Will stronger social governance give NGOs more leeway?
Two highlights of the 12th five-year plan are a new chapter dedicated to 'social governance' and strengthening of the 'social organisations'.
They have given rise to a buzz among non-governmental organisations about whether they will be given more room to operate.
The reasons for the calls to strengthen social governance are obvious enough. Widespread discontent over widening wealth gaps, soaring inflation and rampant official corruption are a threat to social stability.
It is hardly a coincidence that the government is trying to make greater use of residents and NGOs for social service in the aftermath of the 'Jasmine Revolutions' sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, which have ousted two leaders and forced other changes.
Premier Wen Jiabao spoke in his annual work report about the need 'to make use of the positive role of social organisations', and pledged more resources and benefits such as tax breaks for NGOs.
While policy analysts and organisers cautiously welcome the government's announcement, many still doubt whether this will result in a relaxation of the current stringent regulations over NGOs. In fact, the new push might make it harder for NGOs to thrive in any real sense.
'While there will be more social areas available for NGOs to take part in, these NGOs must also have a better relationship with the government and follow government leadership,' said Wang Liwei , editor of the magazine The Charitarian, which reports on NGO works and corporate social responsibility in China.
Jia Xijing of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre said: 'Under the social governance context, a social organisation could be both a force with which authorities want to form an alliance and a factor of instability to be subject to government control.
'Some NGOs could benefit from the push, and some will lose out, but the NGOs dealing with rights advocacy will certainly face more regulations.'
The five-year plan is clear on this point: authorities will work harder to build a rights advocacy system to be led by the government and the Communist Party.
Authorities have long frowned upon NGOs as a suspicious and sensitive bunch. For NGOs to legally exist, they must either have enough capital to register as a company, or they must find a relevant government department - such as the Ministry of Environmental Protection - willing to act as its guardian and person in charge. Neither choice is too palatable, resulting in a majority of NGOs operating in a grey area.
Just last year Hong Kong-based Oxfam was reprimanded as 'ill-intentioned' by the Ministry of Education when one of its programmes invited university students to take part in a rights-building programme for migrant workers.
But progress has been made in several cities in recent months. Film star Jet Li's One Foundation has registered with the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau as the first private foundation allowed to seek public donations; Beijing and Shanghai have also openly procured fringe social services provided by NGOs such as hotlines for lonely elderly citizens. Yesterday, Beijing municipal government said it would procure 300 more service projects from NGOs this year.
Guo Yushan of the NGO Transition Institute, which does economic research, said the new push was more to strengthen traditional Communist Party or government-affiliated social organisations such as the Women's Federation, trade associations and workers' unions.
'This is about reinvigorating these half-official units and help them become more effective,' he said. 'It will be a long time before NGOs in China are granted a separate legal status of their own.'
On the whole, the 12th five-year plan indicates the government's willingness to open up the area of NGOs, no matter what kind, said Wang Ming, also of Tsinghua University's NGO Research Centre and a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate.
'This time we can [at least] expect to see a lowering of the threshold for NGO registration,' said Wang, whose centre is helping the government builds a mechanism to assess the merits of NGOs. 'The only criterion then should be whether the people find the NGO useful.
'At this stage of our country's social and economic development, it's inevitable that NGOs should be playing a bigger role in social governance.'
Additional reporting by Raymond Li