NGOs and government: a new basis for cooperation

Mutual mistrust between the Chinese government and civil society groups is hampering progress in environmental protection. It’s time for a constructive, legislative approach to NGO management, says Tang Hao.

The Chinese government has a difficult relationship with non-governmental organisations. The NGOs believe failures in government legislation prevent their growth. The government see NGOs as a new authority outside of their structures, complicating their rule. There are, therefore, a number of obstacles to cooperation between the two parties.

One such obstacle is the government’s strict requirements for the founding of an NGO. The Regulations on the Registration of Social Organizations and Provisional Regulations for the Registration Administration of People-Run non-Enterprise Units both rule that NGOs must register with the civil affairs authorities and have their work supervised by a professional leading unit, creating a dual oversight structure. The Regulations on the Registration of Social Organizations go further. When social organisations register, the regulations say, they must submit approval documents from a competent authority. These high thresholds mean that many NGOs are unable to register. As such they are forced to operate as commercial enterprises or work underground. Only 10% of Chinese NGOs are officially registered; the remaining 90% were unable to do so.

NGOs in China normally choose to stay away from politics and play a quiet role in society. They may even consciously remove themselves from the political sphere. This is primarily due to problems with their status and inability to register officially. Their lack of legal standing means they must do everything they can to ensure their activities do not draw government attention. All of the NGO organisers I have spoken to stress that they want to stay out of politics and get on with their work.

But avoiding politics does not allow NGOs to develop in peace. In fact, it can make their jobs even harder. Although NGOs exist outside the government system, as public organisations they are not immune to the influence of government. However, if NGOs opt to avoid politics or passively accept political direction, civil society will be unable to develop.

It will not be easy for the government and NGOs to overcome their doubts and develop mutual trust. Currently, the government has a monopoly on organising, and finds an uncomfortable overlap when NGOs organise public activities. Hence the government fears organised public activity. The “colour revolutions” in eastern Europe and central Asia have made the government even more wary about the role that organisations such as international NGOs play in Chinese society. This seems to be the case even if an NGO even has purely environmental aims.


In the field of environmental protection, conflict between the government and NGOs holds back the solution to China’s environmental crisis, and may even exacerbate the country’s ecological problems. To break this deadlock, we must strengthen cooperation and positive engagement. A new basis for cooperation is needed.

The government can see the social demand for stronger NGOs, and knows that it is no longer appropriate to simply hold them back. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of greater freedom in the social arena and the establishment of an independent and powerful NGO management system. This would represent a shift from restricting non-governmental groups, to providing supervision, management and services that benefit the public and NGOs.

The environmental protection authorities, who are weak when compared to other government departments, are in dire need of support from environmental NGOs in order to fulfil their core aims. Non-governmental groups frequently bring to light environmental issues, which are then tackled by the authorities. This tacit partnership has seen significant results, preventing dam construction on the Nu River, for instance, or stopping illegal power plants in Shandong province. The environmental authorities and NGOs can cooperate and complement each other.

China’s environmental movement is wide enough to include the government, NGOs, the media and the public, but currently it is over-reliant on government. For instance, investigations and evaluations of pollutant emissions are carried out by the government. However, the government will always restrict its provision to the perceived majority. When it comes to helping minority groups, the poor and the disabled, for instance, NGO provision is often necessary.

The government, therefore, does not want to stifle NGOs; it wants to let them play a role. Many NGOs are unable to register with the civil affairs authorities and register in other ways to exist. Many exist as branches or organs of social organisations, as part of state-run institutions or enterprises, as commercial businesses, or simply as informal networks of volunteers. But the government does not enforce the regulations in these cases: it tolerates them, allowing the groups a certain amount of room to operate.

We can see that cooperation and positive engagement between NGOs and government are by no means impossible, but both parties must change their attitude. The key is to put aside mutual complaints and to seek out ways to talk to each other. NGOs should not regard the government as an obstacle, and the government should not see NGOs as a potential enemy. NGOs need to give urgent consideration to how they can improve their relationship with government in order to improve the conditions for their own growth, to achieve their own aims, and to further influence the government, rather than simply avoiding politics.

The path

A legislative framework maps out the most basic route to improving relations between NGOs and government. It is crucial to have a legal environment that defines how the two can work together. This will require all social actors with an interest in environmental protection to work together and push for NGO legislation from the People’s Representatives Congress and other legislative bodies, as well as demanding a Chinese NGO Activity Law, or at least an Environmental Organisation Activity Law. NGOs need to play an active role in politics, and the legislative process in particular, in order to promote this.

At the government level, the establishment of an independent NGO authority should be encouraged. The current management system for NGOs requires civil authorities to use government resources and coordinate across departments, and this is outside the scope of their ability.

Environmental NGOs and other non-governmental groups should play a unique role in order to demonstrate how indispensable they are. For example, they should work to improve the system of environmental impact assessments; give the public opportunities to take part in environmental assessments and surveys; and implement public supervision and hearings in environmental protection. They can also cooperate with the media, help with public participation, standardise communications between organisations and establish mechanisms for regular dialogue on environmental issues between NGOs and government. They can use these activities, which are specific to NGOs, to influence government action in an engaged and organised manner. Overseas NGOs could also work more with government and bring international resources to bear on China’s environmental issues. This can even help to prevent the international community from using the environment as an excuse to hamper China’s growth. The standard of NGO members must be improved, however, in order to increase their autonomy. Training and education for current employees should be established. Universities should be encouraged to train NGO personnel.

An active NGO community is a precursor of a civil society and a sign of an open government. If we want to see public participation and cooperation between government and NGOs in the environmental sector, both parties need to change their attitude and embrace social freedoms with the same speed they welcomed economic freedoms.

Tang Hao is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

Homepage photo by Joshua Wickerham