China’s role in international affairs has changed massively in the last couple of decades. The country is likely to further expand its global engagement in the coming years, and its non-government organizations will probably play a part in this trend.
This process goes back to the opening up of the economy that started under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. China started to welcome inward foreign investment at around the same time that international trade rules were becoming more liberalized, leading to the era of globalization.
By 2010, when China became the world’s biggest exporter, policymakers in Beijing had already started to promote a “going out” campaign to encourage mainland companies to start investing on a serious scale overseas. That was subsequently followed by the Belt and Road Initiative to expand infrastructure links throughout Central and Southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean and to Africa.
It wasn’t just Chinese-assembled goods and investment that were moving out into the world. From virtually zero in the late 1970s, the number of Chinese students studying overseas expanded to over half a million last year. Also starting from almost nothing in the 1980s, China’s outbound tourism has exploded to 130 million trips last year.
China has also started to take on a bigger role in international security commitments. After very low levels of involvement up to 1990, China became the biggest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions of all the permanent members of the Security Council, with some 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers taking part.
China’s global engagement is now moving on to a new level as the country’s NGOs start to become more active overseas.
Chinese state agencies have been active in overseas development for many years – especially in Africa. But it is only recently that smaller humanitarian and other civil groups have established a presence in other countries.
These Chinese NGOs mostly started doing work within the country (more than 500,000 philanthropic organizations now operate in China). Some are state-backed or linked, and some work alongside mainland companies investing in the regions concerned.
They tend to address issues like the environment or labor, while some provide medical and educational assistance – often as one-off projects. While these might not be truly autonomous NGOs, they are able to win confidence from host communities, including those countries’ own voluntary and civil groups.
Charitable groups generally have some sort of government or state-linked sponsor. Some, of course, are mainland branches of international NGOs. However, some local groups register as corporate entities and operate more independently.
In many cases, these local groups have grassroots origins. For example, some were established when individuals and groups came together to help in relief efforts after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. These groups have since started to provide disaster relief and medical aid overseas, such as after the earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
That particular event was a landmark for Chinese NGOs operating overseas. A citizens’ coordinating group (which originally started in response to Sichuan) went to work online collecting information. Mainland NGOs like the One Foundation (founded by actor Jet Li) linked up with local branches of international groups like Save the Children to get relief supplies and workers into Nepal. The Asia Foundation, with a presence in Nepal, also got involved – helping to sort out even basic issues like customs formalities.
Some smaller groups later found that they had not prepared as well as they could have. Some had ended up as “lonely islands” operating alone doing recovery and reconstruction work in Nepal. They had encountered various language and other practical problems. But the experience proved invaluable.
Other groups, notably the Asia Foundation, are now actively helping Chinese NGOs build up their capacity. Key areas include government relations, mobilizing private sector support, and enhancing cross-cultural skills.
China’s NGOs did not get much media coverage for their work in Nepal. Chinese media highlighted the role played by the People’s Liberation Army and official responders, while the overseas press focused on better-known humanitarian groups.
However, this is the start of a growing trend. Chinese NGOs are increasingly expanding their activities in Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere. We are likely to hear more about them in the years ahead.
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