AS THE Communist Party has wondered what to do about local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in recent years, it has also been taking a hard look at their foreign counterparts operating in China. By one count there are some 4,000 foreign NGOs in the country. The party has now accepted that Chinese NGOs are not all revolutionaries and has sought to engage with many of them. It looks to do the same, albeit warily, with some of the foreigners.
Jonathan Hursh has an NGO running community centres for migrant children. Over the past eight years, it has been on the brink of closure several times. It has survived, though, and, within its closely watched remit, has begun to thrive. Mr Hursh, an American who is 35, says he has learned some lessons along the way. His NGO, called INCLUDED, now has government support for its four centres in Beijing and one in Shanghai, providing after-school programmes for more than 400 migrant children each day, plus early-childhood development classes for migrant parents.
Chinese authorities know that NGOs like INCLUDED can help them cope with people, such as migrant families, who are not always popular in cities where public services are under strain. But the party is wary of independent groups and especially hostile to foreign organisations that seek to influence Chinese society. However, although such groups can be vulnerable to government censure, they can also receive quiet support: one police officer grilled Mr Hursh for hours, for example, then claimed to him in private that, but for his uniform, he would happily volunteer for the organisation.
Mr Hursh started the NGO in 2006, after seeing the desperate need for services in a migrant slum on the edge of Beijing. A former NGO employee, he used $1,000 of his savings to convert an abandoned machinery shop into a community centre.
Slowly, he and his small staff built local contacts. Hundreds of volunteers helped finish the community centre, and then staffed it. Local migrant children came to help mix the paint—one became a flower girl at Mr Hursh’s wedding. Local officials, at first wary, became more welcoming as they saw the good Mr Hursh was doing and as they struggled to cope with more arriving migrants.
Mr Hursh decided to work with a government-run NGO, China Social Welfare Foundation, a decision that has helped him navigate China’s bureaucracy. The Beijing municipal government has supported them with several annual grants totalling 260,000 yuan ($42,000); Shanghai last year provided 740,000 yuan. These make up a small part of INCLUDED’s budget—$2.5m for 2014 (the rest comes mostly from donations by foreign banks). Mr Hursh also began to let his Chinese staff and volunteers run the programmes.
In Heiqiao, a village in north-eastern Beijing with nearly 30,000 migrants, on a recent afternoon the six-year-old son of migrants from Hebei province explains that he gets help from student volunteers with his homework. Like many other children here, he was born in Beijing but is still treated as a migrant. He and his best friend are not too fussy about the politics, however. They like coming here, he says, because it is a great place to play.