China’s authoritarian system of government restricts non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in several ways. Still some NGOs are able to grow, and deliver services as well as advocate interests and needs.
Many studies have looked into the expansion of NGOs and civil society in China. A common explanation is that international actors have been eager to support NGOs, and that the government has become more open and accepting. However, while that may explain the emergence of many smaller organizations, it does not explain how or why certain NGOs are able to grow and professionalize. This question has only become more pertinent, as international aid to China has been drying up, and Chinese authorities have sought to strengthen their control while also starting to fund some NGOs.
The research presented in a new article follows about 40 Chinese NGOs working on AIDS- and health-related issues, over a period of several years. It documents that prospering NGOs share some basic characteristics. These NGOs actively navigate opportunities and restrictions, they avoid or circumvent formal barriers, and they broker practical and informal deals, which grant them some political acceptance.
Importantly, prospering NGOs do focus on social services, which makes them popular among both government and community stakeholders, but they also emphasize their social and community roles. Many also advocate interests and work to influence policies, but they tread carefully and adjust to- rather than challenge political restrictions.