China’s NGOs Go Global

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China’s NGOs Go Global

Chinese nongovernmental organizations are increasingly active abroad. What impact are they having?

China’s NGOs Go Global
Credit: REUTERS/Joe Penney

Rapid economic growth over the past three and a half decades has transformed China’s position from a recipient of international aid to a donor nation. China’s overseas development assistance has mirrored its state-run commercial investments and trade activities. In other words, the majority of China’s overseas development assistance is directed at nations, notably in Africa and Southeast Asia, where it has a substantial stake in accessing natural resources and low cost human capital. This assistance largely takes the form of concessional or low-interest loans, and government-financed or government-subsidized infrastructure projects.

Suffice to say, China’s development assistance is linked to its own national interests and needs. This is further evident in bilateral development assistance agreements that require the export of raw materials to China, and/or creating opportunities for Chinese firms by mandating that 50 percent of project materials and services be sourced from China. Such preconditions have prompted questions about the effectiveness and transformative impact of Chinese development assistance for its African and Southeast Asian host nation recipients.

Viewed through a different lens, China’s development assistance has provided political support to African and Southeast Asian regimes that are otherwise ignored or condemned by Western nations. It may thus strengthen existing authoritarian regimes, and forestall or even reverse democratization.

Nevertheless, state actors are not the only ones involved in China’s internationalization. Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), too, have begun to “go abroad,” setting up in Africa and Southeast Asia. They are funded in part by Chinese state-owned enterprises and the Chinese state (in the form of “government-organized NGOs” or GONGOs) further muddying the difficult distinction between state and non-state actors in China’s overseas presence.

This should not be a surprising turn of events given that the number of NGOs in mainland China have increased dramatically in the past two decades. There are now approximately 500,000 registered NGOs in the nation, working in areas such as education, poverty alleviation, community development, environment and health. Most focus on domestic affairs, but recently some have begun to look for opportunities overseas.

While there are no official statistics about the number of Chinese NGOs in Africa and Southeast Asia, an extremely conservative estimate exceeds 100, though perhaps as few as 10-15 have permanent operations and local offices. Chinese NGOs tend to operate in jurisdictions in Africa and Southeast Asia where China already has commercial and investment interests, which allows them to tap into the infrastructure established by Chinese state-owned and private companies. In addition, it ensures lower transaction costs, and provides a tacit consent from the state – which is helpful in managing domestic, personal and institutional relationships – to operate in these overseas jurisdictions.

Chinese NGOs that have expanded their operations overseas, particularly those working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as hospital building, are in part funded by the state due to their GONGO status. For example, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, a GONGO, has recently established a three-year program setting up community-based centers that offer first aid, healthcare and water supplies in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In 2012, the organization launched a healthcare program in Sudan that sent volunteer doctors from China to train local midwives and nurses.

Also, there are instances when state-owned enterprises have made sizable contributions to an NGO’s development project. For instance, the China-Africa Brightness Action initiative is funded by Chinese enterprises (notably Hainan Airlines and Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group) to provide free cataract surgery. The NGO, which originally developed its capacity to conduct this work on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in mainland China, has now treated more than 2,000 patients in Sudan, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Although the number and scope of Chinese NGOs working internationally is lower relative to other neighboring nations (such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan), Chinese NGOs are becoming more active abroad. In the environmental field, for instance, a Beijing-based NGO, Global Environmental Institute has run several bio-mass energy projects and environmental governance programs in Sri Lanka and Laos, and collaborated with African and Southeast Asian NGOs to monitor the overseas environmental impact of Chinese companies.

The growing presence of Chinese NGOs globally has some important implications. Western NGOs have traditionally been viewed as “agents of export” in terms of best practices and norms. They are seen as builders of capacity in host nations, alternative social service providers, and harbingers of democratization. In seeking to fulfill these functions, Western NGOs have worked to train and socialize local NGOs in developing nations. They have taught a “Western model” of state-society relations, whereby NGOs act as a watchdog and sometimes antagonist to the government. This presents NGOs as countervailing forces vis-à-vis the state, and sees their proliferation as a basis for future democratization. NGOs possess a range of resources and power – ranging from material to moral – and have been put forward as agents of socio-political change by the NGOs themselves, by international institutions such as the UN, IMF and World Bank, and by national governments through their development agencies.

In the Chinese case, however, the NGOs doing the teaching were born, socialized and evolved in an authoritarian institutional environment, in which they have adapted to tight state supervision and limitations. For example, many Chinese NGOs find it difficult to register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs due to burdensome requirements, including the need to find a government sponsor, prompting them to register as for-profit entities.

The domestic environment for Chinese NGOs can potentially serve as a guide for understanding Chinese NGOs’ activities overseas, and notably in Africa and Southeast Asia. Projected out further, presumably Chinese NGOs have strong potential to offer valuable best/worst practices and lessons to help their host nation counterparts to operate more effectively under similarly illiberal states. In turn, Chinese NGOs may face criticism from those who hope to use humanitarian and development aid to promote political liberalization, and fear that Chinese NGOs will strengthen authoritarian tendencies or reduce the presumed liberal-democratic influence of Western NGOs and governments.

Notwithstanding, early evidence from Africa and Southeast Asia suggests that knowledge transfer from Chinese NGOs to their host nation counterparts is limited at this juncture. There is relatively little direct uni- or bi-directional transfer of knowledge and practices between Chinese NGOs and their African and Southeast Asian counterparts. This is particularly the case as Chinese NGOs consistently engage in one-off, project-based interventions in their host jurisdictions. While such one-off projects are easy to control, they lead to a loss of institutional knowledge – something that is also witnessed in the domestic Chinese context – and often the solutions in host nations are short-term and temporary.

Finally, Beijing’s professed preference for “government to government” links in development suggests a more sustained presence at the state-level, without the involvement of independent NGOs, but rather GONGOs. As with Chinese state-funded media overseas, presumed intimate ties to the state may limit the credibility of Chinese NGOs operating internationally. 

Reza Hasmath (Ph.D., Cambridge) is a Professor in Political Science at the University of Alberta. Prior to this appointment he held faculty positions at the Universities of Oxford, Melbourne and Toronto.