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The Role of Chinese NGOs for China’s Opening Policy

AF: My next question is related to the issue of under-resourced NGOs and how this can affect community development. Whether it is a rural or urban community or any other kind of group of people which requires services, if they can not rely on the support of the government, and enterprises and also NGOs lack resources to help them, this could be a real issue.

HHM: Let me first talk about communities. Thirty years ago communities were very simple. You had all sorts of compounds, for example the university compounds, office compounds, factory compounds and military compounds. In addition there were places like Beijing’s hutongs with their hutong culture. At that time communities were relatively simple. This is no longer the case these days. With the development of the market economy, the community structure has become much more integrated. Its composition is no longer unitary but pluralistic.

My second observation is that there is a widening wealth gap. During the Maoist period there was not much of a wealth gap in communities. With the development of new communities, the wealth gap has increased.

My third point relates to the relationship between new and old residents. There exist conflicts between migrant workers and the original residents. These three factors together have led to changes in Chinese communities. But let me get back to your question about the problem of under-resourced grassroots organisations. In a unitary community it is possible to mobilise the community rather quickly, since it is a society of acquaintances (shuren shehui). These days it is no longer a society of acquaintances but a pluralistic society, a society marked by a great disparity and wealth gap. All of this leads to conflicts in society and makes it harder for NGO to raise funds since trust levels are not only changing but on the decline.

AF: I have interviewed several foundation leaders who would like to see private foundations in China to become public fundraising foundations. They also expressed their hope that NGOs should be able to publicly raise funds. But based on what you just said this could be quite difficult, since a lot of citizens may not trust civil society organisations. Are you aware of some good practices and ways how NGOs can increase the public’s trust in them?

HHM: This topic is quite big. In general, whether levels of trust in China are high or low is directly related to changes of societal structures. For instance, China’s external environment has changed quite a lot in comparison with the China of thirty or forty years ago. This is the first difficulty.

Secondly, information gathering among people who are able to gain information and those who do not get the information is imbalanced due to information technology. This is the second difficulty that affects Chinese society.

Thirdly, the changes of social structures and imbalanced information consequently caused a distance among people. This distance is the reason why people choose to use WeChat (weixin) in China, rather than micro-blogs or blogs. WeChat solves the issue of receiving information, while micro-blogs only solve the issue of expressing yourself freely. WeChat has direct restrictions and can only be seen by one’s own circle of friends, which is an acquaintance society, whereas on micro-blogs people say what they want to say and speak to themselves.Therefore, NGOs can not solve the issue of low-trust society. I do not think this can be described through simple language. This needs a re-construction of the trust system. What I meant by trust re-construction is that, firstly how can one create a new acquaintance society? Secondly, how to build a new group that is based on mutual trust? Thirdly, how to build a community that shares mutual interests? These three points are all linked and have their inner logic. But why is it not so simple? The inner side affects the external side and vice-versa. We call it a time with contradictions. When there is a contradiction, some people will first prioritise the main contradiction, then the less important contradictions. However, some other people will try to solve the simple issues and then the more complicated ones. Therefore, there are many approaches and choices. If we think from this perspective, we need to consider the changes of the Chinese society and look at it from a more macro-perspective. We can not only use trust as a measurement of the changing external environment.