Friday, May 4, 2018

Dr. Timothy Hildebrandt's Summer Course in Beijing on NGOs, August 6-17

Dr Timothy Hildebrandt (associate professor of social policy at the LSE) is again offering his course on Chinese social organisations this coming August 6-17 at the LSE-PKU Summer School. In the course—which is consistently ranked highest in student satisfaction at the Summer School—students will gain a theoretical grounding in the development of NGOs generally, as well as a deep empirical understanding of how these organisations have developed in China.

The course is dynamic by design, responsive to the fast changing environment for NGOs in China; it is cutting edge in its discussion of new issues and exploration into concepts and theories to understand them. Particular attention is paid to emerging issues, such as changes in laws on registration, the precarious future of international NGOs, and the growth of government-organised NGOs (GONGOs) and social enterprises. Although no single issue area is the central focus, lectures and seminars will draw attention to environmental protection, public health, HIV/AIDS, elder care, labour, and LGBT rights, among others.

The intensive 2-week course is designed for a wide variety of students. In the past, the class has included advanced undergraduates, those just having completed their bachelors, masters students, PhD students, and career professionals in government, law, and business.

To learn more about the course and apply for the summer school, please visit The deadline for applying is June 15. Should you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact Dr Hildebrandt at

Please feel free to disseminate this widely to any individuals or institutions where you think there might be interest! 

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Humanity of the Z35 Hard Sleeper

I decided the other day to ride hard sleeper on the Z35 express train from Beijing to Guangzhou. Taking the train is a great way to see the country. China has one of the most extensive and best railways in the world. For long-distance travel, there are several classes of train. One is conventional, locomotive-pulled trains which have various levels of express and local service. The other is the high-speed or bullet trains which have made China the envy of other countries including the U.S. China started building their high-speed railways about 15 years ago and already has the most extensive high-speed system in the world.   

The conventional trains feature different classes of travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. The soft sleeper has four bunks per compartment, two on either side, and the compartments can be closed for privacy. Hard sleeper has six bunks per compartment, three on either side, and the compartments cannot be closed. If riding hard sleeper is like being in the gritty city, soft sleeper has the feel of the quiet suburbs. The bullet trains and soft sleepers are more expensive, so people with less means or who want to save money generally take hard sleeper or even hard seat.

It’s been decades since I took hard sleeper, but I associate it with being with regular people, and wanted to take my time to see China’s countryside. The Z35 route goes through the central provinces of Hubei, Henan, Hebei and Hunan before arriving in Guangdong at China’s southern gateway, traveling a total of 2294 kilometers. 

Riding the Z35, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the same China I knew 30 years ago. Yes some things have changed. The hard sleeper compartments now have nicer linens and air conditioning, there is no smoking allowed in the compartments, and the trip from Beijing to Guangzhou takes only about 22 hours instead of two days.

But the people haven't changed much, and that was refreshing to see in a country where blocks of old buildings and alleyways are razed, and gleaming skyscrapers and efficient subway lines go up in their place, in a blink of an eye.

Passengers still struggled to get up and down the bunks, and rummaged around for places to place their suitcases. They sat in the narrow corridors looking at their phones, or lay on their bunks looking at their phones. They lined up at the hot water area to fill their thermoses. They waited patiently for the one bathroom in each car to disgorge its occupant. A few kids played around the feet of their parents. People’s belongings began to spill into the open on their bunks and in the corridors. The trash bin cover was conveniently stuck so people began piling their instant noodle containers and plastic bottles near the bathroom sink. 

The train attendants walked past sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms which seemed to be constantly occupied, and pushing food carts through the corridor calling out the names of the foods – milk, yogurt, chicken leg and rice. One attendant made several sales pitches in our car for prunes from Xinjiang, and chrysanthemum tea from Anhui. 

One lady who boarded in Henan entered our compartment and looked for a place to put her suitcase. She was pretty and dressed smartly in high heels and a knee-high skirt. I made sure to dress comfortably in shorts, t-shirt and sandals but some preferred the more formal look despite the proletarian furnishings. When she didn’t see a space for her suitcase below the bottom bunks, she put her suitcase on the middle bunk. Then she climbed up, placing her feet on the metal footholds and pulled herself up.  Once on the bunk, she stood up and tried to put her suitcase in an opening above the top bunk. She had to stretch and an elderly gentlemen in a dress shirt and tie came over to help. I was sitting on the bottom bunk and feeling awkward because I could see up her skirt and I felt bad the old man had acted faster than me in lending a hand. The studious looking guy reading across from me was trying hard not to look at the scene, and I tried not to stare.  Then after some effort, she and the elderly guy managed to raise her suitcase into the opening, whereupon she settled back in her bunk, and made a call on her phone. The old guy also went back to his phone, sending encouraging, peppy audio texts to people I imagined were either friends or business partners that went something like “let’s get together sometime and talk” and “let’s help each other out, and improve our situation together!”

Watching these scenes play out, I couldn’t help but feel a common humanity in these moments, witnessing the same inefficiencies, foibles and concerns in Chinese today as I remembered 30 years ago. China may be on the way to becoming a global economic and technological power, but that ambition was not evident in the people in the hard sleeper section who were just trying to figure out how to get by, and pass the hours, in their cramped spaces. In confining us to close quarters over a long period of time, the hard sleeper had a kind of leveling effect, doing away with any pretense of status and privilege. The old guy in the dress shirt and tie, the pretty woman in high heels and skirt, they were all in the same bunk and bathroom as the rest of us. Now if they could just put aside their smart phones and start talking again.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Resources for contextualizing recent developments in philanthropy and civil society

I'm proud to announce the release of a set of infographics, graphs, timelines, factsheets and FAQs that I developed with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. You can find these resources on ICNL's website. The purpose of these resources is to help people understand the significance of recent developments in the philanthropy and civil society space in China. They are meant to complement a longer, more detailed China Philanthropy Law Report that I wrote and published with ICNL.

The idea behind these resources was to 1) provide context for the report, and 2) highlight the significance of the legal developments discussed in the report.

In terms of context, we wanted to provide a visual way to understand the universe of civil society actors affected by recent legislation, particularly for those unfamiliar with the Chinese civil society space. Thus one set of resources is a Universe of Chinese  and Overseas NGOs, and graphs showing the growth of Chinese NGOs since the 1990s.

Another part of the bigger picture is how these developments fit into the longer-term evolution of philanthropy and civil society, and its regulation, in China. Thus, another set of resources are two timelines, one a timeline on the rise of philanthropy and civil society in China, and another timeline on major developments in the regulations of philanthropy and civil society.

In highlighting the significance of the legal developments discussed in the ICNL report, we wanted to drive home how major legal developments starting in 2016 have substantially reshaped the philanthropy and civil society space in China. Thus, we developed three factsheets underlining major changes in the regulation of Chinese and Overseas NGOs after 2016.

Finally there are two sets of FAQs, one on the 2016 Charity Law and another on the 2016 Overseas NGO Law.

I hope these resources are useful for those who want to understand the importance of these very substantial changes that have taken place in the legal environment for philanthropy and civil society  in China over the past 2-3 years. Please share these resources if you think they would be helpful to others.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

From Hong Kong to Guangzhou

I realize I haven't blogged since last December and I do feel a bit of blogrust writing this. I don't have many excuses, except that I left my job as Deputy Director at China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong in January and moved out of my Hong Kong flat and over the border to Guangzhou where I now reside. In addition to moving and settling down in a new and fascinating city, I've been very busy finishing up some consulting jobs, writing and producing content about the legal environment for philanthropy and civil society in China, and how NGOs can counter the closing of civic space in China and the Asia-Pacific.

Now that I've gotten my excuses out of the way, I plan to blog and write more regularly about my recent projects, the civil society landscape after the 19th Party Congress and recent National People's Congress, and much more, in the days and months ahead.

Because blogging and writing are about as profitable as singing on the street, and I always need a good excuse to get out of the house, I'll also continue to do consulting for organizations working in China and other parts of the Asia-Pacific. Below are my areas of expertise:
  • Analysis of political and policy trends in China, particularly in the area of philanthropy, civil society, labor and law

  • External evaluations of programs, and writing grant proposals and project reports
  • Providing guidance for NGOs on complying with the Overseas NGO Law in China and registering in Hong Kong
  • Developing innovative civil society fundraising, programming and management proposals and strategies in challenging operating environments, with a focus on China and the Asia-Pacific
  • Developing service learning curriculum and programs in China for Chinese and international college students
If you know of anyone who needs help in any of these areas, please have them get a hold of me at

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Charity Law and the mainstreaming of philanthropy and civil society (sort of) in 2016-17, Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned some events and trends that suggest philanthropic and civic activity is slowly entering the mainstream of Chinese society. These are trends that some of us may not want to recognize but we ignore them at our peril. Whether we like it or not, Chinese (and here I mean citizens and non-governmental actors and not just the government) are driving social change. Below are two more trends we should be keeping an eye on.

One is the growing interest of Chinese individuals in giving as evidenced in the rapid rise of online fundraising. In 2016, the Ministry of Civil Affairs approved 13 charitable organizations’ online philanthropy platforms. Among them, the Tencent Philanthropy (腾讯公益平台), Ant Group Philanthropy (蚂蚁金服公益平台) and Taobao Philanthropy (淘宝公益平台) platforms raised 1.289 billion RMB, 37.79% higher than the figure for 2015. Looking at the age groups of the donors, the generation born in the 80s ranked first, making up more than 45% of the donors. Online donations went mostly to education and health, followed by disaster relief and environmental protection. More than 70% of online donations were via mobile phones.

One event that has stimulated a great deal of public interest in philanthropy is Tencent’s 9/9 (September 9th) Day of Giving which began in 2015. This year’s 9/9 Day of Giving (which actually takes place over three days) was the most successful so far, generating over 1.3 billion RMB in donations, of which 829.9 million RMB came from public donations, 299.99 million RMB came from matching funds from the Tencent Foundation, and 177 million RMB from social enterprises.  A total of 12. 68 million donors made contributions to around 6,466 charitable projects.

While the results of the 9/9 Day of Giving are impressive, concerns about fraud have cropped up with reports about a small number of donations being machine-generated. Tencent Foundation has promised to investigate the issue and issue the results soon.

The second trend is the internationalization of Chinese philanthtropy. Over the last few years, largely following the outflow of Chinese investment, Chinese foundations have begun to fund and even set up their own charitable and CSR activities in Southeast Asia, Africa and even Europe, sometimes leveraging the expertise and experience of international NGOs. Until now, however, there has been little connection between Chinese foundation activities abroad and global development goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That was the aim of a recent report, “Philanthropy for the SDGs in China,” jointly released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and China Foundation Center (CFC) which are jointly setting up a knowledge sharing platform to mobilize Chinese philanthropic actors to link their activities more closely to the SDGs. One contribution of the report was to call attention to the current imbalances in Chinese philanthropy which has poured funding into education and poverty alleviation, yet neglected areas such as gender equality, sanitation, clean energy and climate change.

As with online fundraising, the internationalization of Chinese philanthropy is going through growing pains. While some Chinese philanthropists and foundations have started to make donations and set up projects overseas, they have done so warily, sensitive to public backlash against Chinese resources being used to support development abroad rather than development at home. One of the first studies of Chinese NGOs internationalizing found that while over half of the NGOs surveyed felt it was necessary to internationalize, only about 17% felt the current environment was right while about 46% felt the environment for internationalization was not sufficiently developed[i]. Still there is no doubt that internationalization is taking off and will gather steam following China’s growing footprint overseas and initiatives like One Belt One Road.  The same study found that the value of overseas donations from Chinese foundations in 2015 had risen by a factor of 3.66 since 2014 and 1209 since 2008.

[i] Deng, Guosheng. 2017. “Trends in Overseas Philanthropy by Chinese Foundations.” Voluntas, (April).

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Charity Law and the Mainstreaming of Philanthropy and Civil Society (sort of) in 2016-17, Part 1

I’ve been informed that today is International Volunteers Day and the start of International Civil Society Week, with a gathering of civil society people in Fiji of all places. Fiji sounds like a nice place to be at this time of year. Not that you have to go there to be reminded that civil society exists. All you need to do is walk out your front door and find a gathering of people. Ask them what they’re doing and why. More likely than not, they’re getting together for some civic-minded purpose.

At any rate, since this is Civil Society Week, I feel I should write something about philanthropy and civil society in China. I’ve been planning to write something about Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress report and its implications for philanthropy and civil society in China, but will return to that weighty subject when I have more time to wrap my head around it.

Speaking about Xi’s report, a number of informed, sober-minded commentators gave some pretty optimistic appraisals about it after the Congress was over, particularly Xi’s recognition of the role that social forces and organizations play in China’s governance. They may have a point. Xi is making his pronouncements at a time when a number of initiatives and trends are taking place that suggest philanthropic and civic activity are slowly entering the mainstream of Chinese society. It may not always take forms that we in the West recognize, but the changes are happening more quickly than many would think. The 2016 Charity Law had a major role to play in stimulating these changes, some of which are reflected in the following events and trends that took place over the last few months.

In early September, almost exactly one year after the Charity Law went into effect, the Ministry of Civil Affairs launched the National Charity Information Platform (全国慈善信息公开平台) in early September. The purpose of the platform is to make it easier for the public to find information about charitable organizations and supervise their activities, and encourage charitable organizations to disclose information about their fundraising and activities. The platform currently has information about 2,134 charitable organizations and 38 charitable trusts which were made possible by the Charity Law. The official website of the information platform is The platform can also be accessed by visiting the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ website at or China’s NPO website at, and clicking on “Charity Information Platform” box at the bottom of the website.

A recent report released by the China Charity Alliance, “Giving China: The Annual Report on Philanthropy,” shows clear evidence of significant growth
in philanthropy in Chinese society last year. According to the report, total donations in 2016 reached a new historic high to 139.294 billion RMB, a 25.65% increase over 2015 (100.859 billion RMB). Per capita giving was 100.74 RMB, a 23.32% increase over 2015 (81.69 RMB).

Unlike the U.S. where individual giving dominates, corporate giving in China continues to account for the lion’s share with 65.35% of total donations in 2016. However, individual donations are rising faster, increasing by 73.52%, compared to corporate donations which grew by 15.86%.

Social donations are heavily concentrated in three areas: education (30.44%), health (26.05%) and poverty alleviation (21.01%). Social donations primarily went to foundations (62.55 billion RMB) and the China Charity Federation system (40.41 billion RMB), although a fair share still went to government departments, public institutions and mass organizations (26.06 billion RMB).

Comparatively speaking, China still lags behind the U.S. and European countries such as the UK. Total donations accounted for 0.19% of China’s GDP, compared to 2.1% for the U.S. and 0.52% for the UK. However, if the growth in giving continues at the current pace, we can expect China to close the gap significantly over the next few decades.

I’ll discuss two other trends – the rapid rise of online fundraising and the internationalization of philanthropy - in my next blogpost, hopefully before Civil Society Week is over.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Need to Return to Social Governance after the 19th Party Congress

With the closing of the 19th Party Congress, some have been quick to label this period the “Xi era”, and it’s easy to see why. Centralization of power, consolidation of strongman rule, bolstering national security and rule of law, rejuvenating the Chinese Communist Party, and extending China’s global influence  – these are all hallmarks of XJP’s rule, and they are impressive. But we may be too quick in anointing this the “Xi era” simply because it is too early to know whether Xi’s policies will find broad-based support and make a lasting impact beyond his tenure.

Certainly the policies of Mao and Deng had such an impact, and their names are worthy of pinning “era” next to their names. But we should remember that five and even 10 years into the “Deng era,” it was by no means clear whether Deng’s reform policies would survive, particularly when confronted with the 1989 democracy protests. Now, five years into the “Xi era,” we know that he has centralized the policy making process and cemented his strongman status. But it is by no means clear that Xi’s particular approach to consolidating power has created a more stable and robust national security and rule of law regime, or rejuvenated the CCP, let alone put China on the socioeconomic path to achieving a moderately prosperous, and more equitable, society.

Looking back at the threats confronting CCP rule when Xi came to power, it is hard to fault him for centralizing power in Beijing and himself, because he attributed those threats to the fragmentation and decentralization of power in the CCP in the years preceding his tenure. Centralizing power, which went hand in hand with strengthening Xi’s own authority, was critical if Xi was to formulate quick responses to what he perceived as unbridled corruption and lax discipline within the party, and security threats inside and outside China’s periphery.

But the course that Xi chose came fraught with its own pitfalls.  One is that this concentration of power, which was intended as the means to an end could easily become an end unto itself.  In this scenario, Xi’s effort to strengthen the “rule of law” and rejuvenate the CCP ends up becoming the “rule of Xi” and destabilizing the party  and the rule of law as institutions, as David Shambaugh and others remind us. This risk would become a reality if Xi were to go against party norms and keep leaders who have reached “retirement age” such as Wang Qishan in the Politburo Standing Committee (which Xi did not do), or staying on as General Secretary of the CCP for a third term.  If so, then Xi would be guilty of committing the biggest irony of all: by seeking to rejuvenate the CCP, he would be undermining efforts made by Deng Xiaoping and his successors to strengthen CCP rule by strengthening collective leadership and leadership succession norms.

Even if Xi were not to go that far, his approach to politics and governance still runs the risk of not being sustainable because it may be unable to garner broad support. Unlike Deng Xiaoping’s rural and fiscal reforms which played to farmers and provincial leaders, Xi’s centralizing policies, particularly his anti-corruption campaign, have not had a galvanizing effect on local leaders or any other key constituency. In this sense, XJP’s governance approach has been more about building up his own personal authority and the authority of the Party than about cultivating support from key constituencies. 

The big question then is whether Xi’s governance measures will outlive him when he steps down, either according to form in 2022 at the 20th Party Congress after serving his second five-year term, or by breaking form and serving a third term and then stepping down in 2027 at the 21st Party Congress.

This brings me to the crucial contribution of civil society to stable and legitimate governance. As others have pointed out, the concentration of power in central bodies and Xi, without feedback mechanisms from different segments of society, raises grave risks in a country as large and diverse as China. As China’s successful rural and private sector reforms of the 1980s and 1990s show, effective and sustainable policies require input and buy-in from local authorities and social actors who are unlikely to feel a strong sense of ownership over policies that are not beneficial to their lives.  In direct contrast, disastrous policy experiments such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were the result of an overconcentration of power and inadequate feedback from the grassroots.

At an earlier point in time, Xi seemed to understand the importance of consulting with civil society in improving China’s governance. In the 2013 Third Plenum Decision of the 18th Central Committee on Comprehensively Deepening the Reforms, which was extolled at the time as being Xi’s signature statement and is now seen by many commentators as destined for the garbage bin, Xi recognized the significance of working with social actors in strengthening governance. Entire sections of the Decision discussed the importance of “consultative democracy” and “social governance.”

We will, under the Party's leadership, carry out extensive consultations on  major issues relating to economic and social development as well as specific problems involving the people's immediate interests, and conduct consultations before and during the implementation of policy decisions. We will build a consultative democracy featuring appropriate procedures and complete segments to expand the consultation channels of the organs of state power, committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, political parties, and community-level and social organizations. We will conduct intensive consultations on issues relating to legislation, administration, democracy, political participation and social problems.

The section on “innovations in social governance” called for clarifying the rights and interests of social organizations and working with them to create mechanisms to prevent and resolve social conflicts.  The language here was still state-centered, emphasizing the role of party leadership and adhering to the law, but the call for reinvigorating horizontal interactions between the state and society, rather than strengthening the state’s vertical management of society, was notable, unprecedented and yes even innovative.

Four years after the Third Plenum Decision, it is clear that Xi has turned his back on his own prescription for better governance, and instead condoned tightening controls over social actors, and silencing those who advocate for socioeconomic changes. There have been a few exceptions. The revised Environmental Protection Law which went into effect on January 1, 2015 allowed social organizations for the first time to file public interest lawsuits against polluters. In November 2015, facing historically high levels of labor disputes and strikes, Xi also took the official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), to task for becoming irrelevant to workers and called on them to reform to better represent workers. But these measures have been too few and more symbolic than substantive.

The tragedy of these last few years is that the voices that have been muzzled were not calling for revolution, instigating violence, or fomenting social disorder. They were instead constructive voices calling for practical, innovative ways to address official corruption, unpaid wages and social insurance, sexual harassment, pollution, and discrimination against ethnic minorities. The people calling for these changes were doing so out of a sense of responsibility to the nation, because they wanted to make China a more inclusive, equitable and just place very much in the socialist spirit. They were in fact the very voices that could help Xi craft better policies if he had listened to them and incorporated their ideas into his policies.

The challenges Xi and his new leadership team face after the 19th Party Congress are immense as Xi himself acknowledges. If he continues his current governance approach, he runs the very substantial risk of undermining the long-term capacity of the Party to govern by vesting so much power and authority in himself.  Or he could use his immense power wisely and return to his original playbook of social governance, reaching out to social constituencies to give them a voice in shaping socioeconomic policies, thereby creating broad-based support that would strengthen their legitimacy and sustainability.