NGOs are a test bed for new thinking
The gap between what governments and the free market provide cannot be left unfilled. There are essential services that neither can adequately ensure, and persistent challenges that can be solved only at the grass-roots level. Developed societies have long known this, and encouraged non-governmental groups to plug the void so that robust civil societies can emerge and flourish. The mainland's leaders are well aware of the necessity, but have been reluctant to let such organisations take independent flight, fearing they will threaten the Communist Party's authority.
Guangdong's decision to loosen controls on NGOs in a number of categories is therefore a wise move that has to serve as a model for administrations elsewhere to follow. Government agencies that previously administered such organisations will now serve only as advisers. A draft law to take effect next July states that by 2015, most NGOs will need only the authorisation of the government to provide services. The easing of rules is being tried out in Shenzhen, Beijing and elsewhere. No reform has been as far-reaching.
Such moves are long overdue and will be increasingly needed as the mainland continues to develop. The government is struggling with poverty and the divide between rich and poor, pollution, shortages of fresh water, inadequate health care, a fast-ageing population, the high cost of housing and much else. They are the ingredients for social discontent and, individually and sometimes together, the reasons for protests. Social organisations, by giving a means for citizens to work together to promote values and attain goals, are the perfect intermediary between governments and the people they serve.
From NGOs come creativity, initiative and solutions to problems. They can experiment with ideas that the private and public sectors will not usually invest in. There is no better testing ground for innovative thinking, nor a more worthy basis from which to develop and refine policies. As with a free media, they can provide checks and balances and transparency.
Groups looked on with suspicion by authorities, among them those involved in promoting human rights and those perceived as having a political agenda, are unlikely to be included in the new rules. The hounding of such NGOs by targeting their funding and resources keeps them in check in officials' eyes, but closes a channel for ordinary people to air grievances. That can erode faith in the government and intensify social tensions. It is not what China needs or wants at this juncture in its development. Rather, Beijing should be going out of its way to foster and encourage civic organisations. Just as in Hong Kong, they provide an invaluable balance between the inefficiencies of the government and the potential excesses of the free market.