For non-governmental organisations operating on the mainland, the road to official status is often long and winding. Many prefer to exist in a legal grey zone rather than submit to the government requirements of the registration process. One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been the necessity for sponsorship by a government agency, a rule that binds NGOs closely to the bureaucracy, hampering their effectiveness and exposing them to outside interference. So it is encouraging to hear an official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs hint that this sponsorship requirement may be dropped. Already, new rules for NGOs - and covering international groups for the first time - have been implemented, representing a step forward in granting these groups official status and thereby supporting their development. Dropping what to many groups is the worst impediment to registration brings more NGOs within the law, can only be a positive step. As the government and state-owned companies continue withdrawing from everyday lives, non-government groups will play a crucial role in filling in the gaps where state services cannot reach or cannot move quickly enough to meet emerging needs. From setting up medical clinics in remote villages, to Aids education in the cities, to checking the worst abuses of the environment, NGOs have been playing an important role in recent years. Officials realise that more of the same will be necessary as society changes and welfare priorities grow. NGOs are also being seen as solid building blocks for an emerging civil society. Giving them freer rein is something that has been contemplated for years, but movement has been slow because of the risks associated with allowing groups not affiliated with the government to flourish. Perhaps the expanding number of social challenges facing the government is leading to a reappraisal of how best to strike a balance between helping these groups develop and maintaining official control. Most registered NGOs on the mainland do have some kind of government affiliation, being spinoffs from government agencies or state-owned enterprises and staffed by present or retired civil servants. Any changes in the rules that would allow them to become independent and make it easier for non-government affiliated groups to gain official recognition are to be welcomed. The changes introduced in June gave NGOs preferential tax status, while requiring them to file annual reports. This will help give them more legitimacy with the public, which is far from ready to grant non-governmental groups blanket trust. If officials are reviewing the rules concerning official sponsorship, they might also consider the new minimum capital requirements. At 2 million to 8 million yuan, they are prohibitive for all but the biggest groups. Any hope of getting grassroots organisations under the official umbrella will be frustrated.