Overseas NGOs benefit from anti-graft drive but have to adapt to a stringent new law

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/5 19:18:39 Last Updated: 2016/12/6 16:13:39

Overseas NGOs benefit from anti-graft drive but have to adapt to a new law that keeps a watchful eye


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Chen Taiyong, director of an NGO dedicated to eliminating poverty in China, is ill at ease.

Like many other people at such groups, he is watching closely for any new policies concerning the overseas NGO management law which is to take effect in around a month.

Registered with Department of Civil Affairs of Sichuan Province in 2008, Sichuan Haihui Poverty Alleviation Service Center is the partner of Heifer International in China. Heifer International, founded by an American in 1944, is a charity working to end hunger and poverty through providing agricultural supplies, education and business planning support.

The law on overseas NGOs adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in April says that all overseas NGOs must reregister if they want to keep working in the Chinese mainland.

"The new law stipulates that we need to secure approval from a 'related authority' before registering at a public security organ. But it's still unclear which authority we should turn to for the approval," Chen, director of Haihui, told the Global Times.

"We welcome more standardized regulations. But as to whether the registration gets simplified or the opposite, we need wait and see," he said.

Lawmakers say the law is designed to standardize and supervise the activities of overseas NGOs, as well as preventing them from undermining China's State security.

"The extensive scrutiny is essential to regulate the activities of overseas NGOs, especially those prone to political advocacy," Li Xiaoyun, a professor at the China Agricultural University who has devoted himself to poverty relief for more than 20 years, told the Global Times.

"But I think those focusing on development undertakings such as poverty reduction can be treated differently so as to allow them to fully display their positive function."

Poverty relief is now high on China's agenda. Since reform and opening-up began in 1979, China has lifted more than 700 million of its citizens out of poverty. Overseas NGOs have been a major contributor to this, bringing funds, new ideas, experience and management models, Li said.

China has recently vowed to lift all its citizens out of poverty by 2020. By the end of last year, there were still 55.75 million people living under the poverty line.

"Foreign NGOs can be vital to the mission. Together with domestic NGOs, they can help local governments make full use of poverty-relief funds and sustain the effect," Li noted, adding that a lack of manpower and working skills are the main shortcomings of governments on the grass-roots level.

A Heifer China member of staff trains villagers in one of its poverty alleviation projects in Lancang county, Yunnan Province. Photo: Courtesy of Heifer China

A Heifer China member of staff trains villagers in one of its poverty alleviation projects in Lancang county, Yunnan Province. Photo: Courtesy of Heifer China

Similar worries



Liao Hongtao, director of the China program with Oxfam Hong Kong, a charity dedicated to fighting poverty and responding to emergencies which officially started working in the mainland in 1991, has similar concerns as Chen.

"The overseas NGOs' activities will be under dual supervision, with registration managed by public security organs and services by related government bodies. But the implementation rules are still not clear, we don't know whether it will go smoothly," Liao told the Global Times in a telephone interview.

Some local governments have already chosen to keep their distance. As poverty relief in China is government-dominated, NGOs usually have to cooperate with local governments or seek their permission before conducting activities.

There are about 7,000 overseas NGOs working in China, and fewer than 100 are specifically devoted to anti-poverty efforts, Li estimated. But Liao disagrees with this estimate. "Broadly speaking, disaster aid, education, health, hygiene and AIDS control can also be categorized as poverty alleviation. In this case, more than 80 percent of the NGOs based in Hong Kong are dedicated to the cause," Liao said.

Chen, who has worked with Heifer China for 31 years, found that some local governments started to reject their assistance in recent years.

"The main reason might be that the anti-poverty funds granted by central and local governments have become increasingly abundant," he said.

Official figures released in October showed that central and provincial funds allocated to anti-poverty this year surpassed 100 billion yuan ($14.5 billion) for the first time, nearly half the total amount invested from 2001 to 2010.

"There is also likely a link to our identity as a foreign NGO. Local governments have become vigilant towards us and cutting ties with us can keep them away from troubles once for all," he added, citing that their projects in the Tibet Autonomous Region which have been running smoothly since 1999 were all halted last year.

Villagers also prefer help from the government as it requires much less paperwork and subsequent reports, Chen said.

According to the model of Heifer China, once a village or community is chosen as an aid recipient, the NGO will help to set up support groups and select a coordinator. Classes will then be held to help build basic values, including mutual care, good faith and proactivity. After that, villagers are encouraged to make plans to boost their earnings. In the end, Heifer China will grant them funds and resources accordingly. The villagers also sign contracts with them to say how they will use the donations.

So far, Heifer China has helped 124,093 households in 152 counties in 17 provincial-level regions, and 90 percent of them have escaped poverty.

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Better and worse trends



In recent years as the country has tightened its crackdown on corruption and misconduct within the Party, NGOs say in some ways it has become easier to fight poverty.

In October 1985, Heifer International sent a shipment of 158 dairy goats and 200 quality breeding rabbits to Sichuan, starting its cooperation with China.

But it took almost 20 years for Heifer to formally register in China as a non-profit organization. Often kicked between different government organs, the registration for foreign NGOs has been lengthy and complicated, which means many NGOs once worked in the country without registration.

Chen recalled that at the beginning the animal husbandry bureau which they were affiliated to occasionally misappropriated funds and livestock.

The support groups were supervised by the village's Communist Party of China committee; a few county officials used to require Heifer projects to go to communities in which their relatives live; projects were often disrupted due to leadership transitions (as the newly appointed officials believed the projects, initiated by their predecessor, would not be counted as their own achievement).

"But now the situation has improved greatly," Chen told the Global Times.

China this year adopted its first Charity Law after 10 years of discussion. Taking effect on September 1, the law eases restrictions on fundraising by, and the operation of, charity groups, and orders local authorities to offer them tax benefits.

But since the law was passed, many provinces still haven't issued any practical regulations on the law and charities still have to pay taxes on each donation.

Another area in which increasing pressure is piling on overseas NGOs is fundraising. The new management law bans them from raising funds on the mainland, but their efforts are becoming more challenging overseas.

According to Liao, Oxfam Hong Kong's funds mainly come from regular donors in Hong Kong and Macao. But as mainlanders swarm into Hong Kong to buy luxury items, it's getting harder to convince Hongkongers that their donations are still needed given the regional disparity and wealth gap in the mainland.

"China is still the second largest country in terms of its population of poor people. We at times invite donors to visit the families we assist," Liao said.

The impact of pan-democrats and "pro-independence" activities in Hong Kong on donations is slim due to their small number, he said.

Chen has met similar difficulties while raising funds in foreign countries. "The foreign donors' initiative is declining. They think that China can deal with poverty itself as it is the world's second largest economy, the US's top creditor, and have many rich people who are now able to send their kids to study overseas," he said.

Yang Xiuchuan, one of the beneficiaries of Oxfam Hong Kong's microcredit program, shows her homegrown edible fungus in her village in Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Photo: Poon Wai-nang/Oxfam Hong Kong

Yang Xiuchuan, one of the beneficiaries of Oxfam Hong Kong's microcredit program, shows her homegrown edible fungus in her village in Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Photo: Poon Wai-nang/Oxfam Hong Kong

Merits and defects



Despite this increasingly frosty relationship, many NGOs believe local governments can still play an important role.

To accomplish the national mission to eradicate poverty within four years, many regional governments have set tough requirements and tasks that officials must meet. At total of 540,000 officials have been sent to work in villages to supervise poverty reduction work.

This pressure has generated some side effects, and there have been reports about local governments forging statistics.

Chen Shiquan, a resident of Chengdu who has been working in poverty relief, said counterfeiting is not uncommon at the grass-roots level.

"Some villagers even work with local officials to forge projects to cheat State funds. They temporarily establish large pig farms or other cooperatives, but disband soon after dividing the subsidies allocated by the government," Chen told the Global Times. 

Some officials in Chengdu have even rejected poverty relief assistance from foreign NGOs out of fear that it would defame the city, which has a good reputation for quality of life, he noted.

Chen Taiyong said another major challenge is that the public's overall view of charity is still backward.

It's an international practice that a certain part of donations go to cover the costs of the charity's administration. But in China, donors always want all the donations end up with poor people.

While overseas NGOs are comparatively more professional and credible in their financial transparency, Li Xiaoyun believes there are still some defects.

"Due to their background, they are usually supervised by Westerners or even their own countries. It's inevitable their work are affected by thoughts of liberalism and democracy," Li said.

"Thus some ways and concepts they adopted or advocated, such as participation and gender equality, do not conform with the economic situation in the backward regions in China."

But Chen is confident in the future of Haihui. "Some governments have also actively approached us and sought cooperation," he said, adding that Haihui plans to help another 240,000 households out of poverty by 2020.


Newspaper headline: A helping hand


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