How the Official Discourse of “Social Management Innovation” Has Expanded the Space for NGOs

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In 2011, “Social Management Innovation” Became a Buzzword.

On February 19, President Hu Jintao spoke at the “Provincial and Ministerial Level Leader Social Management Innovation Seminar” at the Central Party School. His speech stressed the need to “firmly increase the scientific level of social management, and to construct a system to manage socialism with Chinese characteristics. ”

On May 30, the Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo held a meeting to strengthen both the research in and construction of social management1.

July saw the introduction of “Central Committee and State Council Opinions on Enhancing Social Management Innovation” (hereafter referred to as “Opinions”), which is the first official document produced by the Chinese government on social management innovation2. According to newspaper reports, since this document was not released to the public, it may hold some confidential content. Following the publication of selected parts of this document in the media, CPC leaders, government officials and those in the social development field, all participated in discussing the report’s ideas.

During this period, there have been seminars, the publication of numerous papers and books, research conducted, and several professional research organizations established, all focusing on this new field of social management innovation. A publication edited by the National School of Administration, Selected Cases of Social Management Innovation, highlights cases that have received attention in the public interest sector. One case is about Shenzhen reforming the registration and management system for community groups. Another is about the initiative of Federation of Trade Unions in Jieyang City, Guangdong Province to encourage staff in local NGOs to establish their own trade unions.. In still another case, Qingyuan Street Committee in Beijing’s Daxing District been participating in community service projects. Another case profiles Shanghai developing a public interest organization incubator. Still another profiles government financial budgetary reform in the town of Xinhe in Zhejiang’s Wenling Prefecture3.

This (high-level endorsement of social management innovation) constitutes one of the most significant changes in the external environment of CSOs this year. It provides an important opportunity for marginalized, non-mainstream CSOs to gain legitimacy.

Searching for a Breakthrough in “Stability Maintenance”

In the 1990s, scholars heatedly debated the CPC’s transformation from a revolutionary party to a governing party. Since 1978, the basis of the CPC’s legitimacy has undergone a major shift. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese government was committed to building its political legitimacy. Entering the 1990s, these efforts at strengthening political legitimacy gradually encountered more problems, so the Chinese government began looking for new sources of legitimacy.

From urban to rural areas, food safety to housing demolition (to name just a few areas), the obsession with GDP growth over the past 20 years has led to the development of many social conflicts  Funding for “stability maintenance” has increased every year, and in 2009, “stability maintenance” expenses exceeded military spending4.  Mobilizing the government’s entire control apparatus to solving this problem can only lead to more spending, and will not get at the root of the problem.

In fact, starting from around 2003, China had already initiated a major strategic adjustment. In a speech on February 19, President Hu Jintao pointed out that China is now in a strategically important developmental phase where social contradictions are magnified and many problems still exist in the field of social management. Overall, the problems in the field of social management are a reflection of China’s socio economic development level and stage of development.

In the opinion of Zhao Dingxin, a scholar of social movements, an effective way to resolve social conflicts is to encourage the growth of for intermediary organizations. to grow is through the analysis of social conflicts5. Zhao Dingxin is a professor at the University of Chicago, and recently taught several classes in Chinese universities. Last year, his view on domestic problems was voluntary-type organizations were developing poorly, and public events, in general, were spontaneous rather than organized. In addition, the credibility of local governments and media are both declining, allowing rumors to play a key role in shaping public events. The keys to the development of public events in China are emotional rather than rational factors.

In November, Caixin Media organized their 2011 Summit Forum with the theme of “looking for real growth.” People often believe stability maintenance requires wisdom, but Zhao Dingxin said it only requires common sense. This common sense knowledge will help in the development of CSOs. He has always advocated that social contradictions should be solved by working through the system. He said that the United States in the 20th century, and in pre-World War II Europe, there were also sharp social contradictions. But the social problems of Europe and the United States were resolved by working within the existing system. Governments in Europe and the United States have withdrawn from many areas, and it is through the establishment of civil society that citizens and interest groups can be allowed to solve various problems (rather than having the government at the forefront of solving social conflicts).

At this forum, Song Xiaowu, Secretary General of the China Economic Restructuring Research Group, in line with Zhao’s remarks, proposed that social organizations be given free rein to coordinate among themselves. He believes that within a specific framework, through self-organizing and self-coordinating, different people and communities evolve into groups that promote a stable society, while representing different interest groups. Song said that if social organizations can learn self-discipline, and protect their legal rights, the government will not be depended upon to solve so many social conflicts.

It is rare and commendable when consensus between officials and scholars on “stability maintenance” is reached, regardless of whether it is the result of common sense or wisdom. As a result of this change in mindset, government’s  investment in CSOs has actually increased due to these changes (in the government’s attitude). Yu Keping, Vice Director of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, has analyzed recent trends regarding government policy, specifically the 17th Party Congress report which proposed allowing self-organized social organizations to do three things: expand public participation, promote the positive functions of things with popular appeal, and strengthen society’s ability to govern itself6.  After that report, the CPC and Chinese government, which had previously emphasized control, began to put more emphasis on nurturing and support. Government funding, service contracts, and social donations have all been increasing, but on the whole, the supply of resources is still inadequate7.

Social Innovation Discourse and CSO Registration

In regards to CSOs, legal status is one of their most important resources. Even if the government increases the supply of money for civil society projects, the vast majority of unregistered or commercially registered organizations will not be able to acquire or use the money. Additionally, in recent years, private funding, and funding from overseas have also been focused on registered organizations8.

In 2011, the local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong took the lead in developing new legislation for managing CSOs, and gradually lowering the barriers for CSO registration.

At the start of 2011, Beijing launched an important innovative system. This system loosens the registration process for four categories of CSOs: business and economic; public interest, charitable; social welfare; and social services.  These CSOs can directly register with the Civil Affairs office, and not be required to “find a professional supervising unit”9. The Beijing government used the “Zhongguancun National Innovation Demonstration Zone Ordinance” as a starting point for promoting this program citywide10.

In June 2011, Beijing issued “Views on Strengthening Social Management and Innovation in Social Development,” which restated the importance of CSOs in social development. It also proposed forming a public service provision mechanism that would be government-led but with wide ranging participation by CSOs and public service units.

However, Beijing government’s policy proposal has not fully resolved the “dual management” issue for CSO registration. The four different types of organizations (mentioned earlier) still need the Civil Affairs office to find them a professional supervising unit in addition to registering with the Civil Affairs bureau. However, government officials believe that the difficulty of the Civil Affairs office finding a willing supervising unit is less than if the CSO had to find one itself. Moreover, for some charity organizations, the Civil Affairs office itself can serve as the supervising agency.

In 2009, Beijing promoted the “hub model” in order to solve the registration problems of civil organizations. The “hub model” lets CSOs use designated social organizations as their professional supervising unit. The government goes through these “hub” organizations to buy the services of CSOs, thereby making it easier for “hub” organizations to manage and service CSOs.

This “very imaginative” policy, however, has been a disappointment. In 2011, when the policy was implemented, some organizations jumped on the opportunity, and some chose to wait. Those organizations wanting to register found that success was largely based on chance or personal relationships. To give one example, the board of directors for an organization founded in 2004 thought that 2011 would be a good time to formally register. Towards the end of 2011, the legally responsible person of the organization undertook various consultations, reviewed the relevant policies, and sought out the appropriate responsible government unit. However, the relevant bureau then notified the representative that: “This year’s registration quota is full, please wait until next year to register.”

In contrast, the high profile case of the China Dolls Care and Support Association illustrates how one organization benefited from this policy11. On the afternoon of March 29, the Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo arrived at China Dolls’ office in Beijing. Minister Li not only issued it a certificate of registration as a civil, non-enterprise unit, but also presented a $1.7 million RMB donation from the China Social Welfare Association, the China Social Welfare Foundation, and the China Charity Aids Foundation for Children. Many other active organizations working on disability issues, however, have been less fortunate. For example, one of the oldest and best-known disability NGOs in China, Beijing Huiling, has been unable to register despite repeated attempts. As a result, it remains the only one of Huiling’s 11 branches across the country that is still registered as a business.

It is still not known how many organizations are registered in Beijing every year. In the two years since Beijing adopted this new policy, how many new organizations have there been? Data from 2009 shows there were 6733 registered organizations (at the municipal and district level). By the end of 2010, there were 7100 legally registered organizations. Between January and July of 2011, there were only 140 new registered social organizations. So in two year’s time, there have only been an increase of several hundred organizations12.

Similar to Beijing, Guangdong is another province where the media has repeatedly reported on the new policies, particularly in the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Early last year, Jet Li’s One Foundation successfully registered in Shenzhen. If this case is indicative of the climate for CSOs there, other organizations will flock to Guangzhou.

The Blue Collar Workers’ Cooperative finally registered this year in Dongguan city. One of the founders of this cooperative, He Zhongzhou, said it only took four days from submission to approval, and the approval itself only took one day. Moreover, they were not required to have a professional supervisory unit in order to register. In the Guangdong Development Plan, there is a clear expectation for the number of social organizations. According to newspaper reports, there are 28,509 social organizations in Guangdong, and the projection for 2015 is that there will be 50,000.  By the end of this year, there will still be room for more CSOs to be registered. After Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang criticized the difficulty Kun Ge faced in registering, steps were taken to make the process more convenient. More importantly, on November 22, Guangdong Department of Civil Affairs Director Liu Hong, at the provincial system reform work meeting, described the “Program for Further Development and Standardized Management of Social Organizations in Guangdong Province” (hereinafter referred to as the Program). The Program states that from July 1, 2012 on, except in special cases and in special areas, the professional supervising units for CSOs will be changed into professional guiding units. The Program also establishes a process by which social organizations can register directly with local Civil Affairs offices. At the same time, Guangdong will introduce a competitive mechanism changing the “one organization per sector” monopolistic policy to a “multiple organizations per sector” policy13.

On October 8, 2011, the Chengdu party committee and government issued the “Program for Accelerating the Development of Social Organizations.” This allows the local registration and management organ to directly register the following categories of social organizations: business and economic, charitable, social welfare, culture and sports. The exception is organizations that are explicitly required by law or administrative regulations to get a license first.  The Chengdu government also invested 500 million RMB to set up the Social Organization and Development Foundation. On December 1, the Changsha City government began to implement the “(Trial) Measures for Registration, Supervision and Management of Social Organizations in Changsha City.” In the future, the four categories of social welfare, charitable and other social organizations will be able to directly apply for registration at the Civil Affairs office.

In Shanghai, government purchasing of social service organizations, has attracted both old and new organizations to open branches there. Compared to the two cases described above, Shanghai’s “Social Innovation Incubator Park,” which opened in July, is considered the most important result of Shanghai’s effort to strengthen social development. The Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau was proactive in establishing the Park, seeing it as a new development model. Local government departments believed: “developing public service projects with Chinese characteristics, and creating a model for the survival and development of social welfare organizations, are the most fundamental, strategic  issues for us.”

This year, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region introduced the Yellow River Charitable Valley Program (hereafter, the Yellow River Program). This is a local government plan that aims to: “create a major strategic policy conforming to the current trends in charity, focusing on livelihood issues, and moving in the direction of charity development, poverty reduction, and prosperity with Ningxia characteristics.” In June, the first company entered the Program, and within six months, the Ningxia Yellow River Program Hongsipu Hongde Industrial Park has attracted more than 10 companies to invest almost 10 billion RMB in the charitable industry. This is the first place in China to change from the “blood transfusion model” to the “blood creation model” of charity. We hope this new plan does not simply use the name of charity to attract investments, but leads to actual innovations in the field of charity.

“Policy’s spring has arrived.” This has already been said for years. To NGO veterans who have spent many years working in the sector, whenever new policies are introduced, everyone sees it as a sign of spring after a harsh winter. However, the end result has always been disappointment. While the new policies in 2011 have varied by region, we seem to be witnessing a general thaw, and hope for the spring.


  1. Editor’s Note: The Politburo, which is currently has 24 members, is the highest decision-making organ in the CPC. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Central Committee and State Council are the respective party and state organs responsible for issuing major policy decisions. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The National School of Administration is where government officials of provincial and ministerial rank are trained.  Shenzhen, Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai are all areas where local governments are carrying out social management innovations by reforming regulations for registering and managing CSOs, and creating mechanisms for improving government transparency and public participation. 

  4. Editor’s Note: “Stability maintenance” (weiwen) refers to not only to the police or public security force, but also to a wide range of other agencies and individuals responsible for monitoring and supervising Chinese society. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Intermediary organizations is another term for CSOs. 

  6. Editor’s Note: The 17th Party Congress was held in October of 2007. 

  7. Editor’s Note: The author is referring to the growth in government procurement of social services, social donations, and private foundations over the past few years, all of which have increased the channels of funding for CSOs. 

  8. Editor’s Note: Government and foundation funds tend to go to “qualified” CSOs, which generally means those that are registered with the Civil Affairs office.  Yet many grassroots CSOs, particularly those working in more sensitive areas, are unable to register because they cannot find a government-approved professional supervising unit to sponsor them.  As a result, they tend to register as businesses or remain unregistered. 

  9. Editor’s Note: Under the current system, the government uses a “dual management” system to manage CSOs.  CSOs that want to register must be supervised by two government-approved units. Chinese affectionately use the colloquialism “two mother-in-laws” (liangge popo) to describe this arrangement.  One of these mother-in-laws should be a supervising unit in their professional area.  For example, if the CSO is an environmental organization, then its professional supervising unit would most likely be the Environmental Protection bureau.  The second supervising unit is the Civil Affairs office where the CSO will register. 

  10. Editor’s Note: Zhongguancun is an area within the Haidian district in the northwest of Beijing where many of the universities are concentrated. 

  11. Editor’s Note: For a profile of China Dolls, see “Gingko Partner Interviews: Wang Yi’ou” 

  12. Editor’s Note: The author’s point is that this increase since 2009 has been relatively small, especially when compared with other provinces such as Guangdong where the number of registered CSOs has grown faster. 

  13. Editor’s Note: This policy change applies specifically to trade associations (hangye xiehui) which previously had been limited in theory to one per sector. 

In Brief

CDB Editor, Liu Haiying, takes a close look at how the official discourse promoting “social management innovation” has led in recent years to more local policy experimentation on lowering barriers for NGO registration.
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