Have NGOs Been Overshadowed by Microblogging?

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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. 

In Brief

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
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