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NGOs in China: the Rise of Civil Awareness
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16:30, May 26, 2009

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By Erdong Chen

As China is right on its way to establish a harmonious society emphasizing democratic governance and citizens' livelihood, the development and prosperity of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in this rising superpower is by no means ignorable.

Generally speaking, Chinese NGOs operate in numerous fields including environmental protection, labor rights, as well as women's rights. A few of these organizations are founded and run by independent individuals while most receive financial and policy support from governments at different levels. Indeed, Chinese NGOs' reliance on official resources affects their independence. They have to accommodate the demand of higher-ranking decision-makers at times to maintain their existence and development. However, the hidden advantage of this mechanism is that the visible governmental hand in China's NGOs has actually added the credibility so that they are more likely to convince the public because people tend to believe the role of the government in regulating and supervising the operations. When comparing China's NGOs with their counterparts in western countries, one should be aware of the current reality in China and keep from intuitive misunderstandings.

Due to its politically less sensitive nature, environmental protection is among the very first issues touched by Chinese NGOs. Combined with the rising civil awareness demanding a more desirable living community, the development of NGOs serves as an indispensible civil force in establishing China's environment-friendly image. An earlier case in Xiamen, a coastal city in Southeastern China, marked the power of Chinese citizens when they stood up against a planned chemical project, which was believed to harm the environment. Indeed, environmental protection is one of the most visible and tangible realms so that people could easily check whether their expectations have been matched or not. NGOs in environmental protection, therefore, have exerted the most evident influence on China's civil society so far.

Amid the financial crisis, Chinese NGOs, especially those labor-friendly ones, start to carry their responsibilities. Take the Pearl River delta as an example, thousands of export-oriented enterprises closed down due to the economic recession. As a result, about 20 million – a staggering number – of the total estimated 130 million migrant workers have been forced to return to rural areas due to the unemployment. Migrant worker service centers in certain cities work with those unemployed closely in order to figure out the crux. They function in numerous ways, including but not limited to offering legal consultation, chasing wage rears, seeking employment opportunities, as well as providing job trainings. Furthermore, many of these NGOs pay enormous attention to the emotional health of migrant workers, organizing meaningful events to fulfill their after-work life and arranging appropriate psychological consultation to this underprivileged group. In addition, for those workers who are suffering industrial accidents or occupational diseases, they have been better off with the assistance of NGOs in their area. In the labor realm, NGOs, on one hand, advocate worker rights by lobbying policy-makers; on the other hand, they assist workers in many practical ways in order to maximize their rights and decrease potential risks.

Furthermore, Chinese NGOs also learn from and cooperate with international-renowned counterparts to empower themselves. The rapid economic growth in the recent three decades has called for increasing social and political rights in China. However, the lack of experience in this field asks Chinese NGOs to utilize others' work for their references. The intellectual exchanges between them and their foreign peers have added the energy and vitality to their own development as long as they could implant the valuable experience onto China's unique soil appropriately. Foreign experts in non-governmental affairs frequently visit China to communicate with Chinese grassroots organizations and provide informative suggestions. The Greenpeace has an office in Beijing watching environmental conditions in China. International experts of this organization analyze problems and raise solutions collectively in order to deal with Chinese environmental concerns.

After all, the overall progresses within a society could never be achieved by a few policy-makers or scholars only. Instead, civil awareness is the ultimate force to promote the degree of civilization and forward the democracy and equality within this society. In light of the analysis above, the rapid and positive development of NGOs in China is a good sign of an increasing social awareness of Chinese citizens. In addition, Chinese NGOs may serve as an effective catalyst in China's democratization. Based on the current development, many are expecting that Chinese NGOs could reach more fields, especially those comparatively critical and sensitive ones, in the long run for the sake of the real social well-being.

Erdong Chen is a student at the American University, Washington DC. He is interning at the National Committee on US-China Relations.

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