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WORKING AROUND THE SYSTEM
A vital decision that each NGO must make is whether to officially register with the government, or to remain underground and hope that the authorities choose not to bother them. The regulatory structure governing authorized NGOs in China is burdensome, the registration process is unreasonable by any measure, and once an NGO is official the oversight is so overbearing that it can seriously constrain the NGO’s original purpose. The roadblocks are overwhelming to the point that many groups prefer to operate underground. According to a study by the German Development Institute, “about 2,000 registered environmental NGOs exist in China, but it is estimated that there are about 100,000 environmental groups that refer to themselves as nonprofit enterprises or university student environmental groups to avoid the tedious NGO registration process.”
In their book China’s Embedded Activism (Routledge, 2007), Peter Ho and Richard Louis Edmonds vividly outline the official NGO registration process. Envision, if you will, a kindhearted group of native Chinese or Western humanitarians who simply want to provide free medical services to children inside China. In order to register their organization as an officially licensed NGO, they have to sign up at the Ministry of Civil Affairs—or a local civil affairs office if the NGO’s geographic reach is regional or local. The NGO is then reviewed and supervised by both a civil affairs office and the NGO’s so-called “sponsor”—a state-authorized supervisory organization that specializes in sponsoring NGOs and monitoring their activities (the NGO must find its own supervisory sponsor willing to take it on before it can begin to register). Only one NGO may work on any given set of issues in any given administrative area. Establishing regional chapters is not allowed, even for NGOs with permission to operate nationally. There are minimum funding requirements, which serve as a deterrent for many small-scale operations. After an NGO is approved, supervision measures are extensive and frequent, and reporting requirements are highly burdensome. Violations can result in all the predictable coercive measures, up to and including fines, suspension of activities, replacement of leaders, seizure of financial assets, and, ultimately, revocation of the registration. Every step of this process involves China’s institutionalized resistance to civil society operations, as well as untold fees, delays, arbitrary decisions, and local corruption.
Handreach remains unofficial, and plans to stay that way for the time being. When asked if she feared the government might eventually interfere its operations if they remained unlicensed, Swartz dismissed the danger. “Everyone knows that what we’re doing here is trying to help kids and that it’s a good thing,” she says. “We haven’t had any direct problems with the government. Nobody wants to prevent health care for kids.” However, there are benefits to registering with the government. At this time, Chinese donors cannot legally provide Handreach with funding, and Swartz can only recruit from Chinese nationals in the US or overseas. “We’re really not doing much fundraising in China at all,” says Swartz. “I think we should, and I would like to, but we’d like to have a very legitimate way for people to give money. We’ve been told that we have to register in China under a civil agency like Sichuan Charitable Funds, but I’ve been warned against that because it becomes so bureaucratic and so much money disappears [due to fees and corruption].” Following China’s rules could also entail the loss of Handreach’s institutional control over its own accounting and transparency and since Handreach prides itself on spending 100 percent of its donations on the intended recipient, Swartz fears losing the ability to continue that guarantee to her benefactors.
It’s not surprising that Handreach chooses to operate under the radar, given the emerging pattern of Beijing acquiescing to the activities of noncontroversial, nonpolitical aid organizations, registered or not. However, a license can grease the wheels in other ways, unrelated to the government. Without one, agencies and organizations that would be natural allies for Handreach fear they will step on the wrong political toes and bring heat on themselves if they work with the group, so they demure. “What we have seen is a tentativeness on behalf of the hospitals, because they’re nervous,” says Swartz. “They don’t want to receive money, they don’t want to do anything, without somebody’s okay. But as soon as you ask for the okay, then you have to put it through a process, and nobody knows how it’s going to go.” Thus, large institutional collaborations remain out of reach, because administrators fear censure from overly sensitive government regulators.