A decade ago, the term "NGO" would have left most Chinese scratching their heads. It was not until the Fourth World Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 that it dawned upon Chinese that there was such a thing as an NGO (non-governmental organization) between governments and the general public.
With a dualist social structure for thousands of years, it has been held as quite natural for governments at various levels to represent the interests of the people they govern and for the subjects or citizens to appeal to their governments for whatever troubles they have.
Such a tradition is so deeply rooted in the minds of Chinese that it will take time for the NGO concept to gain acceptance, and it will involve efforts from both the government and citizens.
The role of the government needs to be redefined. It used to be a machine that took care of everything, from making economic development plans to providing the basic daily needs of citizens.
With the development of the market economy, the government should come to realize it has become increasingly difficult for it to take care of everything.
Citizens meanwhile should develop the awareness that the government cannot be expected to do everything for them. Therefore, there should be some interaction between the two.
But who is to interact with the government? And how?
We cannot expect every citizen to interact with government directly, and herein lies the role of the NGO.
It is quite natural and reasonable that NGOs have mushroomed in the past decade with the restructuring of the government, and the shifting of its role from taking care of everything to providing service and supervision. Statistics indicate that the number of registered NGOs has exceeded 200,000 nationwide.
Six NGOs won a bid on Tuesday to receive State funds of 11 million yuan (US$1.36 million) to execute a poverty relief program in east China's Jiangxi Province.
The move, the first of its kind, is of significance to both the government and NGOs.
It shows that the government has realized and accepted the role of the NGO in its social development, and become aware that it needs the help of unofficial organizations in extending its function of serving its citizens.
For NGOs this is a milestone, as it signals that there will be more opportunities for them to co-operate with the government, and thus they may hopefully make more contributions to the progress of Chinese society.
The move also sends a message that a pluralistic society is taking shape, in which NGOs are likely to help the government realize its goal of building a harmonious society.
In a harmonious society, we need a mechanism to defuse destabilizing factors to maintain social stability. NGOs will likely play an important role in this respect, because they can act as a link between the government and the general public.
Participation of NGOs in public affairs will also contribute to promoting democracy in China and help the government improve its work.
We have reason to believe that NGOs will get involved in more areas to help the government in its efforts to promote social development.
(China Daily February 23, 2006)