In July 2013, a civic hackathon was held in the southern Chinese city Guangzhou. Local NGOs, techie communities, and a local university with strong software and interactive design programs worked together to solve local problems, one of which was to develop a mobile app to collect and sell second-hand clothes at cheap prices to migrant workers.
This civic hackathon, among a series of others, was organized by NGO2.0 and its partners. NGO2.0 is a project aimed at strengthening the digital literacy of Chinese grassroots NGOs and developing the concept and practice of technology aided social service sector. Recently, its founder and director, Jing Wang, introduced their work and explored how the grassroots NGOs use information communication technology (ICT) for activism in China in an article for the Chinese Journal of Communication’s special issue: “The ‘Sent-Down’ Internet: Using Information and Communication Technologies in Rural China.”
ICT is seen as a means of empowering Chinese grassroots NGOs, which are having a hard time due to various reasons including the government’s strict control and lack of funding. As Wang suggested, these organizations simply cannot compete with governmental-affiliated NGOs for media coverage. However, social media have created new possibilities. One major “communication capacity building program” of NGO2.0 is to provide digital and social media literacy training to grassroots NGOs in the less developed western and central provinces of China. Participants learn how to use social media to brand their organizations at little cost to attract volunteers and other resources, find and collaborate with each other, increase the transparency of their operations, engage in participatory thinking, and gain hands-on experiences while examining successful cases.
Wang took a rurally based environmental NGO “Rescue Minqin” as an example. Minqin is a county undergoing drastic desertification, and the NGO is trying to “rescue” it. The organization’s website attracts very few visitors, but with the help of social media platforms Weibo and WeChat, they managed to build an ecologically conscious online community and could make open calls for volunteers to travel to Minqin and plant trees in the desert bordering the county.
According to Wang, as of July 2014, 895 grassroots NGOs among 1,492 that appeared on the NGO2.0 philanthropy map did not own Weibo accounts. There is still a long way to go.
In addition to the capacity building program, NGO2.0 has also started other projects. They compiled an online toolbox. and built a Web 2.0 map on which over 1,600 NGOs have registered their organizational and project data. Many of these organizations and projects are using ICT, especially social media for their activism.
It’s noteworthy that Wang described these projects as “nonresistant activism.” “With the exception of a small handful of rights advocacy non-profits,” she wrote, “the majority of Chinese NGOs serve as informal social service or welfare relief organizations that are compelled to work within the system.”
She further explained social media’s role in such activism:
NGOs in China tend not to use social media to stir up revolution or ignite public controversies, although in recent years we have witnessed more NGOs identifying “policy advocacy” as an arena of their work.
What then are they using interactive media for? Building social networks to mobilize resources to bring relief to the underprivileged in rural and impoverished communities.
Wang reminded readers that Chinese NGOs’ choice “should not be seen as ideologically rooted, but strategically driven.” In an authoritarian country where civil society is a highly sensitive topic and many activists are jailed, Chinese grassroots NGOs strategically emphasize “social service” instead of “social change” and believe that they can still raise people’s consciousness and trigger small changes.
In fact, NGO2.0 as a project is also following this strategy. It recently transformed from an academic project of international origin to a non-profit organization formally registered in Shenzhen. Wang acknowledged that she positioned NGO2.0 as a technology project rather than a media initiative to minimize governmental scrutiny, and highlighted its mission of redressing the digital divide, “a discourse well accepted by the authorities.”
Kecheng Fang, Ph.D. Student, University of Pennsylvania