China and Inner Asia
Based on 15 months’ fieldwork on three grassroots NGOs in Guangzhou, China, this paper examines how these NGOs struggle both to survive and maintain their moral worldviews. It shows how these NGOs deploy diverse and sometimes contradictory discourses on morality, marketization and civil society to make sense of their roles and navigate their integration into the market. According to their on-the-ground practitioners, grassroots NGOs are defined by their values of freedom, equality, and human rights. However, in order to secure financial resources, they prioritize their projects’ efficiency, strategy development, and the size of their target population to comply with donor funding requirements; in order to guarantee political legitimacy to survive, they adopt a needs-based model of service provision, equating their work to service delivery instead of influencing government policy and empowering the disadvantaged; in order to recruit more volunteers, they have to repeatedly refer back to their values to appeal to youth population in China.
I argue that grassroots NGOs in China present multiple faces to different stakeholders, and they are at once civil society actors and market players, value-driven and efficiency-driven, and social equality fighters and social service providers. This paper foregrounds the political and ideological contradictions NGOs confront to show both the constraints and the empowerment of grassroots NGO efforts in China. It also illuminates how the state disempowers and disciplines NGOs through creating a narrative of the victory of the market economy and instilling a logic of efficiency in China’s NGO workers.