Governments have less control of their political agendas and face new vulnerabilities in the information age while non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations have increasing soft power to achieve their political goals.1 As Joseph Nye argues in Do Morals Matter, such NGOs are especially influential in problems that require transnational cooperation, such as climate change, pandemics, and financial stability.2 They have been particularly important on the international stage for how they use tools to achieve their organizational goals. In Craig Warkentin's book, Reshaping World Politics: NGOs, the Internet, and Global Civil Society, numerous cases prove that NGOs have developed different strategies to enhance their soft power to fulfill their mission and push their own agendas.3 For instance, development NGOs, environmental NGOs, and online resource networks are three representative types of NGOs that are making full use of the Internet to facilitate internal communication, shape public perception, and encourage political participation.4

Chinese NGOs present interesting case studies of some dynamics of soft power. China, as a rising power for the past several decades, has also promoted its own soft power strategy, with special emphasis on cultural and public diplomacy.5 The government maintains the main source of soft power, while non-governmental organizations, a significant component of civil society, are less influential. Chinese NGOs are not so visible on the international stage even though they have employed their own soft power strategies. Though the number of registered NGOs in China has increased rapidly over the past two decades,6 few NGOs have become big names at the global level. At the domestic level, however, Chinese NGOs have a more visible role. They proactively contribute to the Chinese government's policymaking process, conducting relevant research and submitting proposals. However, they have encountered difficulties pushing forward their agendas when their goals are confronted with those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Current academic works addressing Chinese NGOs' soft power are mainly written by Chinese scholars. Some have pointed out the significant role that Chinese NGOs could play in shaping the CCP's exercise of soft power, such as with cultural diffusion and exchanges.7 Others have recognized the underdevelopment of Chinese domestic NGOs and the insufficiency of people-to-people interaction with other countries, which they claim will undermine Chinese soft power.8 They also show that the Chinese government is faced with a paradox: the government itself is incapable of doing the work of NGOs, yet remains cautious about NGOs operating against the CCP's rule.9 In addition, most theoretical works about Chinese NGOs either use the government-civil society model to explain the NGOs with Chinese characteristics or analyze Chinese NGOs from a historical perspective, which chronologically examines the time from when the philanthropical idea originated in ancient China to when the Western idea of non-governmental organization was introduced.10 Some have conducted case studies to trace the development of a certain non-government organization. However, few have linked Chinese NGOs with the concept of soft power and analyze how effective they are domestically and internationally.

Therefore, this paper aims to analyze how effective the soft power of Chinese NGOs is domestically and internationally. It analyzes major soft power strategies of Chinese NGOs and the approaches they use to enhance their soft power. The effectiveness of these strategies are broadly assessed by the impacts they made at home and abroad. Reasons for the success and failure of these soft power strategies are explained with an emphasis on government-NGOs relationship in China.

This paper utilizes qualitative research methods, extracting information from first-hand resources such as the NGOs' websites and documentation, as well as second-hand resources such as academic work and news media. Case studies, which identify some representative NGOs, will also be used to illustrate what approaches Chinese NGOs are taking to enhance their soft power at home and abroad and why they have succeeded or failed in achieving their goals. Short interviews were conducted to obtain more information on the organization's relationship to the government from an insider's perspective. Analysis of these cases will also point out the Chinese NGOs' current limitations, mainly caused by the political structure implied by the government-NGOs relationship, and the opportunities where they can make breakthroughs in the future with the changing social and economic environment in China.

The Soft Power of Chinese NGOs

The information revolution has greatly enhanced NGOs' soft power.11 As Nye argues, since NGOs vary enormously in their organization, budgets, accountability to their members, and sense of responsibility for the accuracy of their claims, their soft power varies accordingly.12 Since the information revolution, NGOs have taken different approaches to enhance their soft power. In addition to making full use of the internet, public diplomacy is a critical strategy to enhance NGOs' soft power. As Nicholas Cull introduces, there are five distinct methods that international actors are using to engage the foreign public, namely listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, and international broadcasting.13 Chinese NGOs, who do not have coercive economic or military hard power, have taken these approaches to enhance their soft power so as to attract members, shape public opinions, build up credibility, and push forward policy changes.

Chinese NGOs at the domestic level are succeeding in reaching out to domestic audiences through websites and social media, and have the power to shape and reshape public opinions based on their scientific and evidence-based research, particularly in their specialized field. However, they have encountered difficulties when their advocacy is not aligned with the CCP's political agenda and the government's expectations. At the international level, Chinese NGOs are faced with various limitations, either from the Chinese government's support system or the organization's capacity-building ability.


The Soft Power of Chinese NGOs at the Domestic Level

The number of Chinese NGOs has increased rapidly in the past two decades as the Chinese government has realized the significance of NGOs in assisting with resolving social issues and constructed a legal framework for social organizations' registration and operation in China.14 The Chinese domestic NGOs have played an important role in providing public services, mobilizing resources, conducting research, and pushing public policy and advocacy agendas in different fields, especially within their specialized field. Domestic NGOs have more power to participate in and make impacts on the public policy-making process. This is not only true because they have made full use of their expertise, rigorous research, and social media to build up their credibility and shape public opinion, but also because the Chinese government has recognized the importance of NGOs in conducting research, providing public services, and educating the domestic public.

Case Study 1 –  ForNGO, a Non-Governmental Think Tank


ForNGO was founded and registered with the Civil Bureau in Shanghai in 2012. It is a non-governmental and nonprofit organization specialized in conducting academic research related to nonprofit law, providing legal assistance, building legal capacity for domestic and international NGOs, and advocating for policy changes in the nonprofit sector.15 The organization has had fruitful publications since its establishment. For example, it has published Handbook of Charity Law of the People's Republic of China in cooperation with UNDP to provide a thorough guide for NGOs operating in China.


ForNGO has successfully contributed to the draft and revision of the Chinese Charity Law, which empowers Chinese nonprofit organizations with clear guidance to follow during their operations, as well as places them under the Chinese government's supervision. ForNGO helps other NGOs raise their legal awareness and build up their legal capacity. In particular, it promotes NGOs to operate in compliance with the Charity Law and other relevant regulations. The most powerful tool at ForNGO's disposal is its expertise in law and policy advocacy ability. By hiring graduates with strong law backgrounds from prestigious universities and helping NGOs win lawsuits, the organization has built up its credibility in the field. NGOs encountering any difficulties or unfamiliarities with Chinese nonprofit laws and regulations will bring on ForNGO for consultancy. In addition, since ForNGO has dealt with a great number of cases related to NGOs, it is familiar with both the industry and each individual organization. This gives ForNGO the credibility to make policy advocacy to the government as the government considers their suggestions trustworthy and comprehensive. ForNGO also functions as an educational hub that created a one-stop encyclopedia platform and regularly holds workshops and lectures on nonprofit law and regulations.16 ForNGO uses online platforms, such as websites and WeChat Platform, to promote room for NGOs' activities and educate the NGOs on regulations and compliance. When the government wants to enact laws and regulations related to the nonprofit and non-governmental sectors, ForNGO has a say in the policymaking process.


One of the limitations to enhancing ForNGO's soft power is its own organizational capacity limited by restricted capital and human resources. ForNGO attracts clients through its organizational values and credible expertise in resolving legal issues. Therefore, human capital is extremely important in the agency's development. Hiring well-trained lawyers from credible higher education institutions is necessary for ForNGO's enhancement of soft power. However, salaries in the NGO industry, which are restricted by regulations on nonprofit organizations drive a high turnover rate.17 So, the effectiveness of the organization's soft power is critically dependent on hard power — in this case, the financial situation of the organization.


Continuing to build up a credible team that is dedicated to providing legal services for other NGOs is one key component to enhance ForNGO's soft power. However, a professional team is far from enough. In order to contribute to the law-making and policy-making process, ForNGO has to maintain a long-term professional relationship with key persons in the local Civil Affairs Bureau, the department in charge of NGO regulation and supervision within the government. Reporting the most up-to-date situation of NGOs by ForNGO to the government becomes helpful for the organization's next policy advocacy attempt because the key people responsible have already been familiarized with relevant information provided by ForNGO.


Case Study 2 - Shan Shui Conservation Center, an Environmental NGO


Shan Shui Conservation Center is a Chinese environmental NGO dedicated to species and ecosystem conservation to promote peaceful coexistence of humans and nature.18 Shan in Chinese means mountains, and Shui means waters. The name of the organization implies its focus on protecting nature as well as the environment. The organization's mission is to protect species and natural habitats. The main strategies that Shan Shui is adopting to achieve its goals are community-based conservation practices and citizen science research projects.19 Although Shan Shui is not a big non-governmental organization, with no more than 50 employees, it has contributed tremendously to the policymaking process of its specialized field, wildlife protection. Therefore, understanding how Shan Shui enhances its soft power will be helpful to understand what the NGO-government relationship looks like in China and what approaches Chinese environmental NGOs are taking to enhance their soft power and how effective these approaches are.


Detecting Shan Shui's relationship with the government is a difficult task if sources are limited to the organization's website and social platforms. Therefore, conducting a brief interview with Shan Shui's program trainee, who is an insider, allowed me to obtain the information from the front line. To promote China's policymaking process in the wildlife protection field, the main strategy that Shan Shui has been utilizing is to form partnerships with other organizations to put pressure on the government.20 Shan Shui focuses on filling in the gaps between laws and regulations and practices. To push forward the policy-making agenda, it cooperates with other NGOs and scientific research institutions to promote public attention. With fact-based scientific research, Shan Shui provides the government with professional opinions, thus imposing its influence on the policymaking process. For example, the recent revision of the Wildlife Protection Law was called on by scholars from the institution after rounds of mass broadcasting to the public.21 The proposal submitted to the government was completed with the cooperation of nine institutions working in the environmental protection field. After submitting the proposal, Shan Shui continues to communicate the ongoing process, as well as share its opinions and ideas with the public through its websites and social media platforms, to encourage public discussion and participation. 


Chinese environmental NGOs have enjoyed a large policy advocacy platform in China in recent years thanks to the passage of the Charity Law, the newly enacted Environmental Protection Law, and Measures of Public Participation in Environmental Protection.22 However, the top-down process of governance raises numerous obstacles. Government attitude, which is often fickle, dictates how much sway environmental NGOs can garner in government policies. Such a situation undermines Shan Shui's soft power. On the one hand, Shan Shui has internal restrictions such as building databases from scratch. On the other hand, insufficient public attention to wildlife conservation and the government's indifferent attitude towards the policy change adds more difficulty to using soft power to achieve its policy goals.


Shan Shui is successful in strengthening its power by forming partnerships with other institutions to put pressure on the government, as well as maintaining effective communication with the public. However, it is critical that Shan Shui also moves to maintain a closer relationship with key persons in the government in order to get immediate feedback and opinions from the government's side. As a small non-governmental organization, Shan Shui also has room to improve on its broadcasting, which enables the organization's influence to be exercised on a larger audience. Changing public opinions as a result of Shan Shui's education efforts will further pressure the Chinese government to consider the organization's proposals and listen to the people's opinions. 

The Soft Power of Chinese NGOs at the International Level

Though there has been an increasing number of NGOs in China in the past two decades, these NGOs primarily focus on domestic affairs rather than expanding international influence.23 Few Chinese NGOs are well-known to foreigners. Public diplomacy is Chinese NGOs main approach to enhance their soft power abroad, though their operations are under the strict supervision of the Chinese government. Two cases are provided in this section to illustrate the current state of Chinese NGOs' presence overseas and to observe what approaches they have taken to enhance their soft power so as to achieve their organizational goals.


Case Study 1 – The Center for China and Globalization, an Independent Think Tank


The Center for China and Globalization (CCG) is a non-governmental think tank based in Beijing, China.24 CCG was founded by Dr. Huiyao Wang and Dr. Lv Miao in 2008. Wang has several decades of work experience in academia, the private sector, and the public sector, and Miao has experience attending international conferences as a young professional. Though many would suspect CCG to be backed by the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government, the institution's funding primarily comes from corporate donations and research grants.25 Otherwise, the institution generates revenue from its publications, event sponsorship, research services etc.26


The main strategy that CCG uses to enhance its soft power on the international stage is public diplomacy, whose five approaches are listed in Cull's book, namely listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, and international broadcasting.27 As Wang introduces on its official website, CCG seeks to communicate, hear, and understand.28 The CCG also wants to tell the story of China to the outside world. Over the past 15 years, CCG has held hundreds of roundtables, formed dialogues with experts from different fields, and launched dialogue programs that aimed at promoting cultural and academic exchange as well as open dialogues.29 The organization has also conducted research on different topics related to China and globalization and published extensive reports, papers, and books within a relatively short period of time. These reports are written for both a foreign audience domestic audience, including people from the government, corporations, and higher education institutions. CCG has made its voice heard through all social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WeChat Platform, Weibo and etc. By taking various approaches since its conception, CCG has become a leading think tank, not only in China but also around the world.30


Though CCG has seen a growing global influence as more scholars, politicians, and businessmen refer to CCG's research or reports to build their own platforms, the topics that CCG has touched on are limited compared to those of foreign think tanks. For instance, CCG's research currently falls into the following categories: Globalization,31 International Relations,32 International Migration and Talent Flow,33 Trade and Investment,34 nternational Education,35 and Domestic Policy.36 37  None of these topics have crossed the CCP's political redline, avoiding sensitive topics such as ideology questions and human rights issues. Given his previous work in the Ministry of Commerce, Wang is familiar with the government's foci and expectations. After many years of international education experience, he is also familiar with foreign audience's interests. Therefore, he is trying to find an informational bridge to link China and the outside world in a peaceful and non-political approach. Wang prefers to take a neutral stance for China's development when discussing China's global presence, avoiding negative comments on the CCP as much as possible. The research reports published by CCG are fact-based, using statistical or empirical data to illustrate trends in China's changing social environment, limiting critical or political opinion. Such approaches present CCG as a knowledgeable scholar, a peace-pursuing public diplomat, and an open-minded communicator in the international community. However, CCG's current failure to expand the scope of its research topics is still a primary area of limitation.


Currently, CCG's credibility is reinforced by its quality research output as well as the organization's dedication to communication and dialogue. In the long run, CCG can continue to expand its influence worldwide by maintaining relationships with key individuals and institutions such as scholars, businessmen, politicians from foreign think tanks, corporations, and governments. Additionally, CCG should continue to build up its credibility by showing foreign audiences that it has its own news media and independent information selection, as well as an independent stance that can view Chinese issues in a critical way.

Case Study 2 – The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, a Non-Governmental Foundation


The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) was established in 1989. A nongovernmental organization registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, CFPA is currently under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.38 Their work mainly focuses on humanitarian relief and poverty reduction, providing money and material support.39 The organization did not attempt to enhance its international influence until roughly ten years ago. Offices were established in 2015 in Myanmar and Nepal and in 2019 in Ethiopia. Long-term projects have been implemented in these regions to benefit the local public, push the organization's agenda, and enhance the soft power of both CFPA and the Chinese government.


CFPA's mission is to disseminate good and reduce poverty.40 Their major approaches to achieve these goals are taking responsibility to respond to social problems, building partnerships with donors, volunteers, and different stakeholders, promoting reforms and innovations, and widely mobilizing social forces to participate in poverty alleviation.41 As a foundation, CFPA needs to build up its credibility to attract more donations from a variety of donors. Thus, its soft power comes from its accountability, the quality of services that it provides for the people as well as regions in need, and the effectiveness of poverty reduction. CFPA has attracted overseas funds because it has built up a reputation worldwide with its previous successful delivery of materials and services within the regions.42


CFPA faces few limitations in building its reputation on the international stage because its mission is relatively less politically oriented and poverty alleviation is aligned with the CCP's agenda. One risk that the organization faces is its potential misallocation of funds or reduced accountability, which will undermine its soft power abroad.


CFPA has gained support from the Chinese government through the backing of CFPA's international presence and operations. The government also encourages CFPA to collaborate with international organizations to enrich CFPA's poverty alleviation resources.43 More importantly, CFPA can learn from foreign organizations' advanced mechanisms and experience in poverty alleviation funds management through cooperation.44 The opportunities for CFPA to enhance its soft power lie in carrying out more humanitarian aid projects with high quality and accountability to attract more donors both in and outside of China.


As Joseph Nye points out in his book, Do Morals Matter, the world is experiencing vertical power shifts from governments to non-state actors due to technological and ecological changes.45Non-governmental organizations are extremely influential in issues that cannot be solved by one party, especially environmental and public health issues like climate change.46 Non-governmental organizations are playing a bigger role in both domestic and international politics and they are taking different approaches to enhance their soft power to attract attention, expand membership, and achieve progress in pushing policy changes.

Though any scholars have focused on the relationship between Chinese NGOs and the Chinese government, few have researched the soft power of Chinese NGOs. Particularly, where their limitations and opportunities lie, what their relations with the Chinese government look like, and how they could develop their strategies to better present themselves to domestic and foreign audiences.

By carefully examining four representative Chinese NGOs that are either active in their field or widely covered by media, this paper argues that Chinese NGOs have more soft power at home than abroad. They are more powerful in influencing domestic policy than making impacts on foreign audiences. Chinese NGOs' soft power abroad is only in a fledging state, where few foreign publics have heard or know about them. One non-governmental think tank, the Center for China and Globalization, and one non-governmental foundation, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, are presented to show that the Chinese NGOs' main soft power strategy is public diplomacy. Listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange diplomacy, and international broadcasting are the approaches that Chinese NGOs take to create a positive image for themselves and to push forward the mission of their organizations. The effectiveness of these approaches for CCG and CFPA is currently hard to assess. But, judging from the comments from foreign governments and audiences, CCG and CFPA have created a relatively positive image abroad so far. These two organizations have more soft power because their goals are aligned with those of the CCP and the Chinese government. 

Chinese NGOs have made solid progress in influencing the Chinese government's domestic policy-making process, especially in those areas that require strong expertise and have been prioritized in CCP's strategic plan. Environmental NGOs, such as Shan Shui, have been given more room to pursue policy advocacy thanks to changing public opinions and the government's agenda-pushing. Major limitations most often come from the Chinese government's regulations on NGOs, which undermines their soft power. The opportunities for these NGOs, too, will depend on the internal adjustment of public diplomacy and count on top-down open access for political participation from the government.


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