Can This Millennial Put China's Nonprofits on the Map? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can This Millennial Put China's Nonprofits on the Map?

Can This Millennial Put China's Nonprofits on the Map?

By JY Lee


Because China has one of the richest economies — but a poor civil society.

By JY Lee

A new PriceWaterhouse Coopers study projects that China will overtake the United States to become the world’s largest economy by 2030, but Steven Wang expects more: “If China wants to be a truly great power, it needs to be a more compassionate society,” says the former Rhodes scholar. At just 28, Wang has witnessed radical change in a country where his father was put up for adoption as the third child of a destitute family and his aunt worked in a coal mine as a teenager to support her parents. Change has brought unimaginable wealth for some, but Wang has also seen compressed growth precipitate a cascade of social and environmental problems, which beckoned him back to China.

Two years ago, Wang founded Yiqiao, a one-year paid service fellowship for Chinese students and professionals around the world that pairs fellows with a nongovernmental organization in China. While Yiqiao is younger than Teach for China, an independent nonprofit founded in 2010 and modeled after Teach for America, and Serve for China, founded in 2014 with a focus on empowering rural farmers, its scope is more expansive. Yiqiao places fellows in NGOs tackling an array of causes, from migrant workers’ rights and HIV/AIDS to legal support for Tibetans.

Backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Yiqiao selected its inaugural class in 2016. The 10 fellows — former consultants at Bain and the United Nations among them — were matched with organizations including Serve for China, Lean In China and Friends of Nature. Ten might seem a paltry number in a nation of more than a billion people, but Yiqiao has expanded its cohort to 25 this year, with plans to double up to two fellowships per year.

Just as China had an economic boom in the 1980s, the social boom is now.

Steven Wang, founder, Yiqiao 

China’s citizen sector pales in comparison with the number and reach of American nonprofits and NGOs, which employ about 10 percent of the country’s workforce, and many Chinese NGOs remain under state control as GONGOs (government-organized nongovernmental organizations). “Benevolence” and “justice” are two pillars of Confucian ethics, but emperors and Communist chairmen dating back to the Qin Dynasty have mistrusted entities operating outside the centralized, omnipresent state.

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and embrace of free enterprise allowed some foreign NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins sans frontieres (MSF), to enter China. However, after Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party in 2012, the government’s crackdown on NGOs intensified and MSF left China two years later. On Jan. 1, 2017, Xi further tightened his grip on China’s citizen sector by granting police oversight over some 7,000 foreign NGOs.


“Although the Chinese Communist Party has 70 million members … it sees an environmental organization of 10 volunteers as a potential challenge to a one-party state,” says Andreas Fulda, who researches Chinese civil society at the University of Nottingham. “It could undermine the legacy of international giving.” Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater (and considered China’s Harvard), was founded in 1911 with American dollars raised so that Chinese students could study in the U.S. through the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program.

Wang is sensitive to the political climate but unswayed in his objectives. Prior to launching Yiqiao, he managed fellows, both Chinese and American, at Teach for China, an experience that taught him a thing or two about dealing with Chinese bureaucracy. Sipping sorghum wine with village educators in the southwestern province of Yunnan, Wang learned to manage the delicate guanxi (relationship) with the education ministry and the local Communist Youth League. “Although party members were slightly suspicious of outsiders, I learned they’re just normal people,” he says. Later, Wang worked as a leadership adviser at Peking University, where he was hired to develop the fledging Yenching Academy, a postgraduate scholarship modeled after the Rhodes scholarship — and, in effect, a practice run for managing Yiqiao.

Asked to describe the traits he seeks when choosing Yiqiao fellows — Wang interviews every applicant — he says, “We look for qualities of a junzi,” referring to the Confucian archetype of a leader with moral cultivation. He also likes to compare Yiqiao to Whampoa Military Academy, which was founded by the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and trained most of the Communist Party’s early commanders. “Leaders are not educated by pampering them with fancy things. You have to send them to NGOs, where it’s not all smooth,” Wang says.

Sophie Shen, a Tsinghua alumna and Yiqiao inaugural fellow, deferred a master’s program at Northwestern University to do child advocacy work with Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers in Beijing. Most of her university classmates headed straight for the private sector or graduate school, but Shen felt those options were “limited and [lacked] imagination.” She recalls first meeting Wang: “Steven looked like a village bureaucrat with his white shirt and suit pants,” but after the group’s two-week orientation, “he put on a hat and sunglasses and rapped for us.”

Wang spent his undergraduate years in Toronto, Paris and Jerusalem, an experience that left him convinced that “being a global citizen without understanding [one’s] roots is disingenuous.” So he returned to Shanxi, his paternal birthplace, where his grandfather took him to the grave of Wang’s great-great-grandfather. For three years, Wang has deferred admission to Harvard Law School so that Yiqiao — Chinese for “bridge of public good” — can continue to put down roots. “Just as China had an economic boom in the 1980s, the social boom is now,” he says.

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