NGO as sympathy vendor? The realignment of market, state, and civil society in China

Research output: Other Conference ContributionsPresentation


Previous studies of China NGOs predominantly focus on the state-civil society interactions. The involvement of corporate foundations and internet fundraising platforms has signaled the increased role of market forces as a direct actor of NGO development in China. Using an institutionalist approach, I examine the ways in which market actors constitute the institutional ecology that shapes and restructures NGOs’ social role and repertoire of strategies. I draw on a case study of Inclusion China, an NGO of parents of children with developmental disabilities, regarding its participation in China’s largest internet fundraising campaign – the 99 Tencent Charity Day. With an organizational history of rights advocacy and relying predominantly on foreign funding previously, the organization actively seeks market mechanism as a new funding source in response to the authoritarian state’s reform of social governance, especially the coming into force of the Foreign NGO Law that illegalized unregistered foreign funding in 2017. The organization raised more than 12 million RMB (or about $1.7 million) in 2019’s three-days campaign from 320,000 public donors. Using ethnographic data including participant observations and interviews, I argue that market actors transform the institutional environments of NGOs in China, reshaping NGOs as what I call “sympathy vendors” and generating new repertoire of strategies that favor the market logic of publicity over their traditional role as rights advocate and service provider. I also explore the central and local state’s ambivalent attempts to manage and incorporate the emerging market involvements. The consequences of this shifting institutional environment are the realignment of civil society actors on the one hand, and the reinforcement of the authoritarian state’s social governance project of de-politicizing civil society on the other hand.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 13 Sept 2020
Externally publishedYes
EventAmerican Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting 2020 -
Duration: 10 Sept 202013 Sept 2020 (official website)


ConferenceAmerican Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting 2020
Internet address


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