Shenzhen: the bright star of market liberalization and home to Foxconn controversies and Obama’s half-brother is now being touted as the next… political reform breeding ground? On the heels of Premier Wen Jiabao’s political reform comments made during an August trip to the city, it is at the heart of an experiment that gives more responsibility and greater freedoms to independent social and civic organizations… aka NGO’s.
In Shenzhen these organizations are being used as a means to strengthen public oversight of government corruption and address growing social problems. As Mr. Sunny Lee, whose NGO Ciwei Philanthropy Institute has petitioned for recognition in the past, puts it, “Before, the government wanted to do everything itself. It thought it could solve every issue. Now I think it realizes that it needs help from society.”
Some see this as another signal that the government is considering minor political reforms, especially after the media firestorm created by Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize and the letter from Party elders calling for greater freedoms of the press and free speech.
The WSJ goes on to say:
“It is a far cry from Western-style multiparty democracy, but this experiment—branded “small government, big society”—is seen by some leaders as a way to forge a new political model that maintains authoritarian rule while responding to the needs of an increasingly complex society.”
This may be a reversal of the trend to “manage” the NGO sector with new regulations put forth this past March that altered the requirements for accepting foreign donations. It may also help some of these groups move away from the GONGO (government organized NGO’s) model, which essentially requires government agency sponsorship, or the quasi-legal status operating as WFOE’s or representative offices to full-fledged licensed NGO’s.
If this is the case, it should go a long way to help formalize the NGO sector and eliminate the need for “grey charity,” where individuals often put themselves at risk by using personal bank accounts and operating just below the surface but are still subject to the whims and fancies of local officials. It may also help eliminate public distrust of the NGO sector as it will be more government independent and free from the corruption and mishandling of funds often attributed to these groups today.
This, plus news of Microsoft providing free software licenses to over 500,000 advocacy groups, some of which are in China, in order to prevent governments from “using piracy as a pretext to suppress dissent” and you would have to say things are looking up for NGO’s in our backyard.