Chinese characteristics

Skoll World Forum, which held its eighth annual session in Oxford last week, aims to be global, but it does not quite escape its North American cultural starting point. From inside the forum, its global ambitions can sometimes feel more like the world as seen from a western perspective. This is not to suggest a lack of inclusive intent, but an unscientific survey of the gathering confirms the impression that western hemisphere white males remain an over-represented group, while the one fifth of the world’s population who live in China are definitely under represented.

Cynthia Dai, who chaired the session on Chinese civil society, has been working hard to raise the Chinese representation at this year’s forum. Within the group identified as Chinese, some were from the People’s Republic, others from the diaspora and two, at least, were foreigners. All had interesting things to say about how much or how little the dominant assumptions of the forum related to China.

What are those assumptions? Some concern the uses of social media for civil society. Twitter and Facebook, for instance, frequently invoked as facilitators of change and the transmission of ideas, are not available in China; others relate to the ambitions for systemic change — ideas that read very differently in China; others still relate to the role of civil society and its relationship to established institutions, the place of philanthropy, social investment and entrepreneurship. All of these are affected by that sinuous and flexible term “Chinese characteristics”.

The session on Chinese civil society aimed to illuminate those characteristics. Jenny Bowen, founder of Half the Sky, Yvonne Li, recently liberated from Lehman Brothers and now with Advantage Ventures, Marie So, also a recovering Wall Street type, founder and CEO of Shokay International and Robin Zhang of Venture Avenue set out to explain, to demystify China and to share experiences.

Civil society in China operates in a singular framework. Government regulation has made it hard to register or raise funds; foreign funding is often regarded with suspicion and a legacy of earlier times has left civil society relatively underdeveloped. But, the speakers stressed, things are changing: social entrepreneurs are enacting grass roots policy initiatives, philanthropy is beginning as China’s new rich mature, and new generations are enthusiastic about social action. The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 was a milestone, unleashing a wave of local philanthropy and exposing the weakness of government organised NGOs, known as GONGOs — an example of Chinese characteristics.

Nevertheless, when a group of American philanthropists visited China recently, half their Chinese counterparts declined the US challenge to donate half their wealth to charitable foundations. Robin Zhang put this down partly to an unhelpful legacy of tradition, but also to a belief amongst rich Chinese that the poor need sustainable solutions, not charity, as well as a lack of incentives in the tax structure. Nevertheless, he pointed out, in 2008 90% of citizens in China’s tier one cities gave to charity, and there has been a 20% growth in private foundations. The government has loosened up its attitude to private foundations and domestic social organisations and there have been regulatory and legislative breakthrough. 

Factors that are driving change include more public willingness to give since the Sichuan earthquake, provided there is accountability and trust in the receiving organisations, and changing official views of domestic private foundations and those of multinational corporations, which benefit from a reputation for secure sources of funding and sound management experience. Registration requirements, until now a huge burden for civil society, are also slowly beginning to shift, with two provinces abolishing the requirement for government sponsorship for civil society organisations. The official view of foreign NGOs remains cautious.

In one highly significant development, Wang Zhenyao, a senior government minister, resigned to run Jet Li’s One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute. This later became the first charity authorised to raise money from public, a recognition that the government needs help if it is to solve China’s social problems. 

Foreign NGOs continue to face obstacles. Half the Sky, founded by Jenny Bowen, is one of only 14 foreign NGOs with registered representative offices in China. The remarkable success story of Half the Sky began when Jenny Bowen adopted Meiying, a Chinese orphan who, at the age of two was unable to walk or talk. “She was a poster child for institutional neglect,” Jenny said. A year later, Meiying was thriving and in 1999 Jenny resolved to help other orphans who were suffering similar neglect in China.

At first it was a discouraging experience, but after years of patient persistence, Jenny persuaded the government to adopt Half the Sky’s methods and training as official policy. Half the Sky developed four core programmes to provide nurturing care and overcame bureaucratic resistance. By 2004, when registration for foreign NGOs became possible, Half the Sky was legally registered and was working in nearly 30 cities. Registration, however, took until 2010.

In 2006, China’s president Hu Jintao gave a keynote speech on Children’s Day, and announced a programme of building new orphanages. In 2007, Half the Sky signed an agreement with the government to create model children’s centres in every province, to act as training centres. In 2010, Half the Sky programmes became the national standard of care, transforming the lives of millions of Chinese orphans.

Marie So, a former investment banker with Merrill Lynch, started Shokay, her for profit social enterprise in 2006. Shokay buys yak wool from nomads on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau and adds value through refined production and design to create international standard fashion clothing. Shokay commits 1% of sales revenue to community development funds and hopes to build a yak fibre industry. As a small start up, she stressed the importance of collaboration.

She also faced many obstacles: she funded the venture thorough personal loans and was forced to travel with rucksacks of cash to do business. She stressed the importance of working with local people and of collaboration, facilitating government-run training and staying low.  

Yvonne Li of Vantage Ventures, stressed that the idea of social enterprise in China was still very new. She started her social enterprise advisory firm in 2008 in Beijing, helping with business strategy to attract investment and working with investors to place funds in social enterprises. She is working to bring investment to programmes to help dyslexic children, who currently suffer from a lack of understanding and provision, but since the government does not like foreigners investing in education in China, the procedures and arrangements are necessarily complex. Among the problems the sector faces, she listed a lack of regulatory framework for social enterprises, sustainability, weak management, lack of professionalism, poor execution, regulatory hurdles for investment and language barriers. On the other hand, she pointed out that there was a large market opportunity, that existing NGOs have managed to use company structures for their work and that attitudes to social innovation are relatively open.