Luo Jianming never expected his first attempt at registering a non-governmental organization (NGO) would be so successful. The entire registration process took less than two months, despite warnings from others that the procedure could take forever.
Luo, a Guangdong native, became famous initially under his Internet pseudonym of Basuofengyun for his participation in public petitioning against a waste incineration plant initially planned to be built near residential compounds in Guangzhou in 2011. The plant was eventually suspended.
Inspired by the petition, Luo planned to establish an NGO to promote environmental protection ideas in local communities in 2012, especially concentrating on garbage classification work.
Getting NGO status in China has traditionally been seen as nearly impossible, but Luo decided to try anyway, regardless of discouragement from his well-meaning friends.
"It was unexpectedly successful. We submitted the application on February 17, 2012 and got approval in April. And we officially opened in June," he told the Global Times.
Luo wrote down the detailed application process in his blog to share with those who intended to apply for NGO status but still had doubts and fears. The articles were later widely circulated on the Internet.
"Many people left questions like: Were the government officials friendly to you? Was it easy to get done ? How much should we pay? You can see that people still had a lot of questions and misunderstandings," Luo said.
Luo said he met with no obstacles from officials, and that sometimes they would go through the unfamiliar procedures with him.
Luo's friends' fears were well-rooted in the country's history, since China's NGO sector remains underdeveloped. Severe restrictions and the need to partner with government organizations held back the development of civil charities. The country was essentially starting from scratch in terms of civil society.
On average, developed countries and regions have 50 social organizations per 10,000 people. In Germany, it's 120, France 110, Japan 97, the US 52, and Hong Kong a disappointing 25. But on the Chinese mainland, it's a shockingly 3.3.
The fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, could be seen as the rebirth of grass-roots NGOs in China, since it was the first time since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 that Chinese had an opportunity to meet with representatives of global NGOs face to face.
Before that, most social organizations in China had a strong official color.
"This contact stimulated some Chinese to begin building up real grass-roots NGOs in China and soon this movement spread across the country and by now you can find NGOs in each provincial area. They cover almost all public service areas," said Deng Guosheng, former director of Institute of NGO Study at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, who has observed NGO development in China over the past decade.
In the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, a large number of grass-roots NGOs became prominent after the disaster provided them a platform to display their abilities. NGOs' work in disaster relief and rebuilding was recognized by the government and the public.
"The power of NGOs in China is growing and the government is realizing their unique value," Deng said.
"In the past, the biggest obstacle for NGO development in China was the strict registration and management mode. If you want to register a NGO, you must find a government department to serve as a partner. However, most government departments would turn it down as they didn't want to take on the responsibility, which meant most NGOs were unable to have a legal identity," Deng said.
Because of being unable to register, most grass-roots NGOs in China existed in a gray zone. They were unable to obtain legal sponsorship or to conduct large-scale activity and feared the possibility of a clampdown by the government at any moment.
Although there are no official figures on exactly how many such unregistered grass-roots NGOs exist, Deng estimated the number could be between 1 million and 1.5 million.
"It is no wonder people find it hard to believe there are so many NGOs in the country because most of them are too small and weak. The development of NGOs and civil society in China is far behind the country's economic development," Deng said.
According to a 2012 NGO Blue Book published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in January, the growth rate of social organizations in China decreased 0.6 percent year-on-year in 2012, and has continuously fallen in the past five years, while the distribution of social organizations remained unbalanced.
Among a total of some 462,000 registered NGOs in the country by the end of 2011, more than 82 percent are focused on business, technology, and social services, and less than 5 percent are involved in religion, environmental protection, international and foreign affairs.
But things have changed since the government finally decided to weaken the registration restrictions for grass-root NGOs.
The State Council announced earlier in March that since this year, four kinds of social organizations, including business associations, technology groups, charities and community service organizations can directly apply for registration from the Ministry of Civil Affairs without needing a government partner.
However, organizations involved in political and religious affairs are not included.
In fact, a year ago, the Guangdong government had already launched a pilot program to loosen and simplify the application requirements.
From January 1, 2012, most social organizations in Guangdong have only needed to submit their application to local civil affairs bureau without having a competent business authority.
Meanwhile, the application procedure has also been largely simplified and shortened. The application can be approved within three weeks and most of the work has been possible to do online since last September.
By the end of February, 19 provinces had put similar policies for NGO registration in practice.
According to figures from the Guangzhou Civil Affairs Bureau, by the end of 2012, Guangzhou had more than 5,000 registered social organizations, 227 new NGOs registered in the first six months, a 36 percent year-on-year increase.
An official surnamed Wang from the registration department of Guangzhou Civil Affairs Bureau told the Global Times that the entire preparation process for a newly registered NGO is approximately six months, and the application for registration normally takes 20 work days, but in fact, most can be approved within a week.
"It is definitely a good thing to see the threshold of registering NGO lowered," Zhou Runan, assistant director at the Institute for Civil Communication of Sun Yat-sen University, told the Global Times.
But Zhou said it should be clearly understood that the road of NGO development in China is long and hard, as some common problems for China's grass-roots NGOs, such as the lack of a comprehensive organizational structure and shortages of talent, money and social credibility, remain big issues.
"The government used to ignore the existence of NGOs and let them live and die by themselves. And most NGOs did not have healthy systems and professional training, even for the most basic things like project proposal writing, team building, or financial and human resource management. It's all a blank for many NGOs, and they need a lot of help," Zhou said.
Meanwhile, certain major obstacles remain in practice. For example, under current policies NGOs can only carry out activities within the area it is registered.
"Many NGOs serve people province-wide, but they register in a district level civil affairs bureau because it only required 30,000 yuan in capital, but provincial level required 300,000 which many small NGOs can't afford," Zhou said.
Deng also believes NGOs commonly lack a sense of mission and team spirit.
"Many people set up NGOs to seek money or fame, but not out of ideals or social responsibility, which are what makes NGOs different from government and enterprise. And cooperation among NGOs in China is inadequate. NGOs did good teamwork in the Wenchuan earthquake, but it was a pity that it disappeared after the relief work was done," Deng said.
And not everyone is optimistic about future developments.
According to a report published by the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and the NPO Research Center at the Renmin University of China in January, although the government had tried to solve the registration difficulty, it is only limited to a narrow range of NGOs that mostly provide social services and won't cause much "trouble" for officials.
Lu Jun, director of the Beijing Yirenping Center, an NGO focused on legal rights support for disadvantaged groups, argues that the government's control will stay as tight as ever.
"The new policy only offers limited convenience for registration for very few kinds of NGOs. The Chinese government made big progress in opening up non-political organizations. However, it didn't secure social organizations more scope to work and certain NGOs might face even stricter supervision than before," Lu said.
"It is still too early to say the spring of NGO development has come," Lu said.