The Rise of Individual Activism Does Not Signal the Decline of NGOs

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In a response to previous articles detailing the seeming passivity of Chinese NGOs in the face of protests and microblogging driven by individual actors, the author argues that NGOs continue to play a valuable complementary role in building China’s civil society. They contribute to fostering a sense of citizenship and empowering communities and groups, and while the NGOs themselves may not feature prominently in protests and other public actions, their leaders, staff and volunteers are involved as individuals.  The key is to not see NGOs and individual citizens as working at cross purposes, but to consider how they can work together to improve the public welfare.

In the past two years, the rising popularity of weibo, microblogging and other online social media platforms has helped garner public support for individual public interest initiatives such as the “Weibo Against Child Trafficking”, “Free Lunch” and the Guangzhou “Skinhead” protest against excessive municipal government spending1. Somewhat surprisingly, awareness raised by social media has even helped to influence public policy targeting various social problems in China today. Conversely, more formally organized civil society organizations—in particular NGOs—have remained silent on these major issues, and many have begun to question whether formally organized civil service groups are being overshadowed by public interest initiatives started by individuals.  Even long-time supporters of China’s developing NGO sector have begun to ask whether their continued support is worthwhile.

But before we entertain such thoughts, we must ask ourselves, does the success of individual public interest initiatives necessarily imply that China’s NGO sector is failing? As far as the development of civil society is concerned, civil society initiatives and NGOs are not independent phenomena, and not necessarily mutually exclusive. The rise of one does not mean the demise of the other. Rather, there exists a reciprocal relationship between them in the exercise of power, and both are integral to the development of civil society as a whole. NGOs do not exist solely to solve social problems; they also play a vital role in gathering resources, training volunteers, and developing social capital. Executive Director Qu Dong of Sun Yat-Sen University’s Institute of Civil Society (ICS) calls this the process of developing “active citizenship” and “community empowerment” (社区培力). Most NGOs in China are limited in their operations due to the politically sensitive nature of their work, and very few participate under their organization’s name in actions initiated by individual activists; however, their long-term mission is to raise public awareness about social issues and create opportunities for citizens to engage in collaborative action for the public interest. In the case of the so-called Skinhead protest, while no NGO groups directly participated in the movement, many of its supporters and participants had worked or volunteered in NGOs. At the same time, these kinds of movements with broad social involvement bring new development opportunities for NGOs.

Perseverance is central to the resolution of social problems which requires coordination between individual and NGO public interest initiatives. When social issues or problems garner public attention due to the actions of individuals, further progress in addressing these issues depends on the involvement of NGOs. For example, in the wake of the “Weibo Against Child Trafficking” campaign, apart from seeking policy changes, some foundations collaborated to fight illegal trafficking. Similarly, the success or failure of the “Free Lunch” campaign which prompted the government to pledge 16 billion yuan to subsidize lunches in rural schools, depended on the continued engagement of civil society organizations in monitoring government policy implementation. The “Love Clears the Lungs” campaign is another excellent example illustrating the importance of collaboration—the movement is co-sponsored by public interest organizations and national media celebrities2.

The rise of individual public action has brought new opportunities for NGO development, while concurrently raising expectations concerning the role and positioning of NGOs in addressing social issues. The early development of civil society organizations in mainland China was first shaped by the entry of international development organizations, and by perceived gaps in local social service provision. As a result, older civil society organizations mostly work on the China-based development projects of international organizations, or are charity-type organizations providing social services, such as Sun Village or Huiling; others provide need-based financial aid to schoolchildren3. In recent years, NGOs have gradually expanded their activities into new areas, however the bulk of their work still centers around charitable activities and the provision of social services.

Many years ago, Tsinghua University NGO Research Center’s Jia Xijin proposed two main functions for NGOs: service and advocacy. From the perspective of most NGOs, advocacy simply means raising awareness. However, in this current period when the development of civic forces may be outstripping that of NGOs, the question is whether NGOs can function only as providers of service or as a supplement to the government, while ignoring the other role they need to play in setting agendas, providing their own solutions to public issues, and monitoring policy implementation by government and enterprises? Certainly, individual public interest initiatives cannot completely replace the traditional roles of NGOs. And NGOs will still receive resources to survive even if they do not satisfy social expectations. But if some of them NGOs are not be able to keep up with social changes and demands in the long run, they will come under criticism. In response to this pressure, they can either transform themselves, or be spurned by society.

Given government policy concerning the role and positioning of NGOs, it seems probable that those NGOs providing services or helping government to resolve problems will receive the greatest amount of financial assistance and policy support. Social service NGOs may experience more rapid development that those trying to set agendas, provide new solutions, and monitor policy implementation by the government and enterprises. This is an obvious trend in the current period when NGO development is becoming more diversified. For those of us who are part of the civic community, how should we choose? What priorities should we support?

In closing I would like to remark that NGOs are now very diverse. The debates and different ideas in this sector have made it difficult to use the single word ‘NGO’ to represent all nongovernmental groups.  The existence of NGOs as a whole represents a value and a part of these nongovernmental forces. What we need to discuss now is what kind of NGOs we need at this stage, what kind of organizations we hope to support, and in which direction we want our organizations to develop. Of course, there is still one important point: what can we learn from these individual public interest initiatives and how we can work with them to reach our common goal?


  1. Editor’s Note: The term individual public interest initiatives” is a direct translation from the Chinese and refers to civic initiatives undertaken by individuals, as opposed to organized groups such as NGOs. For more on these initiatives, see “Have NGOs Been Overshadowed by Microblogging and Here and Now – Guangzhou’s Skinhead Movement. 

  2. Editor’s Note:”Love Clears the Lungs” (or Love Save Pneumoconiosis according to their website) is a microblogging project started by the journalist, Wang Keqin, and is devoted to helping the victims of pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust. 

  3. Editor’s Note: Sun Village is a Beijing NGO that cares for children of the incarcerated. Huiling is a Beijing NGO that helps intellectually challenged adults integrate into the community. 

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