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US Foundations Boost Chinese Government, Not NGOs

China’s government-controlled groups get lion’s share of US foundation grants, despite rhetoric supporting NGOsAnthony J. SpiresHONG KONG: Since the end of the Cold War, US-based foundations seeking to promote democracy and freedom through their grant-making have increasingly favored nongovernmental organizations and civil society. But perhaps nowhere is the contradiction between the professed goals of the grant-making foundations of the West and actual practices more obvious than in the case of China. It’s been long assumed that civil society organizations are key to improving basic human welfare and promoting democratic governance in developing nations. However, a study of the role of US grantors shows that attention to government-backed NGOs in developing countries, especially China, has a taken an opposite course. On the surface, US donor interest in China is no exception to the global promotion of NGOs and civil society by philanthropic foundations. Among such donors are the Gates Foundation for HIV prevention, the Alcoa Foundation for “projects and partnerships with NGOs around the world” and the Ford Foundation for “a focus on poor and disadvantaged groups.”  Yet, in the world’s largest authoritarian state, major US foundations tend to award large grants to established organizations either controlled by the Chinese government or under its influence rather than independent or grassroots NGOs. Government-organized NGOs attract foreign funds for programs the Chinese government won’t support. In China, the 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the creation of oxymoronic “government-organized non-governmental organizations,” or GONGOs. From Beijing’s standpoint, such groups can serve as tools for domestic control of new social forces while also attracting foreign funds for programs the Chinese government itself is unwilling to support.  Yet over the past decade, growing numbers of bottom-up grassroots organizations have emerged.

These non-governmental organizations have not been created by nor officially incorporated into the party-state.

They sometimes engage in advocacy, but most frequently focus on much-needed social services in fields like health and disease, labor rights, environmental protection and education. Because grassroots NGOs can provide alternative spaces for political organizing and mobilization, some Chinese officials view them as a serious threat to the regime.

The legal requirements for registration are, in practice, prohibitively stringent for those that might wish to become properly registered legal entities. Many are forced instead to register as businesses or operate without legal identity. Unregistered groups run the political risk of being branded “illegal organizations,” while those registered as businesses risk being shut down for fraudulently presenting themselves as nonprofits to their funders and the public.   US foundations have tended to keep radical organizations at arm’s length at home while supporting hierarchical and professionalized grantees that can work within existing institutional structures. In China, the pattern is similar. Despite rhetorical support for local efforts to build a real civil society – the Ford Foundation, for example says, “We focus on helping poor communities, women, migrants, minorities and other groups to... access the services they need through civil society organizations” – US foundation giving has almost entirely bypassed China’s grassroots groups. Between 2002 and 2009, American foundations sent almost $443 million to China-based grantees. During these eight years, government-controlled groups were the favorite of grant-makers (see Table 1).

Together, academic, government and GONGO grantees accounted for 86 percent of total grant monies. By contrast, grassroots NGOs received 5.61 percent of the total.

The top ten grantees were, likewise, dominated by government-controlled institutions, taking more than 35 percent of the grant funds (see Table 2). Although GONGOs may outnumber grassroots groups, a recent study led by myself and colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Civil Society Studies identified almost 300 grassroots organizations in Guangdong, Yunnan and Beijing. Extrapolating to the national population of 1.3 billion, this implies the existence of several thousand grassroots NGOs in China – all potential grantees of foreign donors.

Regardless of the numbers, however, the stated priorities of donors would suggest that such groups should be among those receiving funding, not overlooked or avoided in favor of GONGOs, academic institutions and government agencies. Donor rhetoric and actual funding choices seem to run in opposite directions. Institutional factors certainly play a role. When making international grants, US foundations are required to support the equivalent of US nonprofits or take full responsibility for ensuring that all grants are used for charitable purposes. Many grant-makers find the latter too great a risk and prefer to deal with foreign groups properly registered as NGOs, or with government agencies and academic institutions that – by their nature – are meant to serve the public good.  Rules and regulations aside, other factors include the personal experiences and preferences of those who run US foundations. Once in China, such donors often face a huge cultural gap and immense language barriers.

They find it easier to overcome such obstacles by seeking organizations whose goals, functions, organizers and experiences seem similar to their own. US funders generally represent bureaucratic organizations of professional elites with high levels of education and social, economic or political influence, and they gravitate toward partners in China with similar backgrounds in similar organizations. Donors thus turn to academic institutions under the assumption that they’ll find open, progressive minds amenable to their agendas – building civil society, reforming the legislative process, empowering women or some other development cause. Likewise, they’re drawn to government agencies for political reasons, to avoid rocking the boat so much that they will be expelled.

They are drawn to GONGOs – often staffed by government officials and academics – because they assume these are within the system and therefore carry out development work effectively.  Tellingly, almost 70 percent of the funds sent to China from 2002-2009 went to organizations in Beijing.

This priority may reflect a bias towards organizations that are deemed safe, with many under the direct or indirect control of China’s central government. At the same time, the leaders of US foundations – who from time to time may hold positions of political importance in the US – look to Beijing as the natural place to begin grant-making efforts in China.

These leaders hope to find in the political capital recipients who match their status and influence. Aiming to make a difference in China, many US donors seek out people who “speak our language” or “share our goals.” This kind of rhetoric, one experienced funder acknowledges, “indicates a certain level of education and exposure.… Most of the time it means, ‘They think like we do.

They’ve had exposure to the West. And they’ve learned to see things from our perspective.’” Ultimately, while there are many strategies available to donors who wish to nurture improvements in Chinese society, pursuing systemic change through influencing policy is one potentially effective way to improve the lives of more than a billion people. Clearly, however, when US-based funders favor officially-sanctioned, professionalized and bureaucratic grantees that look and talk much like themselves over grassroots civil society organizations, they may be missing an opportunity to support some of China’s most innovative groups and the visionary people who lead them. While government partners can certainly be effective in some fields, denying grassroots groups the support they need is holding back the broader good of society that grant-makers say they aim to nurture. Unless such patterns change, the impact of US grant-making on Chinese society as a whole will be limited, at best.  

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