Investigating Chinese NGOs

Hans Jørgen Gåsemyr has examined more than 2,000 NGOs, to explore the possibilities and limitations for this type of activity in today's China.

Hans Jørgen Gåsemyr
A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY: Hans Olav Gåsemyr has collected information on over 2.000 NGOs in China for his PhD-work.
Eivind Senneset

What is it with you and China?
"It began quite by chance, in 2000. I had just started my studies, and was going to have a long Christmas break. I got money to travel and ended up "backpacking around" in China for several weeks. I stayed mostly in the countryside, and spent little time in the big cities. During the trip my fascination for this country became so strong that I decided to study Chinese and that I had to go back later. I studied journalism for two years, while I continued to follow events in China. Then I went to Oslo and worked at the Norwegian state broadcaster, NRK, while I was studying Chinese at the University of Oslo. Afterwards I went to China. I studied three years in Beijing, and also worked a couple of years at the United Nations (UN). I have lived a large part of my adult life in China. I came to Bergen because the department announced a PhD fellowship which was earmarked for research on China. That's life, guided by chance, but with a red line."

Why did you write about non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in China?
«Becoming more and more familiar with the Chinese society, I saw that part of what Western textbooks held to be true, was not always correct. China certainly has a controlling and authoritarian regime, yet it is a very dynamic country. Many journalists in China are reporting on important issues. There are a number of organisations working on a broad range of issues.  Later I also worked in a UN organisation on NGO-related issues. I had a large network of contacts and much data, which became natural to use in a PhD context."

Have you
faced any challenges in your work?
"There are many challenges to consider when doing this type of research in China. China is a controlled state in many ways and has an authoritarian regime. NGOs are often subject to surveillance. It is not given that you can get to China and travel freely as a researcher, or get to speak with all sorts of people. You must know how to proceed and what types of contacts are important. You also need to know how to relate to people and organisations, so that it does not have negative consequences for them. I wanted my status as a student and researcher to be as clear as possible, especially when meeting people in the state apparatus. I have had an extreme advantage by knowing many people. You also need language and social skills in order to be strategic enough to get the information you want."

What kind of organisations
have you studied and how?
“At the time I worked with a thesis statement for my master’s degree, a lot was happening in connection to organisations that for various reasons were working on HIV and AIDS issues. The core of my research is documentation that I have collected concerning 2,000 such organisations. In addition, I followed 41 organisations very closely, many of them over several years. I have seen and even documented how they have worked, as opposed to just hearing about it from third party sources.”

What, in your own opinion, is most important in your research?
“My research is highlighting the possibilities and limitations for the organisation of interests and groups in contemporary China. There are many openings and opportunities, but also major constraints. Theoretically, this is an exciting dynamic, with a regime that is working very actively to keep control, but that at the same time is working very actively to open up for more organisation and better utilisation of human resources. Voluntary organisations are social actors that the state does not directly control.”

does NGO work in China differ from voluntary organisations in Norway and other countries in the West?
“In Norway, a large part of society is organised in sports clubs, music bands and other kinds of popular associations. In other countries, such as the USA, voluntary organisations are also important for the delivery of social- and welfare services. A vast country like China, which has enormous health and welfare challenges, needs better utilization of resources in this area. Several tasks in society, both the large and the small questions, must be solved by other actors than the state in the future. The dilemma arises when one wants to make changes and create activity, yet want to retain control of the activity. This is an eternal balancing act in China."

In your thesis you ask how and why NGOs have been able to develop in such an environment. Can you answer this quite in a few words?

"The simple answer is that they have made use of the possibilities and general openings in Chinese politics. But they also used a particular opening that arose in the early 2000s when China experienced the  health crisis related to the SARS epidemic. Health and infectious diseases, including AIDS, went from being a non-priority area to becoming a high political priority. The authorities were keen to reach groups that the traditional government system was ill-equipped to reach out to. Meanwhile, the international community and many of the largest international health actors were ready to give money to China, in order to strengthen health care. Many of them were particularly keen on supporting civil society and NGOs "

How do Chinese organisations exploit opportunities like these?

“The organisations use the chances they get, more or less consciously, to evolve in different directions. In order to answer how this works, one must also look at what distinguishes the organisations that evolve and become relatively large in size, from the ones that are struggling or are disappearing. The lesson is that the organisations learn to exploit opportunities. One of the findings in my thesis is that most organisations become very aware of the limitations they face. In a Chinese setting, organisations that grow to be big are also quite cautious. They adapt to the system a lot more than they try to challenge and push the boundaries. This does not mean that they are not important. But they are not pushing to change the political system directly."