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Handreach is slowly finding its niche in this new space. Thanks to the efforts of a haphazard array of supporters at home and abroad, Swartz’s group is growing in reach and scope. “As we shed light on this problem, as we pull up the clothing that had been covering this wound, amazing people—lawyers, doctors, fundraisers, people that can contribute different things—have been coming forward,” says Swartz. “So we get different connections, people find us through the media and their own connections, and we wind up coming upon resources that we didn’t know were there.”
The most successful NGOs in China regard themselves as partners of the federal government, especially in terms of environmental protection and corruption monitoring. Dr. Renee Yuen-Jan Hsia of Harvard University and Lynn T. White III of Princeton University, writing in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, believe that foreign NGOs operating inside China would do well to emulate this model—and many do. Their utility from Beijing’s perspective is their ability to play watchdog to local industries and officials that take liberties above and beyond what is acceptable to the federal authorities. These NGOs, both native and foreign, are also adept at raising awareness of environmental and climate change issues among the population at large, a development Beijing does not necessarily oppose as it shifts official policy in favor of greater conservation. Elizabeth Economy, the Council on Foreign Relations’ in-house China guru, wrote in her seminal 2007 Foreign Affairs article “The Great Leap Backward” that Chinese NGOs “have become central actors in the country’s bid to rescue its environment,” along with the media and international advocacy groups. Economy credits homegrown activists for leading the charge, but reiterates that the penalties for crossing the wrong political boundaries can be severe. So far, no government authority has tapped Handreach on the shoulder, but there is no guarantee none will in the future.
The philanthropists and humanitarians helping Handreach have mostly been American up to this point, by necessity, but favorable Chinese media coverage and the group’s connections are slowly building a base of interested supporters inside China. For now, most of Handreach’s funding is coming from the American Buddhist community and from American churches. “The major hands-on care—taking care of the actual children and providing hosting, translation, and that very labor-intensive care—has come from churches,” says Swartz. “Many have banded together to provide hosting. They’re very well organized and they have the institutional resources to provide long-term support. Churches and religious people have been very, very helpful to us.”
According to Michael Busgen of the Institute of Social Studies, the safest way for an NGO to stay in the good graces of government regulators is to focus on the immediate needs of its constituents, whether they’re undereducated kids, sick peasants, or battered women, and avoid becoming what he calls “a mechanism for representing and pursuing the interests of these constituencies toward the state.” If a child is sick or injured and an NGO wants to help them, Beijing will acquiesce. The trouble only starts if the NGO mentions that the child’s illness is due to lax regulation on the part of the government or negligence by a favored industry.
However, NGOs can be seen as helpful policy consultants in China, as long as they tread lightly and use an inoffensive vocabulary when suggesting change. “The Chinese state uses NGOs as objects of consultation for improving its policymaking in the same way it consults mass organizations and official professional associations to obtain specialist information,” writes Taru Salmenkari in a recent analysis for the Institute for Asian and African Studies. Beijing genuinely wishes to mitigate the plight of its people, as long as its own power is not threatened in the process. Thus, there is space for an NGO to prevent harm to other children in the future—as long as it doesn’t place blame or seek justice.