However, building a vibrant and flourishing civil society in China requires more than just providing technical training to develop local NGOs. Professor Chan Kin-man, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says it is just as important to change mindsets.
“NGOs should not be just about providing social service. It’s about how to promote civic participation and how to, ultimately, monitor the government and improve governance,” Chan says.
For Chan, helping to change mindsets is the key to Hong Kong’s role in helping to develop China’s civil society. “In China, most of the NGOs are controlled by the Communist Youth League of China,” Chan says. “But now southern cities mainly call volunteers ‘yigong’ (義工) (instead of zhiyuanzhe (志願者) because they are influenced by Hong Kong. The phenomenon is spreading to other places in China.”
Chan also recognises Hong Kong’s contribution in demonstrating a workable social management model for the Chinese government. “The Chinese government is willing to learn from Hong Kong…They appreciate how the Hong Kong government manages to maintain a friendly relationship with NGOs. NGOs won’t be too rebellious and their work helps lessen the government’s administrative burdens,” Chan explains.
But working in mainland China can be challenging for Hong Kong NGOs due to bureaucratic and political constraints, especially in recent years. Chung To, founder of Chi Heng Foundation, says the Chinese government’s suspicious attitude towards Hong Kong NGOs is a major hindrance to their work.
He points to the Chinese government’s fears in the wake of the so-called colour revolutions of Eastern Europe as a contributing factor. “Over the past decade, many authoritarian regimes were overthrown [with the help of] NGOs which are allegedly supported by foreign forces. In view of this, the Chinese government is worried that some foreign forces may conspire with Hong Kong NGOs to create trouble,” he explains.
It is especially hard for Hong Kong NGOs that work on advocacy and campaigning projects in the Mainland. The Chinese government adopts a two-pronged approach to both local and non-local NGOs. While they may encourage and even provide funding for local service-type NGOs, those who attempt to advocate for policy changes and human rights are strictly monitored, controlled and even prohibited.
“Sometimes all our volunteers would be detained overnight in the police station after we distribute condoms in parks, just because a new police officer is in charge [of the area],” To recalls. “Such incidents happen even today.”
The environmental group Greenpeace, which has worked on controversial issues like the marketing of genetically modified rice in China, has also experienced similar treatment. “The government would call us and ask us not to hold press conferences but, usually, we would carry on. They would then put pressure on hotels and tell them not to rent us rooms,” says Fung Ka-keung, director of organisational support and regional development of Greenpeace.