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Notwithstanding media reports about how the authoritarian state in China has repressed its civil society, China’s NGO sector has grown significantly in number over the past two decades. In fact, the state has played a decisive role in the emergence of the NGO sector in China, which is also highly diverse. It includes both organizations that are officially registered as nonprofit organizations and those that do not possess this status; it also includes organizations that should be more properly viewed as state institutions and those organizations that meet the conventional criteria for NGOs. However, despite the state’s positive contributions to the development of China’s NGO sector, it continues to view NGOs with suspicion and has adopted legal, political, and practical measures to control China’s NGOs. A significant consequence of these control measures is that many Chinese NGOs are unable to attain official nonprofit registration status, thereby negatively impacting their social and political legitimacy. This fact, in combination with the state’s overwhelming legitimacy, makes it all the more important for individual Chinese NGOs to reach out to the state, thereby affirming the value of state linkages. In recent years, the rising demand for rural migrant workers to contribute to China’s modernization and urbanization has highlighted the institutionalized discrimination against this population group. Consequently, migrant NGOs have emerged to advocate on behalf of migrant workers and their dependents as well as to serve their needs. These NGOs are keenly aware of the value of state linkages. Some of these organizations have also been quite effective. Therefore, a close look at these organizations can help us understand how China’s NGOs have been able to achieve their goals while allowing us to gain an in-depth understanding of migrant NGOs in contemporary China.
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I had intended to take a group of American students to visit a local NGO in Shanghai in May 2010, but was told by the NGO leader that local government officials had informed the organization that it should not host any foreign visitors during the period that the World Exposition was held in Shanghai.
In my field interviews, a theme that recurred on a regular basis is that the ordinary Chinese people do not understand why nonprofit organizations would need to solicit outside funding. Therefore, in the mindset of many, if not most, Chinese persons, organizations that claim to be nonprofit in nature and yet openly seek funding must have ulterior motives and thus cannot be trusted.
Although there seems to be a consensus among researchers, including Chinese government researchers, about the rural origins of the migrant workers, this understanding is not reflected in the government census, which uses the category of “floating population” to describe all persons who “lived in places other than the towns (townships or streets) of their household registration where they had left for over 6 months” National Bureau of Statistics of China ( 2011).
Fei-ling Wang, a leading expert on the hukou system, wrote that until 2006, “victims with different hukou types suffering the same wrongful injury or death were compensated very differently….[In] death, the family of a victim with a rural hukou generally brought about half to one-third of that awarded to a victim with an urban hukou.” Wang ( 2010), 92–93.
During the 4 years that I lived in Beijing and Shanghai (2007–2011), just before the annual lunar New Year holidays, local residents consistently reminded each other to be cautious of cash-strapped rural migrant workers who might perpetrate crimes against local residents.
The most well-known case here is the 2003 death of Sun Zhigang, who was a college-educated migrant worker in Guangdong who was beaten to death by the local police while in detention for failing to produce documents that proved he was legally permitted to work in Guangdong.
According to Tong’s biographical sketch, the original Zhicheng Law Office was administratively attached to Fengtai district’s justice bureau in Beijing. When Tong became the head of that office in 1998, the office still held this administrative status. According to Wang Fang, a Zhicheng staff lawyer who I interviewed in 2008, the law office had been privatized since the establishment of the NGO, and all the lawyers who were employed at the law office when the founder was first employed there had since then resigned from the law office. All current members of the NGO staff were hired much later. For example, the majority of the staff lawyers in the Zhicheng Migrant Center joined the NGO after 2004. Wang’s claim that the law firm had been privatized corresponds to the understanding that by 2001, all state-owned law firms in Beijing had been privatized. Michelson ( 2007), 373.
LawFirm50 ( 2009). LawFirm50 is reportedly an NGO that focuses on collecting and reporting about the quality of lawyers and law firms in China. The organization reported that the ranking was based on the survey responses of nearly 2,500 lawyers, government officials, and other legal practitioners in China.
Feng ( 2007). In this news report, which was re-published on the website of Guo Jianmei’s NGO, Guo and Tong were the only two public interest lawyers who were featured.
When I first visited the NGO in June 2008, I met with one of the two lawyers on the staff. It was clear from our conversation that the NGO handled very few cases and was more involved in referring cases to other NGOs. It is also noteworthy that the NGO’s legal aid program has not been mentioned by other writers who have studied this NGO.
One of the two co-founders of Rural Women, however, did co-author a book about the history of China’s women’s movement in the reform era, which profiled the key Chinese NGOs, including Rural Women.
The book was by Wu Zhiping and entitled Zhongguo Liudong Funu Tudi Quanyi Zhuangkuang Diaocha [ An Investigation on the State of Chinese Migrant Women’s Land Rights]. It was published by the Social Sciences Academic Press of China. Since then, a book on female participation in public affairs in China by the deputy CEO of the NGO was also published by the same publisher. In addition, the NGO published a handbook on protecting the land rights of female migrant workers.
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- Chinese NGOs: Thriving Amidst Adversity
John W. Tai
- Chapter 2