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It is in this context that Hong Kong NGOs have played and continue to play a part in the development of civil society in China. Sun Yat-sen University’s Zhu Jiangang believes Hong Kong plays a unique role in the development of Chinese NGOs due to its status as part of China. “Hong Kong has a relatively liberal [political] system. Many things which cannot be achieved in the Mainland can either be done in Hong Kong, or by Hong Kong people in China,” Zhu says.

The most direct assistance Hong Kong offers to Chinese NGOs is the sharing of skills and knowledge. Ada Pong Shuk-fan is the chief executive of Yellow House, a Hong Kong NGO which provides training for Chinese social organisations and university social work students. She describes China’s social work profession as “relatively backward”, as China only started to train its first batch of social workers in 2002. As the mainland programmes mainly emphasise theories, the students lack practical experiences and learning about proper values in carrying out social services.

Pong says Hong Kong NGOs provide training and workshops for mainland organisations on topics such as counselling and proposal writing, in order to equip them with the practical skills and actual working experiences needed for future work.

Apart from helping to train entry-level staff, Hong Kong NGOs also strive to nurture potential managers. Yellow House has trained their mainland staff to start up their own NGOs. Ao Xiang Social Service Centre (翱翔社會服務中心), which managed to register in 2013, is the first organisation to be set up by former Yellow House staff. “Our goal is to pass the light on, to train the trainer and to develop the social work profession,” Pong says. “We wish each of our colleagues could set up one NGO [in China].”

Hong Kong NGOs can also provide invaluable help to mainland NGOs which want to obtain funding. Ken Yau Tze-ken, lecturer at the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Hong Kong says: “Hong Kong organisations set up projects and seek cooperating partners in the Mainland. Given Hong Kong’s track record and credibility, it would be easier for mainland NGOs to get foreign funding.”

Yau says funding that comes either from Hong Kong or through Hong Kong would be regarded as “safer” for Chinese NGOs than from overseas.

Guangzhou, with its close proximity and linguistic and cultural ties with Hong Kong, is a good example of Hong Kong’s influence on the practices and development of Chinese NGOs. Green Point Environmental Welfare Association, a Guangdong-based grassroots NGO which focuses on environmental protection issues, experiences this influence first hand as the group shares an office with staff from Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong).

“Guangzhou has a really strong NGO and civil society atmosphere compared to other cities in China,” says Lucy You Lu-xi, assistant director of Green Point’s social contact department. “I think Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong is a major reason contributing to that. Hong Kong’s practices and ideas can easily influence us.”