The news coming out this last month illustrates just how much the playing field is stacked against grassroots NGOs, even as reforms are carried out at the local level that in theory will make life easier for them by lowering barriers to registration and expanding government contracting to NGOs.
The Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen provides a perfect test case. Shenzhen has some of the most liberal regulations in the country regarding NGO registration, and according to one newspaper account, more than 700 of the more than 5,000 registered NGOs in Shenzhen have registered under these more relaxed rules.
Yet the ongoing suppression of some labor groups in Shenzhen has people wondering just how welcoming Shenzhen is to NGOs. The suppression is not a simple across-the-board suppression aimed at all labor NGOs: some labor groups in Shenzhen and the province of Guangdong have been affected, while others have managed to not only avoid the suppression but register as well. The success of some labor NGOs in gaining legal status suggests that professionalization and government relations are two strategies that might help these groups avoid getting closed. Still, the actions taken against some of the labor NGOs serves to highlight the difficulties faced by grassroots NGOs in China.
The discriminatory treatment accorded grassroots NGOs is also borne out by other news accounts. One is about two well-known grassroots environmental NGOs Friends of Nature and the Chongqing Green Volunteer League which are carrying out a chromium pollution lawsuit in Yunnan. In a public letter, they call attention to a problem in the Civil Procedure Law which contains an overly narrow definition of plaintiffs authorized to initiate a public interest lawsuit. That definition excludes a category of legally-registered NGO to which many grassroots NGOs belong. The public letter calls on the Civil Procedure Law to be revised to expand the range of plaintiffs to include a wider range of NGOs.
Another story tells how Foshan, a city in Guangdong province, is expanding government contracting to NGOs, but so far only 57 “social organizations” (shetuan) have qualified for government contracts. These 57 social organizations are almost all trade associations and GONGOs. No public interest, grassroots NGOs qualified, in part because of lack of information.
One final story that illustrates the uphill struggle of grassroots NGOs is the travails of the Narada Foundation, one of China’s best known, private foundations. (Narada might not even be considered grassroots because of its size and capacity but, like other grassroots NGOs, it originated from outside the government system.) Narada had started a New Citizen School initiative to invest in schools for migrant children in Beijing, but one of their schools was ordered to close down by the Chaoyang District education authorities without explanation. Narada is currently considering legal action to recover compensation for its investment in renovating the school.