Listen Now

Aiding by China’s Rules

Stephen Noakes on why the Chinese environment is a game changer for foreign NGOs.

By: /
9 May, 2013
By: Stephen Noakes
SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

In the three-and-a-half decades since China first opened its doors to the outside world, rarely has it been seen as sculpting the ideals of those who’ve come knocking.  When policymakers and scholars talk about China’s “integration”, they’re usually referring to its transformation into a full-fledged member of the international community via the introduction of new norms and standards from abroad. The carriers and stewards of those norms – foreign NGOs, advocacy groups, and activists – are seen as helping to socialize a formerly isolationist totalitarian regime to the rules and mores of global citizenship.

This policy of engaging China with the aim of changing it extends to the western governments that back much of the NGO activity in China. The emphasis on taking a principled stance to engagement with China has deep ideological roots.  “American exceptionalism is missionary,” wrote Henry Kissinger in On China.  “It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world.” Softer but similar thinking underpins the Canadian approach, which aims “to convince China of the greater benefits of becoming a more responsible citizen in the international community,” as Professor Charles Burton has put it.

Yet as a string of recent interviews conducted with transnational NGOs and their Chinese partners reveals, these interactions are not merely a one-way street.  Engaging China can alter the rhetoric and even the basic tenets of advocacy, particularly when compliance with central government objectives makes good strategic sense.  Given the strong incentives to collude with Chinese authorities, many foreign NGOs opt to pursue a path of “self-censored advocacy,” muzzling themselves on issues of core concern, in some cases even abandoning or retreating from their original objective rather than risking expulsion.  Those seeking to establish or expand relationships with Beijing should therefore strive to better understand and carefully weigh the attendant trade-offs, as indeed, China has a way of changing activists, just as foreign activists can and have, in small ways, changed China.

Transnational NGOs and their Domestic Linkages in China

Transnational NGOs first entered China in 1978, almost immediately after Deng Xiaoping launched his program of reform and opening up.  The World Wildlife Fund was among the first on the scene and forged a special relationship with China’s leaders, adopting the panda as its official logo.  It was not until the 1990s, however, that the influx of foreign NGOs truly began in earnest; the sale of government-owned enterprises started to feed the growth of China’s domestic non-state sector, increasing the opportunities for foreign linkage and partnership.  The impact of external support on the development of Chinese NGOs has been documented going back at least a decade. But linkage to domestic groups has offered important benefits for transnational NGOs as well – a foot in the door and a possible seat at the table in talks on an expanding number of issues that matter, both to the world and to China’s government.

Estimating the number transnational NGOs working in China today is severely complicated by a lack of uniform reporting standards.  At present, only 150 groups are formally registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the government body charged with oversight of NGOs operating throughout the country.  However, the true number is undoubtedly much higher.  China’s rising presence on the global stage – its status as the world’s fastest growing economy and the largest producer of carbon emissions, as well as its enduring reputation as a human rights violator – all contribute to the growing focus on China by a huge number of NGOs and activist organizations.  And while most are primarily concerned with service-delivery, a significant number are known to be involved in advocacy as well, albeit with varying levels of receptiveness from central and local governments.  Among those cooperating most closely with the authorities, there is a pronounced preference for the term NPO (non-profit organization, fei yingli zuzhi) over NGO, as the latter sounds much like “anti-government” to Chinese ears.

At present, there are three major areas of state-transnational NGO cooperation.  Advocacy of environmental causes like clean air and water, climate protection, and species conservation top the list, with NGOs such as Roots and Shoots (itself a branch of the Jane Goodall Institute), Greenpeace,, and Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection being among the most prominent players.  Second, the Chinese government has been active in promoting public health initiatives, partnering with foreign health experts in efforts to combat treatable, preventable illnesses such as tuberculosis, malaria, polio, diphtheria, and hepatitis.  Particularly notable has been the renewed interest in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS with the help of groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières.  A third area of collaboration emphasizes economic and social development, both of which loom large in the vision of China’s leaders for the country’s future.  These are usually poverty reduction and educational programs, with many also focusing on improving infrastructure such as plumbing, roads, schools, and hospitals, assistance to vulnerable populations such as children or visible minority groups, and disaster relief.  For example, Plan International, World Vision, and The Salvation Army have all conducted projects in these areas.

Corporatism and Its Consequences

Though undoubtedly well intentioned and oftentimes highly effective in terms of reaching specified development goals, hidden risks may accompany this type of close collaboration.  Namely, incorporating the perspectives of “multiple stakeholders,” as so many NGOs are fond of saying, tends to dilute the articulation of clear goals, and methods for achieving them.  Even under the best of circumstances, pursuing a single vision becomes more complicated as new voices are added to the mix.  When the partner in question is a capable and relatively closed authoritarian regime, not to mention a rising economic and geopolitical power, retaining control over the core message becomes more difficult still. 

Many NGOs not only find Beijing difficult to convince and highly selective in the advice from foreigners that it chooses to listen to, but also sufficiently influential to remake even the most principled foreign partners in its own image.  As several commentators have noted, China’s global rise derives in part from its skill in deploying soft power resources. Using soft power is the art of “catching more flies with honey” than with vinegar.  It relies upon the magnetism and seductiveness of the user to shape the preferences of others by making certain choices appear more or less attractive. By virtue of its negotiation posture and the disposition of its interests, China can make some courses of action more attractive to foreign NGOs than others.  Those wishing to make inroads with their agendas in China find that it pays to tailor their objectives and rhetoric to match what is institutionally feasible or desirable to Chinese policy-makers.  Depending on the NGO and the particular circumstances of its engagement, this may involve making significant changes to its original mission and purpose.

To take one prominent example, Greenpeace has long been known for its endorsement of emissions trading as a means to fight global warming, and has been consistently active in pushing governments to accept caps on their carbon outputs.  On its Canadian website, Greenpeace calls on the Harper government to take responsibility for its role in climate change, insisting that “an effective emissions trading system should be put in place” and that “tough mandatory caps must be placed on all large industrial polluters.”  Yet when it comes to engaging China, the organization is conspicuously mum on the subject of a cap, which China’s leader’s have repeatedly and explicitly indicated is a non-starter, and likely to hinder the country’s future economic growth. Instead, Greenpeace’s site for East Asia affirms its commitment to “working with scientists, industry and the government to push China to fulfill its enormous potential for renewable energy,” and even praises NGO collaboration in Chinese renewable energy policy as the key to a “bright future.”

So strong is the pull of Chinese soft power that it can even elicit cooperation and compromise from its most sworn adversaries.  NGOs comprising the transnational “free Tibet” movement, which had been at loggerheads with Beijing for more than sixty years over competing claims to the territory, recently agreed to drop all talk of independence and instead pursue a policy of greater cultural autonomy and representation for Tibetans within the legal framework of China in return for dropping all talk of independence.  For instance, the International Campaign for Tibet claims to be “firmly committed not to seek separation or independence” but rather to finding “a solution to the Tibetan problem through genuine autonomy, which is compatible with the principles on autonomy in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.”  New York-based Save Tibet now advocates “progress toward a mutually agreeable solution,” rather than the partition of China to create a sovereign Tibetan homeland.  The Dalai Lama himself has publicly acknowledged that independence for Tibet is out of the question, a 180 degree turn from his lifelong position prompted by China’s implacability on the subject.

Owning Up to Reality

Foreign NGOs aren’t puppets, of course.  It’s important to remember that they do make conscious choices to partner with China’s government, and that each group will apply their own set of criteria when assessing risks and rewards.  Activists in many areas of human rights often judge the costs of standing on principle to be low, since their expectations of access, collaboration, and influence are often small to begin with.  On the other hand, groups like Greenpeace may be willing to swap some element of principle in return for access, especially if doing so opens the door to future negotiation and cooperation.  In any case, making some progress on climate change is probably preferable to making none at all. 

Those that do elect to compromise their agenda tend to be cagey about the fact, for obvious reasons.  Few want to be viewed as jellyfish, or worse, as tools of an authoritarian government.  Projecting a principled image remains a key facet of fundraising for more than a few transnational NGOs working in China.  More to the point, however, these groups rarely see flexibility with respect to core values as “selling out,” but instead as necessary for making the most out of a tough situation, and a path to desirable, if somewhat less-than-perfect results.  From a practical standpoint, such a stance is not inherently a bad thing.  The world needs doers just as much as it needs martyrs, and activists can be morally committed without being absolutist. 

More broadly, there is wisdom in facing honestly the realities of lobbying a government like China’s – in recognizing the inherent limits of what foreign NGOs can accomplish as well as the incremental and often fuzzy definition of “success” itself.  Because engagement with China is now a must and will continue to be so, front-line activists, NGOs, and the policy-makers who support them need to be cognizant of the potential pitfalls, only one of which are the conflicts of interest that can arise when the strategic choice to collaborate undermines the original principle and purpose of engagement.  At the very least, those considering deepening their engagement should consider how easily working with China can mean working for China, and prepare themselves for the blowback of possibly uncomfortable but unavoidable compromises.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter