Spatial and Temporal Evolution of China’s eNGOs and Their Relationships with Government


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Related Research Unit(s)


Awarding Institution
  • Han SHI (Supervisor)
  • Ka Wai Maggie LAU (Supervisor)
Award date13 Jun 2019


Environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs) are becoming increasingly important in environmental protection in China. Since the early 2010s, Chinese government’s policy towards eNGOs has changed in ways of easing registration requirements, providing more resources and creating more formal channels for eNGOs to participate in environmental governance. Yet meanwhile, eNGOs face greater challenges to obtain foreign funding and are strictly prohibited from conducting politically sensitive activities. Hence, this study contributes to the knowledge of nonprofit study by illustrating and explaining the temporal changes and spatial variations of eNGO development (i.e. eNGOs’ numbers, operations and relationships with the government) against the backdrop of such policy changes.

This study employs data gathered from three sources. First, a directory of Chinese eNGOs was compiled through integrating and cross checking existing databases and it shows that 393 eNGOs are active across the country by 2017. Second, a nationwide questionnaire survey was conducted between August and November 2017 and collected responses from 89 eNGOs. Third, during a 10 months of fieldwork in Guangzhou, Kunming, Beijing and Shanghai in 2016, I conducted 83 in-depth interviews with leaders or staff from eNGOs, foundations, and government agencies.

The directory of 393 eNGOs shows that while the entire eNGO sector has expanded rapidly since the early 2010s, eNGO development trajectories vary across China’s provinces. Resorting to a combination of organizational ecology theory and institutional theory, I explain the various trajectories as results of changing policy context and population niches in which eNGOs evolve. Moreover, through integrating the eNGO directory and yearbook data into an 8-year (2009-2016) panel dataset, this study for the first time quantitatively tests the explanatory power of several key factors (i.e., government environmental expenditure, government performance on environmental information disclosure, direct registration policy, environmental pollution, public grievance and social donation) to account for the geographic variation in the size of the eNGO sector across provinces in China.

Apart from the size of the eNGO sector, this study further examines eNGOs’ development in their operations and relationships with the government. Empirical results from the questionnaire survey of 89 eNGOs show that eNGOs have evolved in their registration forms, resource generations, advocacy engagement and relationships with the government. Meanwhile, the survey data also demonstrate that regional disparity exists in eNGOs’ operations and relationships with the government. Furthermore, this study employs the survey data to examine how eNGO-government relationships influence eNGOs’ functions and operations (i.e., revenue diversification, advocacy engagement and advocacy effectiveness). Resorting to the inter-organizational theory, this study operationalizes the eNGO-government relationship from two dimensions and quantitatively tests their contingent influences on eNGOs’ functions and operations.

This study contributes to the knowledge on nonprofit study in both theoretical and methodological aspects. Theoretically, it disaggregates Chinese society through exploring eNGOs’ divergent evolution trajectories and functions across various localities in the country. Hence, instead of the traditional theoretical perspectives like civil society or corporatism, this study resorts to organizational theories (i.e., organizational ecology theory, institutional theory and inter-organization theory) to investigate eNGOs’ development. Moreover, this study highlights as well as examines the explanatory power of policy context in determining eNGOs’ growth and operations. Methodologically, this study provides two original large-scale datasets on Chinese eNGOs. The eNGO directory for the first time maps the distribution and growth of eNGOs at the provincial level in China. In addition, an original nationwide questionnaire survey further illustrates their daily operations, including registration forms, resource generation, activities, and relationships with the government.