The Growing Elitism in the Chinese NGO Sector

中国发展简报

中文 English

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.

 

前几天和一位公益人聊天,他指出,当前公益发展的形势很有意思,公益圈有话语权的负责人们往往都是社会领域的精英,如高学历的知识分子、跨界而来的专业人士、身兼公职的政府人员、商人或企业高管的家属,而社会的第一部门政府(如民政部门)、第二部门企业中与公益打交道的人士(如企业CSR),则是各自领域的弱势群体,因此公益精英要和企业与政府中的相关人士加强联系、强弱搭配,才能有效影响政府政策、企业资源投入。另一方面,当前政府、企业也十分看重公益精英,政府、企业和公益精英联合,共同争取在各自领域的话语权,从而联手影响整个社会发展。

毋庸讳言,民政部门、企业CSR部门虽然在各自领域居于弱势,但若放大至整个社会,也属于中上层精英群体。公益精英和政府、企业相关人士的联合,通常也叫“公益跨界合作”,如多年来盛行的“政商合作”、“学商合作”一般,在当前社会中无疑问属于精英之间的联盟。

诚然,精英之间的合作,能带来的好处多多——比如,公益精英和政府、企业相关人士的合作有利于为公益界争取政策优惠和企业资金,这当然是公益发展的必要条件之一。但另一方面,民政部门、企业CSR部门虽然在自身领域弱势,也同样是权力和财富向公益圈敞开的一扇门。因此需要引起注意的是,在达成合作、形成联盟的过程中,拥有超强专业能力的公益精英能否代表最广泛、最多元的社会领域不同群体的利益?他/她们在和权力、财富打交道的时候,是否能时刻牢记公益的本源和初衷——代表社会、尤其是社会弱势群体的利益,推动第三部门和第一、第二部门均衡发展?

做公益,即推动广泛的公共利益,毕竟不是精英团体内部的游戏。许多学者已指出,当前政府、企业已经趋于精英化乃至出现精英固化现象,如果公益领域也“精英化”,并和其他领域的精英形成联盟,且成为公益主流趋势,是否有可能使得本应代表最广泛社会利益的公益界脱离社区,与真实、丰富的一线信息隔离,对社会的代表性越来越差?如果公益跨界合作的结果,是形成一个个精英圈子,从政府到企业到公益界,都是彼此熟稔、一圈和气的精英人士,掌握着公益界的话语权和决策权,大家过着中产阶级的生活,相互称兄道弟、师友相交,但对弱势群体、边缘人群每天面对的日常生活挑战却很陌生,会给公益发展带来什么影响?尽管,和其他部门的从业者一样,过有尊严的生活同样是公益从业者的合理诉求,应当支持、鼓励,笔者仍然担忧,这种倾向或许有利于公益精英的个人“向上”发展,但对于公益向健康的、能代表社会发展更公平方向的发展却极为不利。因为,这有可能偏离了公益的初衷和责任。

公益领域精英化的一个特征,是不关注或者回避挑战性的、有关草根权益的议题。对这些议题视而不见,它们就不存在吗?不关注弱势边缘群体,他们的利益谁来代表、维护呢?公益组织只关注一团和气的议题,只求与政府、企业的合作,如何充当这个不稳定社会的“解压阀和稳定器”?在公益合作一派繁荣、“春天”的喜庆四处洋溢之际,那些关注最边缘、最弱势群体权益的公益组织却大多正面临着空前的严冬。2011年温州动车事件之后,曾有一条广为传播的微博:“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。” 在这里,笔者也期望公益精英,在快步向政府和企业看之余,尽力贴近草根一些,多关注弱势和边缘群体一些,重视、支持为弱势群体奔走呼吁的人们,譬如近日仅仅因为计划“公交反性骚扰”活动而受难的姐妹,为她们提供力所能及的帮助。

这篇文字也许有些“逆耳”,然而公益发展正处在变革的关键时期,政策和资金带来的机遇与坚持社会多元利益的困难都空前涌现,笔者与身边的师友同样感到艰难与煎熬,但相信在此背景下,力所能及的关切并支持公益行业中弱势的草根组织乃至它们为之奔走的社会多元群体,能更好地体现公益精英的价值。

CDB Deputy Editor

Translated by Zach Lei Zhou

Edited by CDB staff

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