effects will this bring to the development of Chinese philanthropy and charity? While I recognise the desire of NGO staff members to live a decent life, I am afraid that such attention to personal benefit may cause them to forget their origins.
A characteristic of NGOs becoming elite is that they tend to ignore challenging or grassroots issues. Yet ignorance does not mean these problems do not exist. If NGOs do not represent underprivileged groups, who will protect their interests? If NGOs only pay attention to “harmonious” issues, how can they act as pressure valves or stabilisers for this unstable society? While the “philanthropic crossfield cooperation” is experiencing a flourishing springtime, the grassroots NGOs that support underprivileged groups are experiencing a winter like never before.
A quote that went viral after the Wenzhou train crash in 2011 read like this: “China, please stop your flying pace, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morality, wait for your conscience…Walk more slowly to allow every life to have freedom and dignity. No one should be left behind in this era.” (中国，请停下你飞奔的脚步，等一等你的人民，等一等你的灵魂，等一等你的道德，等一等你的良知……慢点走，让每一个生命都享有自由和尊严。每一个个体，都不应该被这个时代抛弃). The author of this article wants to take this opportunity to call for NGO elites to get closer to grassroots and to pay more attention to the underprivileged. For example, helping the feminist activists that got into trouble recently. This may not sound “harmonious”, but increasingly some Chinese NGOs face the dilemma of balancing new business opportunities with retaining ties to the grassroots. Many of my friends are suffering because of this. If NGO elites can once again represent diverse and grassroots social interests, they can once again become more valuable to society.