A Chinese NGO with International Characteristics: The Morning Tears Advocacy Model

Introduction: China’s internationalization has led to the emergence of NGOs that no longer fit neatly into the Chinese NGO or international NGO category but rather constitute a hybrid. Fiorinda Di Fabio looks at one such hybrid and its blueprint for conducting effective advocacy on child protection and welfare in China.

Although China has witnessed an exponential increase in the number of NGOs over the last 30 years, there are still political and administrative restrictions that NGOs must confront when carrying out their work in the country. Nonetheless, some NGOs have been able to not just carry out their own activities, but also play a role in the government policy making process, despite not being legally recognized.

Over the last 15 years, as the Chinese central government began promoting the notion of “small government, big society” (小政府,大社会) and “social management innovation” (社会管理创新), local governments have been experimenting with different kinds of partnerships with selected Chinese NGOs and INGOs. A few of these NGOs have been able to formulate mechanisms to influence the policy making process by reinventing themselves and building new models.

Morning tears (its trademark name is uncapitalized) is one of the few NGOs to gain a voice in the policy making process by creating a strategy to conduct advocacy in China. It is a hybrid, Chinese-born international NGO established in Xi’an, China in 1998 as a grassroots organization, and subsequently internationalized in order to carry out its work effectively. Morning tears currently runs a child protection center for the children of imprisoned parents in Zhengzhou, Henan. This center is a pilot project started in collaboration with governmental authorities in 2009. Over the past 15 years, morning tears has helped more than 800 children and is currently assisting 250.

Morning tears was funded by a team of Chinese and foreign psychologists with the main goal of supporting the target group of the children of incarcerated parents in China. Policies and practices for these children did not exist in China before the government included them in the 11th Five Year Plan. In that Five Year Plan, the central government called for the assistance of organizations, including civil society organizations, in acquiring knowledge about good practices and policies for the target group. Specifically, the government needed help to standardize procedures to follow when children were rescued from the street, and transform those procedures into policies. Since 2003, morning tears has implemented policy-oriented activities such as trainings, pilot projects, and field trips, all of which have been effective means to influencing policy. Its most important achievement to date is participating in the drafting of the minimum protection standards and standard procedures for the target group at both the local and national levels, and drafting of the training material for caregivers both in child protection centers and inspection units. Thanks to the minimum protection standards, children of the incarcerated have been legally guaranteed minimum rights formulated according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Standard procedures have established responsibilities and modalities in the protection and care of the target group. The training material for caregivers and inspectors conferred a professional orientation to the staff working with this group of children, guaranteeing better care for their difficulties, such as psychological traumas, social stigma, and intergenerational incarceration. To achieve those results, morning tears has established partnerships with two of the most important governmental institutions in the field of child protection in China: the Zhengzhou Child Protection Center (郑州市救助保护流浪少年儿童中心) and the National Training Center (民政部联合国儿童基金会流浪未成年人保护发展培训基地).As a rare case of a NGO influencing policy making, this organization’s experience is a valuable example for other NGO practitioners seeking to have a voice in the policy formulation process.

Morning tears has been able to participate in the policy process because it combines advantages that come from being both a local and international organization. On one hand, morning tears has operated in ways that have allowed it to strengthen its social and political legitimacy in China, and its understanding of the local target group. These operational characteristics include: 1) a non-political approach; 2) a professional network; 3) the use of Chinese-style advocacy; and 4) a bilateral information exchange platform. At the same time, because of its international status, morning tears has been able to tap into the following resources: 1) sustainable funding; 2) international expertise; and 3) international legitimacy which gives it a solid economic base, access to international knowledge, and the broader recognition necessary to have a voice in the policy making process in China.

A non-political approach is the main characteristic needed by an NGO to achieve government recognition, and thereby access to the policy process, in China. An NGO’s existence in China is only allowed as long as it does not interfere with the political system. The non-political nature of morning tears’ work created space for it to assume the role of a technical advisor to the Chinese government to provide expert advice regarding best practices for the target group. Morning tears’ role as technical advisor was made possible because some of its funders had worked with the target group for several years and had developed a reputation as international experts in the field.

Morning tears also was careful to work within the hierarchical, state system by making sure that their work was approved by higher levels of government. In this respect, Morning tears established a subordinate relationship with the governmental bodies involved: the National Training Center (民政部联合国儿童基金会流浪未成年人保护发展培训基地), which is directly managed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Zhengzhou Child Protection Center, which is part of the Zhengzhou Civil Affairs Bureau. Morning tears showed its respect for hierarchical relationships by sending to the meetings representatives – diplomats from several countries Morning Tears is registered in – who matched the ranks of the government official.

Second, morning tears worked through a professional network to achieve legitimacy for their policy work. This network included other supporting social actors and governmental bodies, in particular Zhengzhou University, and the Sanyuan Children Village of Xi’an (东周儿童村), in their work both by providing funding and knowledge. Apart from its importance in legitimizing its policymaking position, morning tears’ professional network has provided strong support in deepening its knowledge of the target group in China. Zhengzhou University, for example, has supported morning tears in the drafting of the minimum standards for the protection of children of incarcerated parents. One of morning tears’ funders even enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Zhengzhou University to gain a full understanding of the target group in the area of Zhengzhou. The university provided morning tears with information about the specific difficulties these children encounter in Chinese society, their psychological traumas, the disorders they develop, and their family background. The Sanyuan village of Xi’an contributed to morning tears’ work by sharing their previous field experiences with the same target group.

Finally, in its approach to advocacy, morning tears has adopted familiar Chinese policy making methods such as the point-to-surface approach (有点到面)in which policy making originates from local “experimental points” with the formal or informal support of higher-level policy-makers. Given this structure of the Chinese policymaking process, an NGO interested in shaping policy needs to be supported by empirical evidence. Zhengzhou is the national model for street children experimentation in China. Since the children of incarcerated parents are part of the street children group, morning tears started a pilot project which was included in the Zhengzhou model (郑州模式). The project was started up in 2009 and is based on a child protection center established by morning tears in Zhengzhou. The center hosts approximately 60 children who are monitored by a team of caregivers, social workers, and psychologists who are in charge of developing protection standards, operation procedures, and training materials based on the project experiences.

As a technical advisor, morning tears has worked within the mass line model(群众路线模型), which is a hierarchical structure the Chinese government uses to include social actors in the policy formulation and innovation process. Within the mass-line system, morning tears established a bilateral information exchange platform with the government. The purpose of this platform is to exchange regular information with the government about the best placement for the projects, the exact number of the children of imprisoned parents in different areas, international experiences, and information about the local target group.

Morning tears’s localized methods do not, on their own, provide the necessary requirements for an NGO to take part in the policy making process in China. As a Chinese-born international NGO, it also has the advantage of drawing on international resources. One important resource it possesses is its legal status through its registration in several Western countries. Since one of its founders is a Belgian citizen, the first morning tears branch was opened in Belgium in 2005. Soon afterwards, morning tears branches were registered in Spain in 2006, the Netherlands in 2008, Denmark in 2009, Italy and France in 2010, the U.S. in 2011, and Hong Kong in 2013. In all those countries, morning tears is registered as a non-profit organization. Even if it sometimes engages in awareness campaigns or funds other small national projects, its main purpose is to fundraise for projects in China.

Morning tears status as an INGO made it easier to accept the presence of the organization in China because it meant that the target issue could be perceived as a shared issue among several countries in the world. The new international perception of the issue legitimized morning tears to have a say in the policy process because the government could accept its help without feeling weak.

A second resource is the international expertise morning tears has been able to bring in regarding the target group. There is a common perception among Chinese officials, that better knowledge comes from outside the country and foreign policy advisors are therefore usually welcomed. In 2006, for example, the foreign founder of morning tears was appointed as a consultant by the civil affairs bureau of Zhengzhou. Morning tears has also invited experts in child protection from different European countries to give training workshops to government bodies in Zhengzhou and visited the project in Zhengzhou.

Finally, as an NGO registered overseas, morning tears was able to gain financial support through its fundraising activities abroad. It is difficult for Chinese grassroots NGOs, particularly those that are unregistered, to fundraise in China. In addition, the government rarely provides financial support for NGOs others than GONGOs with a close connection to the government. Foreign governments generally prefer to finance GONGOs as well because they already enjoy a relationship with the government and will not cause political trouble. As a strategy to maintain its financial sustainability, morning tears therefore registered in other countries where it was able to fundraise and compete for EU grants directed at China-based projects. This international platform gave it the financial stability that is essential for the kind of advocacy needed to have an impact on policy making.

Morning tears’ blend of the local and international has allowed it to collaborate with government bodies on shaping child protection policy. The reasons behind its success lie in its nature as a non-governmental joint venture designed by Chinese and foreigners who both contributed to its local and international characteristics. One reason is the organization’s dual-legitimacy, meaning that it was able to legitimize itself in China while its internationalization opened doors to international recognition. This combination was critical in putting morning tears in a position to shape policy. Local legitimacy was further strengthened through the creation of a bilateral information exchange and a professional network. Legitimacy has also been achieved through internationalization, which has enabled morning tears to represent the voices of more people while playing a role in the policy making process.

Another reason behind morning tears’ success is the combination of Western and Chinese practices and expertise in its management and implementation of projects. The Chinese core contributed with knowledge of the unwritten rules of Chinese society and the target group’s domestic situation, while the international dimension contributed the latest findings from other countries in relation to the practices of the target group. Pragmatic Chinese-style advocacy was made sustainable through international financial support provided by morning tears branches in other countries. This hybrid structure has made morning tears extremely flexible, adaptable and effective, and provides a model for other NGOs interested in shaping policy in China.

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