Written by Nora Sausmikat and Joanna Klabisch.

If one were to look for the 2016 civil society word of the year, it would have to be “shrinking spaces”. So often has this term been used in connection with a global threat to civic freedoms, the marginalisation of politically “unsavoury” fields of work, the growing lists of legal and regulatory restrictions, and the strategy of putting civil society activists on par with foreign puppets, criminals and even terrorists, that many members of civil society organisations have tired of it already. The reality of more and more governments interfering with civic spaces, however, is a dangerous global trend.

In China, the 2016 Charity Law went into effect and the National People’s Congress passed new legislation on the regulation of international NGOs. Both have already had a great impact on the ever-growing number of Chinese and European civil society organisations in China and Europe, which has resulted in the marginalisation of certain areas of fieldwork. We are beginning to witness a move towards social enterprises, rather than pure civil society organisational forms, as the new regulation goes hand-in-hand with rising distrust towards civil society organisations.

Since the inauguration of Xi Jinping in 2013, it has been observed that the term “civil society” has become politically problematic. Exchanges can only take place with certain “selected” NGOs: these are primarily philanthropic and environmental organisations.

Since the law on the regulation of international NGOs came into force on January 1st, 2017, the Ministry of Public Security has informed foreign organisations that its implementation will be a gradual process, and that many issues are still in need of clarification. Meanwhile, the EU has sent lists of questions to the Bureau of Public Security regarding which organisations will be covered by the law, as well as how the legal and illegal activities mentioned therein are defined. In part, these processes function as trust building measures, since both sides can clarify and negotiate concepts central to the civil society sector. These clarifications, once they have been made, will help in re-establishing an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

Meanwhile, collaborative projects which have been running for 10-15 years have needed to slow down or halt altogether, as organisations wait for a more stable climate to return.

The fight against climate change, pollution and waste production, as well as for poverty alleviation and humane labour conditions on top of the achievement of establishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – all these are topics which benefit from successful international cooperation among NGOs.

But how do you collaborate if you do not know each other? Just ten years ago, there had been very few contacts between NGOs from Europe and China. There was a lack of knowledge about Chinese civil society organisations in Europe – about their work, as well as their political scope of action. The debate on whether we can even use the term Civil Society for NGO activism in China is ongoing, not only in Europe but also in China.

The EU-China NGO Twinning programme is organised by Stiftung Asienhaus in cooperation with the Climate Action Network Europe and the China Association for NGO Cooperation. It is an exchange programme for staff of European and Chinese civil society organisations. By bringing these NGOs together we encourage partnerships and improve understanding of how civil society looks, and is engaged with, in different parts of the world.

From the very outset, the aim of the Twinning programme was to contribute to the networking of civil society initiatives in Europe and China, to reduce existing prejudices on both sides and to promote the professionalisation of Chinese NGOs.

When we started the programe some five years ago, there was a great demand from Chinese organisations to learn from their colleagues in the West, but we had little or no interest from European organisations wanting to exchange with their equivalents in China.

We organised a number of civil society dialogues and mobilise the first twinners. The Robert Bosch Stiftung started to fund the programme and each year, together with Stiftung Mercator, they award grants for twelve Chinese and twelve European NGOs to take part in this unique exchange experience. The twinners spend four to eight weeks in each other’s organisations, working side-by-side on projects, participating in capacity building workshops, visiting other NGOs in the area and building the ground for future cooperation.

The programme has become well-known in China and Europe. However, we still receive significantly more applications from China than from Europe. The twinning itself does not create sustainable partnerships, rather, it is what happens afterwards. Following the exchange, there is a review of the process. Support is provided to any follow-up projects. All participating organisations are then incorporated into an active alumni network. This network now has approximately 100 members.

The new law regulating foreign NGOs in China poses new challenges for the programme; a high degree of uncertainty caused a drop in the total number of applications. Also, some areas have become impossible to deliver any sort of exchange on.

Since the inauguration of Xi Jinping in 2013, it has been observed that the term “civil society” has become politically problematic. Exchanges can only take place with certain “selected” NGOs: these are primarily philanthropic and environmental organisations.

Civil society is a process and therefore difficult to describe in statistical terms. While in Germany, civil society developed out of the interlocking processes of participatory structures, processes in China developed fundamentally differently. There was neither a free press on which an active civil society could be based, nor a tradition of political participation. For the development of civil society, a mutually respected relationship between the state and the citizen is crucial.

At various stages of its development, the Chinese government attempted to allow citizens’ scope for participation; to create administrative regulations regarding civic engagement, and thus to provide access to the term “civil society”. Over the last 20 years, an understanding has emerged of what NPOs / NGOs consider as forms of social management. They regulate social interaction, build partnerships between the state and society, ensure conflict reduction and resolution, and promote social welfare.

The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) for the economic and social development of the PRC (中华人民共和国 国民经济 和和社会发展第十二个五年规划纲要) calls for structural reforms and new drivers of sustainable growth. Climate change, environmental protection and social welfare are high on the list of priorities.

Therefore, the contribution of NPOs / NGOs in these fields is desired. This development is mirrored in our recent exchanges;  waste, including marine debris and food waste, air pollution, water consumption, as well as social inclusion, sexual education, rural development and this year, Belt & Road research. These areas of cooperation are not suprising, given that Europe and China are closely linked in the globalisation process and face many similar issues.

We regard expanding the scope of global cooperation among civil societies to be essential, and recognise the need to tackle current and looming global crises in an effective and legitimate manner. The EU-China NGO Twinning Exchange has proven to be an effective means of realising this ambitious goal.

Dr Nora Sausmikat is the Director of the EU-China NGO Twinning Programme and China Programme at the Stiftung Asienhaus. Joanna Klabisch is the Project Assistant at the EU-China NGO Twinning Programme. To follow their programme on WeChat, follow this link. Image Credit: CC by Friends of Europe/Flickr

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