|China's state-run NGOs in graft spotlight |
By Yvonne Su
BEIJING - A snowballing corruption scandal involving China's Red Cross Society has forced the Chinese government to ease strict controls on the millions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have been functioning without government recognition.
The Chinese government has been reluctant to endorse these NGOs despite the incredible growth of civil society in recent decades. For years, Beijing has supported government-affiliated charity organizations with funding, while obstructing independent NGOs with a laborious and troublesome registration process and heavy legal oversight.
"The government wants to keep everything under its control," said Wang Huali, founder of Green Pearl River, a Guangdong-based environmental NGO that has been waiting for formal registration for 10 years.
Several million NGOs with a wide range of goals, including supporting Christians, petitioning the government, fighting for environmental protection and combating diseases, have been founded around China in the past two decades.
Under China's regulations, every NGO is required to find a government department as its sponsor before it can be legally registered. However, gaining sponsorship is almost impossible as most of the government departments remain hopelessly bureaucratic and steer clear of unrecognized organizations. China's several million independent NGOs thus have been practically operating outside of the law.
In May, the policy led to the United Nations' Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria's freezing grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars to China, in a dispute over management of the grants and its hostility toward the involvement of independent organizations in public health issues.
Even though academics have urged the government to lift the ban on the independent organizations' operations, the government's record had been marked by extreme caution until a corruption scandal broke involving the state-run Red Cross Society of China in June.
The Red Cross began to face public accusations of misuse of donations after a 20-year-old woman calling herself "Guo Meimei" online, who claimed to be general manager of "Red Cross Commerce", posted photos on her microblog in June detailing a lavish lifestyle that included expensive sports cars - she called her white Maserati the "little horse" and her orange Lamborghini the "little bull" - as well as designer handbags and a villa. Netizens suspected that Guo had funded her lifestyle by embezzling money from the Red Cross Society.
The Red Cross Society promptly denied the existence of "Red Cross Commerce", saying it did not have an employee named Guo Meimei, dubbed "Maserati Girl" by media. But follow-up investigations by media showed the charity organization did run a commercial group, though under a different name, which had cooperative agreements with several businesses and whose leaders also worked as the heads of several enterprises. The group had been given discretionary power over the use of donations raised through some of the Red Cross's charitable activities.
Later, more scandals were exposed within the Red Cross Society of China. It was found to have leased land in the central city of Wuhan meant to store relief items to a private firm. In a separate case, the Red Cross Foundation was said to have charged hospitals 600,000 yuan (US$93,000) for a medical device claimed to be worth several million yuan, although insiders said its value was just 120,000 yuan.
The scandal involving the Red Cross Society has been fueled by already deep-seated public suspicion of state-run charity organizations, amid a general lack of transparency and openness in the sector.
Even tennis player Li Na, who won the 2011 French Open and has become one of the nation's sports darlings, has reportedly refused to donate money through the Red Cross. Li, who pocketed $1.65 million in prize money for winning at Roland Garros, would donate 500,000 yuan ($77,000) to a home for the elderly, disabled people and orphans in her hometown of Wuhan, the Communist Party's People's Daily said.
But she refused to donate that money through the Red Cross, after hearing about the Guo Meimei controversy. "I really hoped I would be able to help them, so in the end I decided to go handle everything myself," she was quoted as saying in the report.
In responding to a public outcry, China's Ministry of Civil Affairs announced in July that NGOs that fell under the categories of "public benefit, social service and social benefit" would be allowed to officially register, without needing a government sponsor.
On July 9, the state-run media Xinhua also reported that the government had started soliciting public opinion for a draft guideline to China's next five-year charities development plan, promising to introduce and amend existed regulations for donations, voluntary services and NGOs' registration.
Reactions to the government's policy shift are divided, while the move is generally welcomed, there is a belief that with official registration NGOs will face stricter government management, and some studies suggest only NGOs in charity and social welfare will be eligible. As such, 90% of the existing NGOs would still have to remain "underground".
"It was a good thing the scandal of state-run charity organization broke out," said Deng Guosheng, director of Tsinghua University's NGO research center, "The incident has stimulated the state-run NGOs' reform and forced the government to stop restraining independent NGOs' developments."
Deng, who was involved in drafting a proposal for a reform on management of NGOs, explained that retired government officials appointed to operate the state-run charity organizations had been the main obstacle to legalize NGOs as they did not want to relinquish their privileges and face competition from their independent counterparts.
Chou Lili, a 32-year-old full-time charity worker, founded the NGO Angel Mom in 2005 with three other mothers she met via a child-raising website, aiming to help sick children receive medical treatment. For two years, Angel Mom could not register and was forced to raise funds illegally. "We could have gone to jail for raising funds to help sick kids," Chou said.
In 2007, China's Red Cross agreed to include Angel Mom under its system, but requested them to contribute one million yuan. Two years later, Red Cross decided to terminate the cooperation and Angle Mom decided to switch its cooperation to the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children, while registration remained impossible.
For the first time in six years, Angel Mom would be allowed to register without any problem. But Chou said no detail has been made available yet about the implications of registering and she'd prefer waiting for someone else to go through the new procedure first.
Other NGOs excluded from official registration feel frustrated after years of waiting.
Wang Huali, who quit his job to become a full-time Tibet antelope protection volunteer in 2001 and then decided to fund an environmental NGO in Guangdong province, has tried various approaches to get his organization registered. But local officials who at first seemed willing to help only ended up apologizing for their inability to do so.
Since Wang Huali's environmental group remained excluded from registration, he couldn't raise funds for his organization. He could only continue providing free volunteer workshops in exchange for a small amount of fees from local enterprises.
"Obviously environmental issues are not the government's priority," Wang said, "We have no choice but to wait."
Political and rights advocate groups, on the other hand, care little about the government's recognition, arguing it doesn't really follow its own regulations and could create hassles for them at anytime.
Xu Zhiyong, a human-rights lawyer and Beijing's first elected independent member to a district legislature, founded a legal-rights protection NGO, the Open Constitution Initiative, along with three other lawyers in 2003. As part of efforts to facilitate paying salaries to employees, he registered it with the industrial commercial management department as a business company.
In the past few years, his organization has been involved in protecting the legal rights of AIDS patients, citizens forcibly relocated, tainted milk power victims and kidnapped petitioners. His organization has been harassed by the national security department. In 2009, his organization as a registered business company was accused of tax evasion and forced to dissolve.
After years of fighting, Xu still sees no possibility for his organization to be legally registered, but he says this won't affect its operations.
Xu thinks it is not so significant for the government to open registration for charity NGOs. "The government in fact wants to monopolize charity operations," he said, "Even though you are registered, they can find reasons to come after you anyway."
A researcher who has followed China's NGO development suggested that the policy shift suggested the government had recognized the strong momentum of civil society and wanted to interfere by managing it.
"But can they do that? I don't think so," the researcher, who declined to be named, said.
Yvonne Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.