What role should the social sector, also commonly called “the third sector”, play in China? In this unprecedented pandemic crisis, it has been laid bare that government and businesses cannot satisfy all market and social needs and that the third sector is indispensable to a functional society.
Thoughts on the Role of the Social Sector in China
What role should the social sector, also commonly called “the third sector”, play in China? In this unprecedented pandemic crisis, it has been laid bare that government and businesses cannot satisfy all market and social needs and that the third sector is indispensable to a functional society. From conversations with several Chinese foundations and observations in Chinese media reports, we have learnt of many examples of social organizations bursting out, showing great resilience and huge potential. Despite the importance of the social sector in China, its evolution and role in China has not been continuously embraced.
Often times, I hear social organization staff describing their jobs in a half-joking way as dealing with the “old, weak, sick and disabled”. This also reflects, to some extent, the general public’s perception of the third sector. It seems that this sector only serves marginalized groups and is insignificant to the rest of mainstream society. Although both NGOs and GONGOs exist in the social sector, we also hear statements that these organizations do what the government and private sector are “unwilling to do, do not do well, or do not often do”. 
Formal social organizations in China have developed rapidly in recent decades and are still in a state of flux. During this crisis, social organizations have done a lot more than just “leak check and supplement” (in Chinese terms), defying the common belief about this sector’s role. Social organizations are operating like sensors and connectors linking various stakeholders—public and private—and they have become a key adhesive for the rebuilding of social structures. We have seen a large number of grassroot organizations, using their keen awareness of social issues, their social capital and credibility to attend to social needs. “Wuhan Ginkgo Action” is an excellent example of this, mobilizing its social resources to raise more than 2,000 oxygen generators for key epidemic areas and organizing an innovative “online doctor diagnosis program”. In addition to support through donations, we have also seen many other examples of nimble grassroot efforts such as the provision of community emergency services, care for special groups, and development of collaborative platforms to match resources and demand.
China still does not have a well-established and systematic infrastructure in the social sector, which limits the potential of scaling up any collaboration. This is partly related to the state’s attitude which remains wary of any type of large-scale collaboration. Over time, the government has vacillated in its approach to social organizations moving back and forth from shunning, to embracing, to coopting. How will the current crisis and the social sector’s response affect the government’s attitude? Will it be willing to allow social organizations to take on a larger role? Can the two sides use their respective strengths and take a step closer to long-term partnerships?
One promising sign is the new “Measures for the Administration of Government Procurement of Services (政府购买服务管理方法)”, issued just a few weeks ago. It shows that the government may now more fully realize the utility of the social sector and may want to encourage growth. Among other changes, the regulation enlarges the scope of government procurement, and specifies its focus on livelihood services such as social welfare and social assistance, as well as the arena of social governance such as community services, social work and legal aid. This is an opportunity that social organizations should and can seize.
During the pandemic, the social sector has been stepping up and showing great power and potential. With the crisis and the subsequent economic downturn leaving a huge impact on people’s livelihoods, it is urgently necessary for social organizations to be even more proactive and assume more responsibilities. Having witnessed the important role the social sector can play, now is the time for the government and the citizenry of China to embrace this development.
Read the Chinese version here.
 Tang, X. G., & Wang, X. G. (2011, Nov. 24). 王绍光论第三部门在中国的发展及未来[Wang Shaoguang on the development and future of the third sector in China]. Retrieved May 8, 2020 from https://gongyi.qq.com/a/20120111/000019.htm