In Defense of the Grassroots

Yu Fangqiang, executive director of Justice for All, uses a blend of sarcasm and argument to defend grassroots NGOs from those who feel grassroots organizations need to be more professional and move to the mainstream of society. He contends that NGOs should be proud of their grassroots identity and that grassroots-ness and professionalism do not need to conflict. NGOs can be professional while also maintaining their independence and close ties with the communities they serve.

On May 6th, Wang Zhenyao, dean of Beijing Normal University’s China Philanthropy Research Institute, said in Shanghai that NGOs and those running them should stop considering themselves “grassroots” and should start introducing “professionalism” into the sector if they want to win the trust of both the government and society.

Recently, many friends have asked me, since registration channels for NGOs are now open to the public, will I register as well? Those who have asked include young NGO dilettantes of my age, professors in their 60s or 70s, and even more policy researchers.  In response to their question, all I can do is laugh.

Because “words” simply don’t come out. Are NGOs free to register? Do you even have to ask. New and bold policies are rolling out in Guangdong Province, one after another, in the hopes of eventually reaching the central government. Even the often timid Ministry of Civil Affairs (MoCA) says that it is eager for the introduction of the new registration and management regulations. Every now and then they spout out propaganda through the media. Minister Li from MoCA even stated that, “political and human rights civil society organizations can all officially register.” All types of civil society organizations are indeed very eager to do so – they are forming various associations, groups, and centers in the name of NGOs to service needs in society not addressed by the government.

But another thing to remember is that NGOs take this news of reform with a grain of salt. In fact, this is not the first time such “good news” has emerged in the history of the development of NGOs in China. But every time we hear this news, we start out hopeful and invariably end up disappointed. Of course, some things do change. For example, the government’s promises keep getting bigger.

We cannot deny that each high-profile reform does indeed improve the environment for NGOs. But we also must acknowledge that during previous reforms, the government had no real intention of changing but was rather forced to change. This helps illuminate why the government makes a huge fuss over every small reform, and yet makes little real progress with the occasional regression.

I do not want to overemphasize the opposition between civil society and the government, but the living space for NGOs in China has always faced resistance from the government and GONGOs.

Think about it; if there was no Wenchuan earthquake, how would we have known about the strength of NGOs? Without the Guo Meimei incident, who would have known GONGOs such as the Red Cross could cause so much disgust in people? The government has to some degree loosened its grip in order to save itself. Compared to its former agenda that sought to maintain total control, the government has now chosen to forgo some of that power to be able to remain in power.

This is totally understandable. It is just at this juncture that Dean Wang has urged us to talk less about NGOs in “grassroots” terms and more about professionalization. The grassroots cannot serve as “food”; after all, there are real problems to solve1.

So during the Wenchuan earthquake, who was more professional? Of course it was the soldiers and the government-run rescue teams, but it was those “lowly” grassroots NGOs that earned more respect from society. During the life-or-death situations, who was more professional? It was of course the Red Cross, but ever since the (Guo Meimei and other) scandals, people have been unwilling to donate money to the organization.

Chinese have much more money now than they did a few decades ago. But people are not stupid. Soliciting donations from the Chinese people no longer works as well as before. After decades of donating to an organization with abundant resources yet murky business dealings, the Chinese people invariably made a difficult decision based on nonviolence and noncooperation: to stop donating. I believe there is a reason behind that.

So many NGOs prefer to call themselves “grassroots” organizations that some older folks who are highly respected in government, academia, media and business . This is because even the “conservatives” in the public interest sector (referring to people like Wang Zhenyao) are inclined to believe that, in the current public interest marketplace, trust comes more from your (grassroots) positioning than your skills and capacity, even though this thought makes them deeply uncomfortable. But the truth is that even as the general public’s interest in charitable donations suddenly declined, more and more NGOs believe strongly that regardless of whether you are professional or not, “grassroots-ness” always comes first because it relates to their legitimacy. Moreover, those who are recipients of NGO services are more comfortable receiving services from those with similar grassroots background. Let me ask: who would want to hire a government official or retired government official as a housekeeper, however “professional” he/she might be?2

Civil society does not exist in a social vacuum. This is an era in which professional organizations have been dealt a blow while grassroots NGOs have been developing rapidly.3 The government is like an old parent, painstakingly trying to preserve the quickly disintegrating social fabric. In fact, Xue Yong, a history scholar, predicted several years ago that grassroots organizations would become mainstream. Even on the internet, with the Sina model widely known for the effect of its celebrity blogging, we can now less mention of “elites.” There are currently over 2 million registered “celebrities” and “pundits” on Sina’s microblog, whereas during the period when blogging was first in vogue, there were only a couple of hundred famous bloggers. This several hundred-fold expansion is due largely to a “grassroots” movement.

In the end, so-called “grassroots” and “professional” are not diametrically opposed. They both have aspects that are entirely consistent with each other. Grassroots organizations can absolutely be professional, just as much as non-grassroots groups. Why should we go to such pains to avoid mentioning the word “grassroots”? The socialist economic market theory tells us that to have a purely profit-driven market is both illegal and dangerous (i.e. excessively concentrated investments leading to overcapacity…), thereby requiring the government intervention. But in reality, only a small fraction of the public benefit NGOs registered in the Civil Affairs system are qualified to receive government funding for services.4

So, to the nearly 3,000,000 grassroots organizations out there, please continue calling yourself “grassroots.” There’s no need to fear. Your existence comes from the demands of the people; it does not come from not experts or the media, and most certainly not from the government. As for your meager income, do not worry; money comes and goes.  As long as you have the will of the people on your side, it will ultimately be yours.


  1. Editor’s Note: The author suggests that Wang Zhenyao and others who stress professionalization believe that the grassroots approach is not a sustainable way to address society’s problems. The assumption here is that the grassroots approach, which values independence, will lead to marginalization, while professionalization will allow NGOs to enter the mainstream of society and thereby do more to solve social problems. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The author is making two arguments here on behalf of grassroots NGOs. The first, which is debatable, is that having a grassroots background provides a NGO with greater social legitimacy and trust, especially given the last few years when GONGOs have been hit by scandals.   The other, more defensible, argument is that grassroots NGOs are closer to the communities they serve, whereas government agencies and GONGOs run by retired officials are less likely to understand the needs of their target communities. 

  3. Editor’s Note: By “professional organizations,” the author appears to be referring to GONGOs which have been hurt by a number of scandals in the last two years. 

  4. Editor’s Note: This is a veiled criticism of many of the GONGOs that are registered with Civil Affairs. The author implies that they are not “professional” enough to meet the qualifications for government outsourcing. 

In Brief

Yu Fangqiang, executive director of Justice for All, uses a blend of sarcasm and argument to defend grassroots NGOs from those who feel grassroots organizations need to be more professional and move to the mainstream of society.
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