Have NGOs Been Overshadowed by Microblogging?

China Development Brief, No. 52 (Winter 2011)

中文 English

Introduction: CDB Editor, Liu Haiying takes a critical look at the impact of microblogging and “micro-charity”, which made headlines in 2011, on the civil society sector. Microblogging effectively widened public awareness and participation in the public interest sector, and seemingly overshadowed the work of NGOs working on similar issues.  What can NGOs learn from the microbloggers and other individuals engaged in public interest work, and how can they best work with them to advance civil society?  What distinctive roles do NGOs have to play in China’s emerging civil society that cannot be replaced by microblogs and other individual expressions of public interest work?  These are issues NGOs will have to wrestle with over the next few years as they seek to adapt to a rapidly changing social environment.

The personality-driven public interest initiatives of Deng Fei, Yu Jianrong and Wang Keqin, etc. have given some hope to the scandal-ridden public interest sector in 2011. The media’s claim that individual personalities have been the primary driver of the sector this year, although exaggerated, does contain an element of truth.

The range of public interest activities in the public eye in 2011 included a “Prevent Abductions Through Microblogs”, “Free Lunch” and “Love Clears the Lungs”1. They all used microblogs and were started by individuals instead of organizations. In addition to helping their intended targets, they have also received the support of the government and the public, and even play a role in shaping policy. These individuals could be said to have eclipsed the performance of NGOs, which have always been considered an important part of civil society. About half a century ago, some scholars pointed out that “in a highly differentiated society, the emergence and development of the organization provides us with an important mechanism to achieve goals that cannot be achieved alone.” However, with regard to the mainstream opinion of public interest groups in 2011, this statement seems to have been “falsified” by the media.

In the current era where the public interest seems to have grown increasingly mainstream, have NGOs been eclipsed? If so, what are the reasons behind this?

On the 25th of January, Yu started a microblog focused on “using photographs to rescue child beggars”. This “crackdown on kidnappings using microblogging” initiative triggered a chain reaction, and civil society organizations, volunteer groups, the media and celebrity microblogs all joined in. In response to this spontaneous social action, a number of Ministry of Public Security microblogs lent their support, hoping that internet users could provide them useful information on the whereabouts of the children.

On the 26th of October, the State Council decided to implement a nutrition improvement program for rural students. That program was inspired by Deng Fei’s “Free Lunch for Primary School Students in Poor Mountainous Areas” program, which was initiated in the spring and provided free lunches to more than 10,000 children in 77 schools. About the Free Lunch program that went from being citizen-initiated to government-supported, it was said that “never has any public interest initiative been as successful”.

Other notable projects include Liang Shuxin’s “Pencils in Exchange for Schools” etc. In light of the popularity of public interest microblogging this year, the Lenovo Group organized a public interest microblogging competition based on the theme “Micro Charity, Doing the Extraordinary”. This competition resulted in the accumulation of more public interest microblogging initiatives. The promotion of a platform for innovative microblogging has led to more people showing concern for the welfare of people around them, and made the public interest into a lifestyle that can be achieved by all. On Lenovo’s official website “Stars of Micro Charity”, 18 projects have already been unveiled.

The success of these individual acts of public welfare is due to the contributions of the media, especially microblogs. Xue Manzi, who is known as “China’s top angelic investor”, has used microblogging to call attention to abductions. He views microblogs as “a magnifying glass, a magic mirror and a microscope”, where an individual voice becomes public opinion through social interactions, thereby pushing the nation to act.

Microblogs have become the most powerful tool for public involvement in public affairs, and have gathered large numbers of like-minded people. The public interest initiatives by non-professionals have greatly expanded the platform for public interest well beyond the small circle of professionals that existed previously. Deng Fei said that he does not really understand charity and is not a professional practitioner. His entry into the sector was by chance with the intention of bringing people together to do good. Of course, not understanding has its benefits because it made his project more transparent and open.

Other than help from microblogs, the success of these initiatives is also due to their professional identity. Media people doing public interest definitely have an advantage in disseminating information, and many such examples can be found in the development of China’s NGOs. This advantage is even greater in the highly developed internet networks and microblogging of today. In comparison with other sectors, media professionals not only have the right to speak, but also possess contacts and resources, and are better able to identify and mobilize sources of information and resources. Moreover, it is easier for them to face the sufferings and needs of the society. Deng Fei, Wang Keqin and Sun Chunlong etc are all well-known investigative reporters with a certain level of credibility in the community. The welfare projects initiated by them receive public recognition which is directly a result of their credibility. An example is their ability to mobilize resources: On the microblog that promotes taking photos to rescue child beggars, 14 microblogs under the Ministry of Public Security, 30 public interest and volunteer groups and 52 media representatives are participating in the crackdown. In another example, the “Free Lunch” program has been covered by more than 100 media outlets.

Something unrelated to occupation is the design of the projects. In the “Free Lunch” program, food distribution is standardized: an egg, a bowl of rice and a dish. Deng’s consideration is that “even if there are deductions, it will be no more than a smaller egg or less rice. The number of items will still stay at three.” In addition, there are three levels of supervision: first, schools taking part in the program are required to have their staff publicize the daily dining situation on their respective microblogs; second, the establishment of a monitoring system consisting of the school, parents and students; thirdly, internet users who return to their hometowns or are on tours can visit these schools anytime. When there are disputes between the supervisory side and the school, Deng called for a third-party legal arbitration organization. This organization is headed by He Bing, the deputy dean of the law faculty of the China University of Political Science and Law.

Wang Zhenyao, head of the One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University (北师大壹基金公益研究院), thinks that a crucial factor for success is the project design itself. Despite being part of the public interest sector, he is also familiar with the way the government works2. Wang said, “As ‘Free Lunch’ places its focus on poor children, which the public is particularly concerned about, it is easy for all sectors of society to relate emotionally to it. However, we also see that there were some public interest initiatives in the past that also focused on children but were not as successful.” By reacting rationally to social problems, while not adopting a confrontational attitude, civil society allowed the government to appreciate the community’s goodwill.

These two factors are key to the success of the projects, but are also their limitations3.

The Western Sunshine Education Foundation has a “Nutritional Breakfast Plan”. They conducted two years of field studies before the start of the program, and also measured and compared the height, weight and other basic indicators of children from poor mountainous regions. Their results revealed problems of malnutrition. They then provided 230 children with an egg and a glass of sugared water on a daily basis. The China Development Research Foundation provided school-age children in experimental areas with subsidies ranging from 2.50 to 4.50 RMB in 2006. From 2007 on, the “Soy Milk Project” by the China Zigen Education Foundation provided students from eight primary schools with a daily cup of hot soy milk. By improving the nutritional levels of children in rural areas, they hope to protect the basic rights of these children to life and education.

These public interest organizations are deeply involved in one or several projects, obtaining data, implementing action plans and advocating policies. In comparison to “Free Lunch”, they have a stronger team of professionals, but lack extensive involvement from internet users. They also do not help out tens of thousands of students. Can it then be said that these projects are failures compared to “Free Lunch”?

The fields that NGOs work in are very extensive and include labor, gender, public health, AIDS prevention, education, poverty alleviation etc. Not all of them have immediate impact, not all get support from the Ministry of Public Security, and not all marginalized groups are as widely supported by the community as poor, malnourished children. Liang Shuxin, who is proficient in planning, said that a lot of consideration goes into the choice of public interest projects. He said, “I would be more attracted to projects that have low levels of entry, allow for high levels of public participation, and have observable outcomes in the short run.” Public interest work is multi-tiered; an action can be as simple as moving from being part of the crowd to publicizing a cause on the internet, because it lowers the barriers to entry for people to participate. However, on the other side, there are still few people working in complicated and dangerous areas. Work that is repetitive, tedious and cumbersome no longer has any news value, and those thrilling, effecting stories do not appear in the public eye for various reasons.

These public interest stars do not receive a salary from the project funds, and the activities themselves do not fit the project system that NGOs are most familiar with. They have their own professions and income sources, and can “disagree with those who approach public interest work with a self-sacrificing mentality, and also oppose playing the sadness card and the use of tear-inducing tactics.” There are definitely those that play the sadness card, but most of the time, it is not done so intentionally. In this sector where resources are limited and unevenly distributed, the self-sacrificing mentality is necessary. If you are not willing to embrace that kind of life, who else will support this sector?

Public interest microblogging has greatly increased public participation, but has also caused great awkwardness among NGOs. The openness, transparency, and efficiency of microblogs in accumulating resources and communicating have made NGOs reflect. An Zhu, founder of the NGO, One Kilogram More (多背一公斤), issues the following criticism: “just as NGOs are aware of their marginalization by the government, they should also realize that they are socially marginalized. The latter is their own choice, stemming from their own arrogance, unresponsiveness and narcissism.” As the saying goes, those who want to do good are never alone. People in the public interest who are aware and vigilant will always have a future. In addition to being aware that they need continuous improvement and growth, organizations also have a long way to go to break free from external constraints and limitations4.

An organization’s development is shaped by technology and the market, as well as the pressures and constraints of the government. On the 28th of October, at an academic discussion at Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Center, Liang Xiaoyan (executive director of the Western Sunshine Foundation) responded to the author’s question on the lack of sensitivity and mobilizing capability of NGOs in times of need (see “China’s Garbage Problem Prompts Soul Searching Among NGOs” in China Development Brief’s Summer 2011 issue). About four or five years ago, Liang had a discussion with Lo Sze Ping, then Director of Greenpeace’s China office. Her opinion was that there were environmental organizations in China, but not environmental movements. Social movements need extensive public participation. From the Xiamen PX demonstration, the protests against cutting down historic trees in Nanjing and other environmental protests, the seeds and possibility of environmental movements in China today can be seen. However, who will seize these opportunities? If the environmental NGOs take on this role, should they and do they have the capabilities to lead or intervene in an environmental movement?

What kind of organization can cultivate the seeds and lead the movement? Many NGOs initially try to be low-key in order to position themselves as a bridge between the government and the people, as an important complement to the government, and the government’s friend, partner, assistant, etc. NGOs are familiar with this kind of behavior and the reasons behind it are numerous. First, in order to survive, NGOs need to gain legitimacy5. Liang Xiaoyan posed a series of questions: Is this behavior the result of an active choice or passive self-positioning? Is this positioning a forced choice? What is the relationship between this positioning and the positioning of social movements, as well as the positioning of organizations required by these social movements? Does a paradox exist? In addition, the existing fundraising system has resulted in inflexibility in the NGOs’ work style. They are completely tied down by these projects. From a human resource, work plan, and results perspective, an NGO’s work is carried out within the framework of a specific project. Thus, certain aspects of their capabilities cannot be developed6.

In this lively media chorus, we can see the achievements of a few public interest individuals and the actions of a larger number of people. Their means of gathering resources, project operations and ability to disseminate information and lobby are worthy of being studied by NGOs. Hopefully in the new year, despite facing difficulties in changing the two constraints mentioned above, NGOs will still make breakthroughs and grow, and be able to break out from their small closed circles. However, we should also note that we should not use microblogging and other individual public interest actions as a new benchmark to evaluate or turn a blind eye to the individuals and organizations that support those who lack a voice in the sector.  Nor should we think that these individual acts alone represent the future direction of public interest.


  1. Editor’s Note: Yu Jianrong’s “Prevent Abductions Through Microblogging” and Deng Fei’s “Free Lunch” are explained below. Wang Keqin’s “Love Clears the Lungs” is a microblogging project devoted to helping the victims of pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of dust. 

  2. Editor’s Note: Prior to heading the Philanthropy Research Institute, Wang Zhenyao was an official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs and had worked for many years in different government agencies. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The two factors are (i) that the project focuses on a group – poor children – that everyone can identify with and support, and (ii) that the initiators of this project were willing to work cooperatively with the government on addressing a social problem.  The problem, as the author suggests, is that projects focused on more sensitive groups and using more confrontational approaches would not fare nearly as well.  What would be the project’s fate, for example, if it was focused on a different group such as Tibetans or migrant workers, and if it sought to use more confrontational approaches such as lawsuits against the government to achieve its aims? 

  4. Editor’s Note: The author here is referring primarily to constraints imposed on NGOs by the government. 

  5. Editor’s Note: The author is making the point that many NGOs, in order to survive and not draw the government’s attention, tend to play down their leadership role, preferring to play a quiet, behind the scenes role. Yet such a stance inhibits their ability to take part in social movement. 

  6. Editor’s Note: Here the author points out that another reason NGOs are unable to play a leadership role has to do with the allocation of their resources.  Generally, NGOs in China get funds to run projects and most resources are directed to that end, rather than to building the capacity of the NGO and its staff to carry out broader organizational and social changes.  In other words, NGOs are so project-driven that they have a hard time seeing the big picture, and strategizing about their role in the broader organizational and social landscape. 

组织公益 :黯然失色在个人公益的光影下
刘海英
中国发展简报NO.52
邓飞、于建嵘、王克勤这些个人公益行为,为2011年丑闻迭出的公益领域增添了一抹亮色。有媒体说,他们拯救了今年的公益界,虽然言过其实,但足以证明其声势和影响。
纵览2011年的公益行动,进入社会大众视野的是“微博打拐”、“免费午餐”、“大爱清尘”,这些行动的特点皆是以微博为平台,以个人而非组织的名义发起,不但服务对象受益,还得到了政府和公众的支持,甚至直接和政策出台挂上了钩儿。相形之下,让那些一直被认为是公民社会重要组成部分的NGO们黯然失色。还在半个世纪之前,就有学者指出,“在高度分化的社会中,组织的产生和发展,为我们实现那些仅凭个人力量根本不可能实现的目标,提供了重要的机制和保障。”但是在2011年关于公益组织的主流舆论中,这句话成为一个被媒体“证伪”的命题。在公益貌似越来越是主流化的今天,NGO真的没落和边缘化了吗?若此,原因在什么地方?
1月25日,于建嵘开通了微博“随手拍照解救乞讨儿童”。“微博打拐”引发了连锁反应。民间组织、义工团体、媒体、明星微博也纷纷行动起来,参与解救孩子的行动。对于这个社会自发行动,多家公安官方微博纷纷发布公告表示支持,希望网友提供线索。
10月26日,国务院决定实施农村义务教育学生营养改善计划。今年春天,由邓飞等人发起的“中国贫困山区小学生免费午餐”活动,已为77所学校1万多孩子提供了免费午餐。从民间走到政府,被评论为“从来没有一例民间公益行动像‘免费午餐’这样成功。”
同样成功的,还有梁树新的“铅笔换学校”等活动。鉴于今年微博公益的火爆,联想集团设立奖项,以“微公益,做不凡”为主题举办微公益大赛,聚集更多的微公益项目和行动。通过搭载和鼓励微博创新平台,吸引更多人关注身边的公益,让公益真正成为人人都可以实现的、阳光快乐的生活方式。在他们的官方网站上,微公益之星的平台上,已经有18个项目亮相。
这些个人公益行动的成功,媒体,尤其是微博功不可没。有“中国天使投资第一人”之称的薛蛮子,从撰写打拐檄文到开始行动,微博成为他的平台。他眼里的微博就是“放大镜、照妖镜和显微镜”,个人的声音通过众人的互动和转发变成舆论,进而促使整个国家机器开动。
微博变成公众介入公共事务最强大的工具,聚集了大量志同道合的人。而发起公益行动的非专业人士也极大促进了平台的开放,打破了专业人士的小圈子。邓飞说他并不懂慈善,不是专业人士,只是偶然闯到了这个领域,然后汇聚了民间的善意而已。但不懂有不懂的好处,不懂就要公开透明、积聚智慧。
不可否认这些行动取得了很大的成功,除了微博的助力,还得益于他们的职业身份。媒体人做公益本身有传播的优势,这在中国民间组织发展历程中,不胜枚举。只是在网络和微博发达的今天,对于媒体人更是如虎添翼。相比其他专业人士,媒体人不但掌握话语权,而且拥有各种人脉和资源,更容易识别信息和资源所在,也具备调动和整合资源的能力,更难得的是,他们更容易直面社会的苦难和需求。“邓飞、王克勤、孙春龙等人都是知名的调查报道记者,在社会上拥有一定的公信力,他 们发起公益项目能提升公众的认可度,有很多人就是冲着公信力来支持这个项目的。”  看看他们调动资源的能力:随手拍照解救乞讨儿童的微博上,14个公安微博参与打拐,30个公益或者义工团体,52家媒体参加。而“免费午餐”至今已经有100多家媒体对其进行多角度报道。
与职业无关的是对项目的制度设计。“免费午餐”是标准化配置的:一个鸡蛋、一碗饭、一份菜。“中间即使有克扣,也无非是鸡蛋小点,米饭少点,但3样 东西不能少。”邓飞这样考虑。此外,还有三个层次的监督:一个是开设项目的学校由非采购人员将每天的用餐情况发到学校的微博上,二是建立学校、家长和学生一起的监督系统,三是回乡或者旅游的网友可以随时走访。当监督和校方发生争执的时候,他呼吁有个第三方的法律仲裁的机构。中国政法大学法学院副院长何兵领 衔此事。
北师大壹基金公益研究院院长王振耀认为成功的原因,更关键的是它的项目设计本身。身在公益领域也熟悉政府运作的他说:“‘免费午餐’选择了公众普遍关心的贫困儿童作为关注点,这使得社会各阶层都易于达成情感的共鸣,但我们同样看到,以往也有一些关注儿童的民间公益项目,但都没有取得这样的成功。”民间对社会现实问题的理性对待而非对抗,让政府切实感受到了来自社会各界的善意。
这两点是项目成功的关键,也正是此类项目的局限。
西部阳光教育基金会有个“阳光鸡窝营养早餐计划”,行动之前实地调查2年,并对贫困山区孩子的身高和体重等基本指标进行测定、对照,发现营养不良的问题,对230名儿童每天提供一个鸡蛋和一杯白糖水。中国发展研究基金会在2006年对试验点学龄儿童补助2.5~4.5元不等。2007年起中国滋根教育基金会“豆浆工程”,对8所小学每天一杯热豆浆,通过改善农村儿童营养状况,保障贫困儿童的基本生存权利和教育权利。
这些公益组织在一个或几个项目点上深扎下去,获得数据、实施行动、政策倡导。和“免费午餐”相比,他们有更扎实的专业团队,但没有网友的广泛参与,也没有惠及万名学生。但能否就评价说,这些项目相比“免费午餐”是失败的呢?
NGO工 作领域非常广泛,劳工、性别、公共健康、艾滋病防治、教育、扶贫诸多领域。不是哪个工作都可以在短时间看到效果,不是哪个工作都可以得到类似公安部门这样的支持,不是每个边缘群体的生存和另类的价值都能得到社会广泛的认可,如在儿童教育上形成广泛的共识。善于策划的梁树新说,在选择公益项目的时候也不能不 多加考虑:“我会比较关注一 些门槛低,能够让大家都能参与,而且很快就能看到成果的项目。” 公益是多层次的,从围观到从网上转发一次就是行动,降低了人们参与的门槛。但是门槛那边,其中复杂、艰险的境地依然是少数人涉足。常年的重复的、细碎繁锁的工作,早就不具有新闻价值,背后那些不为外人道的,完全可以成为惊心动魄的故事, 只是因为各种原因无法出现在公众的视野中。
这几位个人公益明星,并不从项目经费里领取工资,这些活动本身不是NGO最 熟悉的项目制。他们有自己的专业和生活来源,他们可以“不赞成抱着苦行僧的心态做公益,也反对打悲情牌、放催泪弹。”的确有打悲情牌的,但悲情在很多时候并不是刻意出的一张牌。这个行业里,在资源有限而且分布不均的情况下,苦行僧是不可缺少的。如果一定远离苦行僧的生活,不知道支撑这个行业的还有谁?
但是,无论如何,微公益行动很大程度促进了公众参与,同时也让民间组织有所尴尬。这种开放、透明、快速积聚资源的行动和反应,有效的传播方式,也催促NGO的反省。多背一公斤的安猪批评:NGO在 意识到被政府边缘化的同时,更要意识到自己正在被社会边缘化,而这种边缘化是自我选择的,它来源于自身的傲慢、迟钝和自我陶醉。”正所谓大道不孤,有警醒的公益人自有未来 。  殷情切切,恨铁不成钢。除了组织要有提升和成长的自我意识,突破外部的束缚和局限依然任重道远。
组织的发展受制于技术和市场,还有行政力量的压力和限制。10月28日,在清华大学NGO研究所的沙龙上,针对笔者提出的当民众需要NGO的时候,NGO没有敏感性、没有动员力的问题(详见《中国发展简报》2011年夏季刊“重回垃圾议题之尴尬与期待”),梁晓燕做了回应。大概四五年以前,梁晓燕跟时任绿色和平总干事卢思骋有过一次讨论,她认为中国有环保组织,没有环境运动。社会运动需要有广泛的公众参与。通过PX事件、南京的古树保护事件和许多民众自发性抗争的污染事件,都可以看到在今天的中国一些环境运动的萌芽和可能性,但这种可能性的承担者是谁呢?如果是民间环保组织,在环境运动触发的时候,它应不应该、有没有能力作为一支生力军引领或者介入?
什么样的组织才可以培养运动的萌芽和引领运动?很多NGO先自我矮化,给自己定位是联系政府和群众的桥梁和纽带,是政府的一个重要补充,是政府的朋友、伙伴、参谋、助手等等,这种表述在民间组织中是一种普遍的存在。之所以如此,首先是要活下来,谋得合法性生存。梁晓燕一串发问:这些表述是主动的选择还是被动的自我定位?这个定位是不是一种不得不的选择?这和社会运动的定位,和社会运动所要求的组织的定位是什么内在的关系?是不是有悖论?另外,现有的筹款制度把NGO用项目制框得死死的,民间组织完全被项目绑架。从人力资源、工作计划、工作成果来看呈现,所有这些方面是在一个项目框架中进行的,令它的某一部分能力无法发展起来。
在一种热闹升平的媒体合奏中,我们看到了几个公益人取得的成果和更多人的行动和努力,其间资源聚集的方法、项目操作的层次、传播和游说的能力,值得民间组织学习。期待民间组织在新的一年,在上述现有的两个束缚很难改变的情况下,依然有突破,自我成长,打破一个个封闭的小圈子、小系统。但另外应该警惕的是,不能将个人公益行动作为一种新的标杆,来测评和否定那些支撑这个行业的不发声和不能发声的人和事,甚至以为这就代表了公益未来全部的方向。

Translated by Feng Zhiying

Reviewed by Peter Maa

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