BEIJING, China — The rise of COVID-19 left citizens believing that the Communist Party of China (CPC) was not able to successfully respond to this kind of crisis without outside assistance from civil society. A survey conducted asked the following question to citizens: “Does the government need help from social organizations for emergency and disaster responses?” On a scale of one to six, where six indicates “strongly disagree,” the public’s average sentiment decreased to 1.67 in early 2020, from 4.39 in October 2018. This indicates that the public now recognizes an increased role for civil society in China, which has supported vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic and led to increased poverty eradication.
What is the Role of Civil Society in China?
Civil society refers to a “space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors.” In an interview with The Borgen Project, Professor Carolyn L. Hsu, a Professor of Sociology at Colgate University, states that the most common NGOs in China include ones that work towards “poverty alleviation, environmental issues, educational access and disability concerns.” Prof. Hsu also comments on how it is “much easier” for a Chinese NGO to be successful if it works on a social problem that the “government also believes is important.” The biggest challenge that a Chinese NGO faces, according to Prof. Hsu, is the “constrained atmosphere” imposed by the “authoritarian state” that punishes NGOs for “stepping out of line.”
Civil Society in China’s Response to COVID-19
The rapidly growing civil society sector in China played a prominent role in helping individuals, communities and government organizations cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the most vulnerable populations in China, such as the rural poverty population of 5.51 million people, the disabled, young children and the elderly, who have suffered the most from this crisis. Generally, the civil society organizations in China secured medical supplies, provided mental health support, kept people accurately informed, enforced social distancing and minimized the economic impact of this crisis.
The Role of Civil Society in China vs. State-Backed Charities in China
State-backed charity organizations in Wuhan faced criticism for mishandling the distribution of medical supplies and donations. Many condemned the state-run Red Cross Society of Hubei province for its lack of efficiency in funneling supplies to hospitals that were dealing with COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, the Wuhan Charity General Association encountered scorn for transferring donations to the government’s finance department, while these funds intended to go toward patients and individuals in need. This demonstrates that many state-run organizations were unprepared to provide the necessities of vulnerable populations and COVID-19 patients during this time.
On the other hand, the Gingko Foundation, a public charity organization registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs of Beijing as of July 20, 2015, led and funded a network of volunteers called “Gingko fellows in Wuhan.” These fellows secured and delivered thousands of oxygen concentrators to hospitals and patients and provided transportation to at-risk groups while putting together a website for foreign aid assistance.
Another volunteer group initiated a campaign on social media meant to assist elderly individuals in Wuhan who could not leave their homes to purchase groceries. More than 1,300 requests flooded in from children and neighbors of elderly residents. According to volunteer Jackie Yu, dozens of these requests are being filled. These civil society efforts have supported vulnerable populations in gaining greater access to basic needs, such as transportation and food, during this time of crisis.
Role of China’s Civil Society in Reducing Poverty, Post-COVID-19
As China has started to make a full recovery, civil society in China has continued to make headway in reducing poverty, not only in China but in other developing nations. For example, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) launched the “We Are Together” program in March intending to team up with the international community and support developing nations in ending the COVID-19 pandemic. The first initiative involved working with local community partners in Janakpur, the second largest province in Nepal, to provide sanitizers, virus prevention training and “180 hand-washing stations.” These actions will help to educate people in underserved communities about the spread of COVID-19 and how to recover.
The COVID-19 threat in China has left the public believing that the CPC was not able to effectively respond to this type of crisis without help from civil society. Prof. Hsu states that it is “not yet clear” whether or not the Chinese government will broaden their support towards NGOs and other civil society organizations. Even though the citizens were “not very happy” with the CPC’s performance, this does not denote that the authoritarian state will “necessarily loosen constraints” on NGOs and “work with them more.” Nonetheless, citizens now also recognize an expanded role for civil society in China that has helped to alleviate poverty in China and other developing nations.
– Natasha Nath