ForNGO is an organization that, though not on the front lines of the classrooms or the curriculum development that dominates the mission statements of many NGOs, “facilitate[s] NGOs to operate in line with laws and regulations and promote[s] participatory community.” In order to break down that definition I met with William Liu, the founder of ForNGO, in his firm’s law offices in central Shanghai. The offices, those of Liu’s day job as a real estate lawyer, overlook Shanghai’s prosperous Jing’an district and seemed far away from the people and organizations that ForNGO supports. My conversation with Liu quickly transported me away from the beautiful view and into the complex intricacies of Chinese NGO law.
After graduating from law school, William Liu and his co-founders worked as volunteer lawyers for grassroots community organizations. From their experiences there, they became aware that NGOs “were facing lots of difficult issues and questions.” And while “at that time [they did] not know the concept of pro bono in the United States,” Liu and his co-founders nonetheless decided to “do something for the NGOs… by setting up a legal center for them.”
Currently, ForNGO “provides [legal] services to NGOs around China.” Through a mixture of law lectures and publications they spread information about China’s NGO law. Most commonly, NGOs ask Liu for help with “[NGO] registration, contract employment, [and] taxes.” Beyond legal aid, ForNGO also attempts to teach non-profits about good management. As they are an NGO registered in Shanghai and staffed by lawyers most familiar with the local laws in Shanghai, ForNGO currently focuses the majority of their efforts in Shanghai. In Liu’s point of view, “most of the NGOs in Shanghai are very small, so they have a staff of less than ten… Most of them are very small, so we need to give them some concept of good management.”
Most commonly, NGOs ask Liu for help with “[NGO] registration, contract employment, [and] taxes.”
Keeping ahead of NGO law in China is a challenge for those in the trenches, and in addition to an impending publication of a comprehensive book on China’s new draft NGO law, Liu hopes to connect NGOs around the country with their service through an online platform called ForNGO Link. The draft NGO law has featured prominently in interviews with NGOs over the past months. No matter the field, everyone is intimately aware of the draft law and its potential consequences. Liu explained that “there are three readings of a law in China… the congress in Beijing has passed the first reading, and they will do the second reading this month.”
When asked whether organizations like ForNGO had had a chance to comment on the law, Liu replied that they had not, but that “the draft law has been worked out with a lot of meetings with NGOs.” He said that he thinks that “this law is very friendly to Chinese NGOs.”
“This law is very friendly to Chinese NGOs.” – William Liu
It should be noted that no one who has worked for NGOs in China, On the Ground included, can be a perfectly objective judge in these matters. Due to changes in China’s NGO laws, many organizations (including those not working in politically sensitive fields such as human rights and environmental activism) have found themselves struggling to keep running, let alone accomplish their mission.
On the business side ForNGO is funded from three different sources. The first “is Chinese domestic foundations.” Because ForNGO “is a supporting NGO that is not about feelings” it has found it difficult to raise money from individual donors directly. Instead, Liu and his colleagues “must persuade the people who… have a big picture [view of NGOs],” which often means large, government-backed, Chinese charitable foundations.
The second channel is through work with the government. Since 2008, the Chinese government began purchasing services from NGOs, so ForNGO applied through charity bidding procedures to receive money for doing law-related community service. For example, ForNGO drafted the information packets for foreigners living in the Gubei district of Shanghai on how to legally live in China. ForNGO is also doing a research project in Pudong on domestic violence and a new project this year on educating seniors in Shanghai about their legal rights.
“The first project helped us understand the government bidding process, which is very important because most non-profits in China receive funding from the government.” – William Liu
Though seemingly unconnected, the projects are strategically chosen. “The first project helped us understand the government bidding process, which is very important because most non-profits in China receive funding from the government.” The latter two projects gave ForNGO important insights into fields where many non-profits work, allowing Liu and his colleagues to better “provide a quality service to NGOs.” Additionally, providing more direct community service is, at least presently, the key to receiving government money. By establishing relationships in the NGO bureau through these direct service projects, Liu hopes that in the future ForNGO will be able to receive funding for their supportive role.
The last channel ForNGO receives money from is foreign organizations. This third flow, Liu shared conspiratorially, is, “as you know, very sensitive.” ForNGO nevertheless receives funding through small grant programs from both the Canadian embassy and the US State Department. As Liu sees it, “foreign organizations will have more space for us to do work on civil society because they will pay attention to our strategy to promote the laws of NGOs and to help NGOs understand China and to encourage the rule of law in China.”
While ForNGO is open to receiving foreign funding now, Liu said that “it will become a question after the draft NGO law is implemented, and in the future if foreign funds are not registered, it will be an illegal act. That is why some foreign countries petition in response to the law.” There is very limited room for foreign NGOs in the law.
According to Liu, there should be no problem so long as foreign NGOs are registered. However, in an environment where successful registration is based almost exclusively on connections and adherence to government ideology, this can smother the non-profit sector. And while the draft NGO law has yet to be formally implemented, this suffocating effect can already be seen in both intended and unintended places, from the recent expulsion from China and accompanying apology video of Swedish human rights advocate Peter Dahlin to the suspension or cancellation of unrelated programs, such as the Yongfeng Fellowship.
What can people do to support ForNGO? Here, Liu echoed Casey Lartigue’s point of playing to your strengths. “Legal professionals can work as volunteer lawyers. Computer engineers can help us with our website. Human resources workers can support us by offering training… People can help us in many aspects.” The message is clear. If you are looking for ways to give back and support NGOs, ask yourself what you do best and do it in support of NGO work.
(Author: Dylan Kolhoff; Editor: Ida Knox)