Overview of the Chinese Publishing Market for the NGO Sector

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This article provides a broad and useful overview and evaluation of NGO publications in China. Included in his overview is our very own China Development Brief. 

When looking at this article’s title, many peoples’ first reaction perhaps is to ask: “What are NGO books? Are they just any book published by an NGO or do they also include all published books containing NGO-related content? Does it merely refer to books with an ISSN number or does it also include in-house and informal publications?”

Whether looking at the modern library classification systems or the NGO sector’s own delineations, “NGO books” do not have an agreed upon definition. The original intention of this article was to comb through and analyze all existing materials in the field of NGO publications, whether official or unofficial. However, due to my limited exposure and knowledge, this article’s emphasis is on official publications of NGO-related content.

“The Academics”: a Focus on NGO Management

By searching the databases of the National Library and that of the Beijing University Library, I made a general accounting of all domestic literature and foreign translated works of publicly published materials with NGO-related content.. (Due to space constraints, I am unable to list the published materials. Interested readers can email office@cdb.org.cn with a request)

Statistics show that domestically published materials on NGO management basically emerged after 2000, and began a steady upward trend. Over time, three aspects can be observed: one, research on civil society and the social sector; two, collections on Western NGOs and social work (particularly American); and three, capacity building for domestic NGOs.

Beginning in the mid to late 1990’s, China’s academic and research institutions started to be concerned with “civil society and the third sector1”. This was not only related to the development of China’s market economy, but was also closely linked to a period when the academic community was enthusiastic about theories on “Civil Society and the Public Sphere”. The1995 United Nations World Conference on Women held in Beijing can be regarded as the first large-scale debut of NGOs in China. This event triggered a number of publications that introduced the organizational and operational practices of foreign NGOs, but overall, they were still relatively few. Since 2000, with the huge rise of Chinese management schools, a succession of works on western NGO management and social work was introduced into China. Translations of these works served as teaching materials for university MPAs, with the majority of these writings coming from European and American materials, especially the U.S. Drawing on the management experience of foreign NGO, scholars and practitioners began to compile works on domestic NGO management and capacity building2.

From analysis of the content of the published materials I found the following: first, most of the works (including translated works) are focused on NGO management concepts. These make up commonly used teaching materials and are similar in content. Second, these NGO management materials are comprised of “foreign theories mixed with applicable local practices”. Third, there is no specific theory of the complex, multi-tiered issues surrounding NGO survival and development in China. For example, NGO legal policy, internal and external governance, financial management and operations, strategic marketing, etc., all lack a specialized discourse. Indeed, local resources in this area are still weak, most have learned from the theories and practical experience of foreign pioneers. However, in terms of quantity and quality, translated foreign works are seriously inadequate.

In addition, the target audience of these publications are university students and professors, (especially in management studies, social work studies and similar professional fields), as well as NGO practitioners and NGO research institutions. These publications are generally not intended for the general public or for the urban middle classes (i.e. white-collar workers or civil servants, etc.). However, the development and growth of civil society, to a large extent, is dependent on the strength and growth of the middle class. With this in mind, the author considers current NGO publications as “academic” writing.

Overall, in terms of quantity and content on NGO development, publications related to NGOs are still at an early stage. In terms of both theory and practice, the knowledge resources for cultivating mainland civil society and the development of NGOs mainly come from abroad, especially from the developed European and North American countries.

It is worth mentioning, since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, published materials reflect the accelerated development of Mainland civil society, not only on topics of “social impact” and “disaster relief and management”, but also a whole series on foundation governance. To a certain extent, the large-scale disaster and the support from all sectors of society pushed these foundations into disaster management and this required foundations to seek out better management practices suitable to the local environment.

“The Actors”: Publications on Areas of Interest to NGOs

These types of books are different from the ones discussed above. In this category, the NGO themselves are the actors and the content consists of their work and their field of interest. In such publications, NGOs participate in publishing, mainly for providing resources to other organizations or individuals concerned with the NGO sector. This is especially true for international foundations or government-backed foundations with “China at the front of their name”3.

Secondly for those NGOs engaged with project, they leverage their experience to provide content and edit publications. Because the areas of greatest concern to international NGOs include poverty alleviation, disaster relief, medicine, public health, education as well as other areas, while the overall number is relatively impressive, these materials are not produced systematically and address a diverse range of topics.

Most such books, except for some official publications, are informal publications of projects and project processes that are first published in-house as reference materials. Because of the unique aspects of the issues concerning NGOs and their working style, these publications only appeal to a relatively small audience. Because most publishers are market driven, their interest in these types of publications is not great. In fact, publishers often obtain a subsidy to publish these materials. In terms of distribution, the publishers have no incentive to promote them. Most of them are purchased by the authors to distribute themselves. Overall, these books can be said “not to follow the logic of the market.”

Journal Publishing: Surviving Between the Cracks

The use of journals as a way to present the situation and the growth of the NGO movement is basically in an “underground” state. Given the current limitations of the domestic publishing system, basically none have ISSN numbers. Including those that emerged early, and have been most influential, they are basically all informal publications, but there have been many twists and turns in this process.

Aside from the above journals that reflect the dynamics of the industry, the more informal publication of journals on NGO work are published as newsletters and briefs. The better-known ones include “Friends of Nature Newsletter”, “Fuping Home Management Newsletter”, “Home of Working Women Newsletter” and so on. There are many of this type of journal. Basically, they are scattered among different NGO sectors. Their social impact and the effects of their dissemination, to a large extent depends on the NGO’s own social influence.  Of these journals, those published by NGOs in the area of environmental education and social advocacy, such as Friends of Nature, are more influential.

Overall, these journals are free of charge. Their impact is mainly restricted to their particular NGO sector, with relatively little impact on society at large.

A New Force: Online Publishing Flourishes

With the development of the “Internet Age” promoting information sharing and publication online, the Internet has become a important tool for NGOs. The methods of publishing online consist of: first, publishing electronic books in tandem with print publications; and second, publishing periodicals and other communications exclusively online. Major distribution channels are online subscription, internet downloads, e-mail blasts, and people-to-people (SNS). At present, a fairly influential electronic publication is “NGOCN Communication” (now renamed “NGOCN e-Newsletter”). It has the latest and most comprehensive information and is very well received by the industry.

This type of electronic publication has a difficult time competing with websites, blogs, and microblogs that provide online information sharing platforms. However, from the depth, breadth and comprehensiveness of their content, electronic publications have their advantages. But the writing needs to adapt to the psychology and habits of readers of the “Internet Age”, and must develop a corresponding electronic publication format.  Currently, electronic publications in the NGO field are just reproductions of paper publications. They have not developed the forms suited to the habits of internet readers, such as by refining their articles, adding links to relevant information, and leveraging new reading software. The development of electronic NGO field publications has a long way to go.

“Industry publishers” in the NGO sector

The above comments are based on the forms of publication, yet if one were to observe the publications industry in the NGO field, what would the professional NGO organization that specializes in publishing look like.

Most domestic NGOs position themselves as “action-takers”, the vast majority are engaged in activities or projects that improve society, but when they regard publications as a way of achieving their goals, then the NGO will plan some publications as a part of their project. Almost no international NGOs publish as their main means of promotion or advocacy work in China. Although these international NGOs mostly push the universality of the Western system and principles in China, when specific action plans are made, they generally cooperate with the government and mainly engage in concrete project-related work.

Only a few domestic NGOs are clearly positioned to engage in NGO research, education, training or advocacy. The most representative NGOs, with relatively large impact, are the NPO Information Consulting Center and the China Development Brief. The former is an organization that provides specialized information and advisory services to the NGO sector. Publications are a major portion of their work. In the ten years since their establishment, the NPO Center has organized translations, and edited over a dozen educational texts on NGO management, project planning, financial management, legal regulation, and governance. Many works come from the teaching materials of this organization. Consequently, such publications are used in many types of NGO trainings and thus have gained a wide audience. At the same time, it founded the “NPO Review” (now called “The Social Entrepreneur” magazine), which has a relatively large impact on the industry.

The China Development Brief takes the form of a series. Within the industry, its reports and analysis is more comprehensive and in-depth. Over time, it has experienced a process of gradual localization and specialization.

Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management’s NGO Resarch Institute began teaching about and researching NGOs relatively early. In order to fulfill their basic teaching and research requirements, the NGO Research Institute planned a set of theoretical essays on NGOs that included both translated Western works and a number of writings by domestic researchers. However, overall, most of their writing contributes little in the way of innovation and their impact outside the college is very small.

The Institute for Civil Society at Sun Yat-sen University has made a significant attempt to do action research and create domestic case studies. A portion of their publications embody this goal. There is also the Peking University Center for Civil Society Studies, the NPO Research Center at Renmin University and other organizations where publishing research is an important part of their work.

These organizations mostly pay attention to the content of NGO publications. From book planning and distribution and other perspective, they cannot be called professional. Strictly speaking, the domestic NGO sector has no “professional publisher”.

The Prospects for Chinese-language NGO Publications

From the above mentioned study, it is easy to see the special features of Chinese-language NGO publications:

First, the level of marketization of these publications is low and their readership is limited. This is fundamentally related to the rather low level of development of China’s civil society organizations – the social sector has only just begun to develop. The “partnership between government, industry, and NGOs” that exists in Western countries is still non-existent in China. NGOs in China do not yet count for one-third of the whole, and this fact determines that NGOs’ publishing strategy cannot completely take a market-oriented path, and so they cannot completely move toward profit-driven models.

Second, while publications on civil society and the NGO/development field have a certain degree of influence, that influence is mostly limited to “insiders”. These publications lack depth and breadth. This type of publication is mainly reflected in translations of foreign NGO theory and practice, such as the “Oxfam Library” series, as well as in the thinking and actions of China’s civil society, as in the former “Minjian” series and the “人间丛书系列” series4. But in terms of their numbers, scope of coverage (only limited to NGO management and fund-raising), and depth, none compare positively to publications from developed areas such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, America, and Europe.

Third, publication projects are mostly managed unprofessionally. Professional publishing talent is in short supply. This is most apparent for published books that are self-funded. This situation results in poor economic returns and their social impact is difficult to see.

Based on the above observations, I am now free to make the following analysis on the future of Mainland Chinese-language NGO publications:

In my opinion, over the long-term, publications covering the NGO field will be driven primarily by social impact, while also considering the economic benefits, and thus seek to balance the public interest with market considerations. Perhaps because of the economic times, we must face reality and feel helpless – we will not get as rich as traditional humanities authors nor can we out-compete those that peddle finance or management books. Instead, we will need to be accorded special support. But, in the long run, with care and support, these humanities and social science texts will really possess everlasting value.

Management theories from foreign NGOs and published translated case studies are still very necessary, and along with the developing trend of service to the community, they will gain greater readership. In addition, there is much room for development of both formal and informal publications, such as circulars, newsletters, and reports, in promoting civic education and policy advocacy.

Publications serve as a comprehensive platform for displaying the work and project results of NGOs. In terms of long-term effectiveness in disseminating information, they hold advantages over online communications, newspaper, television and radio and other traditional media.  This point should be incorporated into the planning, principles and priorities for NGOs planning publications. And these types of publications, for a long time into the future, will continue to be the mainstream of Chinese-language NGO publications.


  1. Editor’s Note: The third sector refers to the voluntary, nonprofit sector.  The first sector is government and the second sector is business. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The term “capacity building” is often used to refer to developing the organizational capacity and skills of NGOs so they can more effectively meet their mission and goals.  Areas commonly focused on include strategic planning, financial management, governance, project development, and fundraising. 

  3. Editor’s Note: National foundations with “China” in the front of their name are considered GONGOs.  Examples include China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, China Youth Development Foundation, etc. 

  4. Editor’s Note: “Minjian”, which translates literally into “from the people”, was a journal published under the auspices of the Civil Society Center at Sun Yatsen University. It was closed down by authorities in July of 2007, about the same time as the shutting down of the English-language China Development Brief.  人间丛书系列 was a series of books published by Oxfam Hong Kong. 

In Brief

This article provides a broad and useful overview and evaluation of NGO publications in China. Included in his overview is our very own China Development Brief
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