The Development and Contributions of Religious NGOs in China

Issue 1802

15 February 2018

Since the reforms beginning with the open-door policy in 1979, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have grown rapidly in China. NGOs do not have a long history in China compared with their counterparts in other Asian countries. In China,
there is no consistent definition for NGOs and they are often referred to as “social organizations,” “nonprofit organizations,” “nongovernmental organizations,” or “mass organizations.”

The policy of China from 1949 to 1979, prior to the open-door reforms, was to follow the Soviet Union’s model of a planned economy according to which the central government controls everything for all sectors, allowing no room for anyone or any organization to engage in social activities. During the Republican era (1911-1949), NGOs with diverse backgrounds had been actively engaged in social services, and the Chinese Communist Party even encouraged their development during the war against Japan and during China’s civil war. Studies show that as early as the ninth-century Tang dynasty, some guilds and cultural organizations existed in China, for example, professional associations, charitable associations, religious associations, academic organizations and foreign missionary-funded organizations.

However, after the founding of the “New China” in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party stopped, dissolved and banned most NGO activities and functions. Only a few NGOs that traditionally had a close relationship with the Party were allowed to function. Subsequently, Chinese NGOs lost their independent role and those still existing were brought under the authority of the United Front Department, a leading department of the Party. Hence there were no real NGOs from 1949 to 1979.

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