Between Heaven and Hell: Grassroots NGOs in Central China

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As part of CDB’s series on NGOs in Anhui, this article chronicles the struggles and slow progress of public service NGOs working in China’s central region of Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Hebei and Hubei.

“If you love someone, let him get involved in public service, because it is paradise; if you hate someone, let him get involved in public service, because it is hell.”

I am an ordinary grassroots volunteer. For 18 years I have spent all I have to start up and operate a grassroots organization, which made me become aware of the hardships involved .While I was studying at a teacher’s training school  in 1993, I and two other classmates set up a Lei Feng group1. I have unintentionally become “a living fossil in Henan’s non-governmental public service sector” as I close in on the age of 40 after beginning my commitment to public service at the age of 18. I often joke that while today I am a living fossil, tomorrow I will be a real fossil because central China’s grassroots public service sector stands between heaven and hell.

China’s NGO sector faces serious imbalances. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and the regions of Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan are known as “China’s NGO paradise”. Almost all resources related to NGO development, including funding, policy, and human resources are concentrated in the eastern and western regions. NGOs in these regions are thriving while the central region is experiencing a serious hollowing-out effect.

The Reality of the Grassroots Public Service Sector in Central China

For a long time, national policies, and domestic and international foundations and NGOs have generally allocated resources to China’s western region and first-tier coastal cities. In the five central provinces of Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Hebei and Hubei, the development of public service organizations has been about the same: limited in number, many without registration, slow to develop, with little awareness, and capacity. They are basically self-supporting organizations in sharp contrast to the vibrant public service organizations in the eastern and western regions.

Most of the NGOs in the central region are still stuck in the early stages of development.  Few are registered and many are attached to other organizations or unregistered and have essentially have no full-time workers2. Public services are focused on activities without understanding the overall project.  Organizations lack funding sources and  management is dominated by charismatic leaders.

Experts have summed up the obstacles encountered by NGOs in central China in terms of three areas: institutional constraints, lack of funding and human resources, and a weak social foundation. International and domestic NGOs have not paid much attention to central provinces like Henan where there are few projects and funded activities. Meanwhile, local government departments are unfamiliar with NGOs.  As a result, little attention and support is given to nurture NGOs. There is also a lack of policy innovation. In a situation where there is neither external nor internal impetus, NGOs in the central region have exercised relatively little influence and have been unable to form an independent voice.

Based on incomplete statistics, in the Henan Province there are more than 60 NGOs  but only six to seven are officially registered with the Civil Affairs departments. There are 18 cities in Henan Province. In Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, there are relatively more NGOs  while there are only one or two volunteer organizations in each prefecture. There are even fewer organizations with full-time staff.

In the prefectures, NGOs are generally initiated and led by one or a few volunteers, who use their spare time to plan and organize activities. There is no funding and no full-time workers, most work in borrowed offices, and some have never had their own offices. The rise and fall of an organization often mirrors the rise and fall of the founders. The day the founder exhausts his resources is the day his organization closes.

The Case of Henan Enlai Charity (恩来公益)

In 1993, in Henan Province’s Puyang City, three students in a teacher’s training school established the Learning from Lei Feng Group (学雷锋小组), which mainly involved organizing activities inspired by the Lei Feng spirit, such as delivering letters to other classmates and offering lost and found services. In 1994, soon after I became a teacher at a school affiliated with the local petroleum bureau, I recruited some friends to organize a Marxist-Leninist study group with more than ten members (which later became known as the Three-Person Aixin Society (三人爱心社). We studied original Marxist-Leninist texts while carrying out  poverty-alleviation activities. In 1996, we founded the first psychological counseling mailbox for elementary and middle school students in Puyang City. In 1998, we founded Henan’s first public interest psychological counseling hotline, the Caring Counseling Public Interest Hotline (真爱心理公益热线) to carry out volunteer counseling services to the public. As a non-governmental, self-organized team of volunteers, we had no funds, no support from any work unit, no office, and almost no outside aid. All we had was a caring heart.

In 1999, the Caring Counseling Hotline was transformed into the Enlai Student Assistance Center (恩来助学中心) which has been a foothold in public interest work on education. We have achieved breakthroughs in recent years. Since 2010, the organization has carried out activities through collaboration with several foundations and it is now a platform for promoting public service capacity building in the central region. Since 2008, each year we’ve held a public service forum in the central region to to support the development of NGOs in the five central Chinese provinces. Thus far we have hosted four annual forums and organized a series of NGO capacity-building workshops to aid the development of NGOs in the five central provinces.

Enlai has gone through 18 years of change, and has gradually transformed from a volunteer group into a professional NGO, thereby realizing both my life-long dream and career goal. As a person of little intelligence, my only resource is to uphold my conviction. Having long passed my youth, I now see the achievements that lay before me. I know deep in my heart that “the future is bright, but the road is tortuous.” The future of NGOs remains difficult and uncertain.

However, as a classic example of a central China NGO, Enlai Charity’s several stages of development may serve as a reference for other grassroots NGOs. These stages are summarized in the following sections.

First stage: Doing it All

As a grassroots volunteer organization, Enlai went wherever there were needs. We worked in all areas, with the elderly, the disabled, children, holding charity performances, giving donations, and providing relief for those with serious illnesses. Our volunteers worked in over ten different areas.

Our office in Henan is located in Puyang city, inside the massive state-owned Sinopec Zhongyuan Oil Field. Using the Zhongyuan Oil Field as a base, we spread throughout Puyang City. Relying on the enterprise’s organizational capacity, we quickly recruited thousands of volunteers, mostly relatives of the Sinopec employees. Because our volunteers have good qualifications, it has been relatively easy for us to hold activities.

The downside was that we were carrying out activities of every kind and were constantly on the road. The more activities, the more time and money the organizers spent. As the founder of the organization I did not have the time to do my own work. For a long time, we had to constantly extend assistance to patients suffering from cerebral palsy, leukemia, and other serious unexplained sicknesses. All kinds of people found us through the media and personal referrals. Many of them begged us for help, which was overwhelming. As a grassroots NGO, we did not have a budget. All funds were donated by our volunteers. The founder, in particular, had to be responsible for the NGO’s operating expenses. All I could do was to bite the bullet.

We called ourselves “the Three Losses volunteers: lost time, lost energy, lost money.” We did not even have minimum wage; instead, we had to spend our own money. The more Enlai did, the more we lost. The more successes we achieved, the more we lost. Consequently, I often had difficulty sleeping and much of my hair turned white. It was at this time that I realized that Enlai had to find a breakthrough, otherwise it would fail.

Phase II: The pre-professional transition stage.

NGOs usually explore in the dark without professional guidance. Thanks to the spread of the Internet, I used it extensively for the purpose of self-study. Afterwards, I would exchange ideas with Enlai volunteers and organize study sessions with volunteer organizations in other parts of the country to learn how volunteer organizations develop in other cities. As a result of my observations, I began to downsize the departments. I decided that we would concentrate our resources to focus on doing one thing well.

As a former public school teacher, I love children. Therefore, I transformed Enlai’s Puyang office from a multi-purpose organization into an education-focused NGO. We have thus far provided tuition to students with needs, built rural libraries, and established social practicum programs for youth.

The tuition assistance project mainly involved calling on urbanites to provide one-to-one assistance in the form of money and written encouragements to impoverished children in the rural areas. After the state established the system of free nine-year compulsory education, we changed our focus to seeking donations for the establishment of rural libraries. As of December 2011, we had accumulated more than 320,000 books, which have been donated to rural primary schools in Inner Mongolia and Henan.

How do we support urban young people? The Social Practicum for Youth is a platform which involves activities that include newspaper delivery services, family exchanges, field trips, countryside experiences, and outdoor exploration, which are designed for urban youth to grow up in happiness. Currently, we’re supporting the establishment of our first Social Practicum Youth Team – the  Henan Society of Little Journalists (河南小记者爱心社).

Phase III: Enlai’s Zhengzhou office As a Support Organization Serving the Five Central Provinces

We set up our office in Zhengzhou in 2008, which began a period of difficult public service work yielding little return.

Enlai  is based in Henan, which has relatively few resources as well as a lack of information. I contacted a number of large domestic and foreign foundations and NGOs to apply for learning opportunities, but was met with the same response: “Sorry, we have no project in Henan. You can apply if you are an NGO in western China.” I was overwhelmed with grief and vowed that we would organize Henan’s NGOs to engage in self-study. In the absence of external support, we would create the conditions for our self improvement.

During the National Day holiday in 2008, Enlai gathered more than 40 key members of NGOs in Puyang, Anyang , Zhengzhou, Hebi, Zhoukou to meet at Taihang Mountain for the 2008 Henan NGO Forum (河南民间公益组织论坛), which might be the first recorded NGO forum in Henan Province. The leaders of each NGO had the chance to speak their mind, express their opinions, and share their confusions, experiences, and problems.

In 2009, the Henan NGO Forum was held in Zhengzhou. With the support of several businesses, Enlai, Henan Volunteers Alliance, and other NGOs initiated the forum in which more than 70 key members of NGOs from across the province took part in an unprecedented experimental leadership training to enhance each group’s cohesiveness and management capabilities.

In 2010, the Henan NGO Forum developed into the Central China NGO Forum (中部民间公益组织论坛). Enlai and the Huang Ming Group (皇明集团) in Shandong’s Dezhou City co-sponsored the Third Central China NGO Forum where experts from more than 60 NGOs from the five provinces of Henan, Shandong, Anhui, Hunan, and Shaanxi gathered at the headquarters of the Huang Ming Group.

In June and July 2011, dozens of NGOs participated in the Henan NGO Forum and the Central China NGO Forum. For the first time, outside experts were invited to take part in the activities. Xing Mo, the Chinese Director of the Yunnan Institute of Development (云南发展培训学院), Qu Dong, the head of the Institute for Civil Society at Sun Yat-sen University (中山大学公民发展中心), and Lin Hong of the Narada Foundation(南都公益基金会), attended the conference at their own expense to show their support for public service work in central China.

Enlai has led NGOs in every province and region in Central China to engage in self-organized exchanges and training. We have worn ourselves out to reach out to others with passion. At first, many NGOs and volunteers suspected that we had a separate agenda. Even before the beginning of the leadership courses which we worked hard to organize, they were still asking whether or not we were serious about providing courses for free. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry in response.

After holding the Central China NGO Forum for four years, NGOs in central China have become increasingly united and visible.

We have benefited from the encouragement and examples of the Huaxia Commonweal Service Center (华夏公益联盟), the Yunnan Institute of Development, the Sun Yat-sen University’s Institute for Civil Society, the British Council (英国大使馆文化教育处), the Bright China Foundation (北京光华慈善基金会), among others. The guidance of the older generation of NGO leaders and teachers, such as Xing Mo, Qu Dong, and Zhao Hua have made it clear that we have inadvertently become the only NGO support organization in the central Chinese provinces.

Reflection: How Can We Help?

As the only public service organization supporting NGOs in the five central provinces, I am always uneasy because without organizational and developmental models from which to draw on, what can we offer to those engaged in public service?

Learning to Organize Various Types of NGO Capacity-Building Projects:

Given the state of NGOs in the central region, we are mainly involved in conducting various forms of activities, including NGO capacity building workshops, the Henan Non-governmental Public Service Seminars, the Central China Public Service Forum, and the Henan Non-Governmental Public Service Salon, to support local NGOs and volunteer groups.

With regard to university student groups, we have launched the “Public Service Speaking Tour for Henan Universities and Colleges” and the “Public Service University for Henan University Students”. We have also actively organized the university student leaders to participate in the National Public Service Challenge for University Students. In 2012, we launched the university students’ work-study project in collaboration with the Dahe Daily which has the biggest circulation in Henan.

For primary and secondary student groups, each year we organize the National Contest for Youth Public Service Innovation in  which groups of volunteer teachers and parents are trained to support children in taking an active part in public service.

Public service work in Henan still has a long way to go and we feel that our strength is limited. Most of the Henan public service groups are non-governmental volunteer groups without outside support. Many groups are unfamiliar with organizations and concepts in the professional public service sector, such as foundations, public service projects, and full-time staff. We have thought hard about how to guide everybody toward “thinking differently” and “doing public service differently”, but we have yet to achieve a breakthrough.

In November 2011, on behalf of Henan Enlai Charity, I was selected as a “Ginkgo Partner” by the Narada Foundation.It is fair to say that the support of the “Ginkgo Partner” gave us the greatest encouragement and comfort at a key turning point in our development3

Arriving at a stage where we are paid to engage in public service from a stage where we paid to participate in public service, Enlai has ascended into heaven from hell. I am deeply grateful to all the volunteers and teachers who have supported public service in central China, and to all who have supported non-governmental public service!

However, to this day, we look around and see so many public service leaders struggling to go forward.We have seen the birth and death of many grassroots organizations and we remain distraught. Enlai has currently leased a relatively large office in Zhengzhou. In 2012, we will set up a Henan grassroots public service incubator with the expectation that Enlai will become the bridge for NGOs in central China to pass from hell to heaven.


  1. Editor’s Note: Lei Feng was a soldier who died in an accident in 1962. Soon afterwards, the Communist Party began to trumpet the many good deeds that he was supposed to have carried out in his life, and the Lei Feng campaign was born. Lei Feng’s legacy is still remembered today and his name is synonymous with the altruistic spirit that the Communist Party wants to instill in its citizens 

  2. Editor’s Note: In the early years of NGO development in China, when registration was difficult, NGOs would “attach” themselves to other organizations as a convenient way to gain legal status. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The Gingko Fellows Program was started by the Narada (Nandu) Foundation in 2010 to give NGO leaders, scholars, media professionals, and individual activists the time and resources needed to strengthen their leadership skills in the public interest sector.  Five Gingko Fellows were chosen in 2010, and another 16 were selected in 2011. 

In Brief

As part of CDB’s series on NGOs in Anhui, this article chronicles the struggles and slow progress of public service NGOs working in China’s central region of Henan, Shanxi, Anhui, Hebei and Hubei.
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