SHANGHAI — Jin Ge used to be an idealist, unwilling to compromise and frustrated because of it. He felt as if he didn't belong in China. So 10 years ago he left for graduate school in the U.S.
Then something happened in China that set the independent media producer on a course to become the kind of grassroots citizen advocate that's common in the West but rare in China's top-down system of Communist party and government control.
In 2006, a group of prostitutes had been paraded through the streets of the southern city of Shenzhen in a public shaming. Jin had seen some of his childhood friends enter the sex trade, and so the incident struck a nerve. He went online and started talking with others about the illegal sex trade in China, and soon he found himself flying to Wuhan, about 550 miles west of his native Shanghai.
Thus was born the Chinese Grassroots Women's Rights Workshop — to help sex workers in Wuhan, provide a forum for sex workers to communicate with each other and analyze the social conditions that have made the sex industry so huge in China.
Never miss a local story.
In doing so, Jin joined the ranks of thousands of activists before him who've struggled to start independent grassroots groups in China. The government doesn't actively suppress such groups, whether they deal with the environment, poverty or sex workers, but it's hard to run them legally because most nongovernmental organizations are illegal and therefore can't raise funds without government approval.
"Basically, it's a paradox," Jin said. "So, most Chinese NGOs are not actually NGOs."
For example, Jin's organization collaborated with the Wuhan government's health department for the past two years, but is now registered as a private enterprise. He's hoping that the switch gives his group more independence.
The NGO world in China is full of contradictions, compromise and uncertainty. There's been a significant grassroots push for independent advocacy groups, but it's far from certain whether the Chinese government will encourage or even accept such activity.
Most recently, the government has tightened restrictions on foreign donations. Jin has felt added pressure recently from Chinese officials, he wrote in an e-mail.
"It seems the government has the suspicion that all (this) foreign sponsorship is just aiming to undermine China's political system, and the NGOs that receive foreign funding are working for outside anti-China forces," he wrote. "I myself have been harassed and warned by the police."
The future of his organization and others will depend on domestic funding, Jin added. His group held a successful publicity event in which sex workers made donations to victims of April's earthquake in Yushu.
Many point to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake as the spark for an outpouring of public support to create and sustain independent groups. It's why 2008 is known as the first year of Chinese charity.
The earthquake, which left about 70,000 dead, changed the way many Chinese and the government view citizen advocacy. It made people more willing to contribute and the government more accepting as it realized that such groups are necessary in times of crisis, said Corinne Richeux Hua, the executive director of Stepping Stones, a foreign-affiliated organization that teaches English to children in migrant schools in Shanghai.
"Like anywhere else, I think it's a normal part of civil society," Richeux Hua said. "Even the Chinese authorities realize that you can't live without them — that they're here to stay."
Numbers support that claim. Last year, there were more than 400,000 officially registered NGOs in China, more than double the number eight years ago, according to the World Bank.
That number is imprecise to say the least, however. For example, it likely includes thousands of groups known by the delightfully incongruous acronym GONGO — government-operated non-government organization_ and it doesn't include groups such as Jin's or Richeux Hua's.
The concept of grassroots advocacy in China is only about 10 years old, said Lu Hanlong, a sociology professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Before that, there wasn't much talk of it because it seemed to be against the government. When China began opening up to the world, though, advocacy groups began to become more accepted, he added.
It was just about then, in 1999, that Roots and Shoots came into existence in Shanghai and Beijing. Roots and Shoots, a division of the Jane Goodall Institute, is an NGO that promotes environmental education among youth.
Roots and Shoots, which works with students in about 200 schools in Shanghai, is the first foreign-affiliated NGO to be registered in China, said executive director Tori Zwisler. She can guess where the government's suspicion comes from, though, especially when it comes to foreign groups.
"I think it just comes from lack of control," Zwisler said. "The government likes to control things here, and if you're an international NGO, they don't have so much control."
Sometimes, people from outside China ask her how she can live in a country with so much pollution and not fight it, but she's willing to compromise. Roots and Shoots aims to create environmentalists — not environmental activists, she said. It has a lot to offer the next generation, she added, that will sustain a more positive approach to change.
"We're non-political, we're non-confrontational, we're non-religious, and we're completely transparent so that we can maintain our registration," Zwisler said. "But maybe what you're doing is not going to be immediate. And we're willing to sacrifice immediacy for sustainability."
Zwisler still isn't sure why her group was permitted to register while other foreign-affiliated and domestic groups face so many problems.
Richeux Hua suspects that Roots and Shoots was allowed to register because of a combination of good relationships with Jane Goodall, skill and luck.
Stepping Stones hasn't been as lucky, but Richeux Hua, too, is willing to make compromises. Because the group can't officially register as a charity, it registered as a business, she said.
The government knows what Stepping Stones is doing, at least vaguely, and allows it to operate, she said.
Jin, the founder of the group to help sex workers, recognizes that his organization is one of the controversial ones.
"What we do is definitely much more offensive to the government," Jin said. "Right now, it's extremely controversial. And the government is extremely reluctant to admit there is this problem — this problem with the sex industry. But it might reach a point, just like the environmental problem, that they cannot ignore it."
(Vickery, a student at Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
To follow developments in China, see McClatchy's China Rises blog