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Shining Stone Community Action (SSCA)

Project Title: 

Fostering citizen participation in urban communities in China: starting from scratch


Mr. Joern Geisselmann


China’s reform process has entered a crucial period. Three decades of rapid economic development have not only brought about spectacular material progress but also led to increasing inequalities and a rise in the number of social conflicts. In response to these challenges the government has gradually, albeit very cautiously, begun to open up spaces for citizen participation. For the most part, however, residents participate only passively in government-organized activities. Furthermore, as result of a traditional dependence on government initiatives, the capacity of residents to (co-)manage community affairs is still weak.

In 2007, Shining Stone Community Action (SSCA), a Beijing-based NGO promoting participatory urban governance, was approached by the local government of a sub-district in Beijing to assist them in improving their social services. After an initial training on participatory approaches and project management, residents’ committees (RC) designed small community projects based on residents’ needs and interests. They then applied for funding from the sub-district (SD) government. Four projects were eventually selected, including, amongst others, a second-hand clothes shop, an informal kindergarten, and a training program and community centre for domestic workers. Project implementation teams were then established that consisted of residents and community workers. The self-organization of residents was actively encouraged. Impressed by the initial results, the government intends to extend our cooperation and double the number of community projects this year. Different from the first round, this time it is planned that a public meeting will be held where residents and community workers vote for the best projects that will then receive funding from the government.

Taking the particular political and social circumstances in China into account, the following innovations are especially noteworthy: 1) a bottom-up approach to community development, not a top-down, ‘one size fits all’ approach; 2) a project-based approach to service delivery; 3) an emphasis on needs assessments prior to project design; and 4) participation of residents in decision-making processes. The government’s willingness to pay for the services of a local NGO is also a new phenomenon in China.

Among the challenges we face in promoting citizen participation in urban communities is the continuing dominance of RCs and the question of how to sustain citizen initiatives and the participatory governance model as a whole. Also, our own role as change agents is not as unproblematic as it might seem at first sight.


Background: Citizen participation in urban China

In response to the increasing gap between rich and poor and the rise in the number of conflicts, the central government under the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao made “building a harmonious society” one of its top priorities. Apart from efforts to reduce existing income disparities, some degree of citizen participation is increasingly seen as a means to achieve this goal and thus maintain social stability. Public participation in environmental impact assessments, direct elections of village heads and public hearings on selected policy issues are among the better known examples testifying to this trend.

With the current shift from work unit-centred welfare to community welfare, citizen participation in urban community affairs is also becoming both more urgent and more attainable. Since the late 1990s the Ministry of Civil Affairs has embarked on an ambitious program of ‘community reconstruction’ (shequ jianshe) that includes strengthening citizen participation and community self-governance among its goals. In his report to the 17th party congress in autumn 2007, President Hu Jintao also declared grassroots self-governance mechanisms (jiceng qunzhong zizhi zhidu) to be an integral part of the Chinese political system.

However, until now it has proven difficult to translate these new concepts into practice. As a consequence of decades of ‘big government, small society’, government officials as well as citizens have been used to top-down approaches to governance and often lack the skills and attitudes needed for participatory community development. Officials tend to underestimate the ability of residents and fear opening what to them appears to be a pandora’s box. Residents often feel powerless to bring about change and rely heavily on government initiative. At the same time, both are unfamiliar with innovative participatory techniques and approaches that have been developed in other parts of the world.



In China, medium and large cities have four levels of administration: the municipal government, the district government, the SD office (jiedao banshichu; also sometimes translated as street offices), and the RC. Each SD office supervises a number of RCs and each RC in turn works in communities of a few thousand people. Theoretically RCs are supposed to be grassroots organizations; in reality, however, they are extensions of the government administration and are responsible for implementing government policies and administering social services. Their members are either directly elected by residents or appointed by higher level authorities. The activities of RCs and SD offices are often administered top-down and do not properly take into account the needs and interests of residents. Also, the potential of residents to contribute to community development remains largely untapped.

In June 2007, the Qingyuan SD office of Beijing’s Daxing district asked SSCA for advice on how to provide meaningful and sustainable social services. Daxing is one of 16 districts of Beijing and lies south of the city centre. Qingyuan SD currently consists of 23 communities that together have about 110,000 registered permanent residents and 20,000 migrant workers.

Two years earlier a RC member in Qingyuan had contacted us after reading an article by our director in a government magazine. We offered to her the opportunity to attend one of our training courses. Being impressed by the course, she then suggested that the SD office invite us to give a training in Qingyuan. As a result, SSCA conducted two training courses on participatory community governance for 100 Qingyuan government officials and community workers each. Over the next two years the head of the SD office, Mr. Gan, sought our advice on and off on various issues related to community development. The mutual trust and respect that developed over the course of these two years eventually lead to the cooperation described in this article.



As described above, the project was initiated by the Qingyuan SD office and SSCA. The actual implementation was undertaken by the SD Service Centre, the local RCs and active residents with the support of SSCA.

The Qingyuan Service Centre was established in 2003 by the SD government. Its objective is to provide community services to residents and enterprises in Qingyuan. The Centre is headed by Ms. Zhang, a young, dedicated woman who was put in charge of the overall project on behalf of the SD office.

As mentioned in the previous section, Qingyuan SD has 23 communities and RCs. The three communities that have so far implemented projects (for more details see the Description of the Initiative section) all possess different characteristics: one community has a large population of migrant workers, another a large proportion of wealthy residents, and the third one comparatively many well educated residents. Active residents in the first two projects consisted of a number of female migrant workers (domestic workers in the case of the second community) while in the third project they were mostly retired residents or residents in their forties and fifties with an interest in various art forms.

SSCA is a non-profit organization founded in Beijing in 2002. Our core mission is to promote a participatory approach to urban community governance reforms through relevant capacity building, pilot projects, policy advocacy, and information services. Since our establishment we have, amongst other things, conducted more than 100 training courses on participatory approaches and project management, have developed in cooperation with the Ningbo government the so-called “Haishu model” of community governance, have published a widely read quarterly newsletter and other publications, and have established an extensive network among government officials, community workers, academics and NGO workers. We have also been actively promoting the establishment of social enterprises as an innovative means to solve social problems.


Motivating factors

Mr. Gan and Ms. Zhang from the SD government were unsatisfied with the customary top-down approach, which often only produced superficial results. Besides, they wished to decentralize their services since their staff capacity on the SD level was too limited to provide meaningful services to all communities. Another important reason for Mr. Gan’s willingness to eventually co-implement a project with us was the fact that due to his relatively advanced age he no longer had any expectation of further promotion. Thus he was willing to take the risk to experiment with an approach that is still regarded as unconventional in China.

For us the cooperation provided an excellent opportunity to establish a new project site (our third pilot project so far) and thus the chance to further explore how to introduce and adapt participatory methodologies to urban China. Implementing a project in Beijing had a number of additional advantages. First, since our office is in Beijing it meant that we could visit the communities more frequently and thus be more closely involved in the entire process. Second, the proximity to the seats of the central government and China’s top universities increases the project’s visibility and its possible impact on national policies. And finally, it could serve as a site for field visits during our training courses on participatory community governance.

For the participating RC members and residents the motivation to take part in the project is likely to vary from individual to individual. Generally, however, one can assume that for RC members the initial incentives to participate included the opportunity to receive additional funds as well as the chance to strengthen their relationship with the SD office (which can also help to secure more resources and in the long run even lead to a promotion). Those residents that were most active, on the other hand, probably contributed their time and energy mainly because they saw the value of the community projects and hoped to share in their benefits.


Description of the initiative

In the initial meeting in June 2007 our director suggested to the head of the SD office that community services should be based on genuine needs of residents and should actively encourage the participation of residents in its design and implementation. Services offered should not be the same in every community but rather reflect the particular characteristics of each community. Only services that responded to real demands would elicit residents’ support and would be sustainable. Finding this argument convincing and knowing that his office lacked the expertise to adopt such an approach on its own, the SD head asked SSCA for assistance.

We began by holding a two-day training on community services and project management for the heads of the 23 RCs. The RCs were then asked to identify a target group in their community (e.g. elderly people, unemployed residents) and conduct a needs assessment among them. Based on the results of the assessment, each committee prepared a project proposal outlining what community service they wished to establish. After reviewing all proposals, the SD office and SSCA selected the four most promising ones.

Together with Ms. Zhang from the Service Centre, we visited the four committees and discussed their proposals with them. The proposed projects included training courses for domestic workers, free health checks and morning exercises for migrant workers, food services for elderly residents without nearby relatives, and an association of various cultural activity groups (such as painting, calligraphy, and singing). In all of these proposals, except the last one, the RC was still the main, in fact only, driver of the projects. Given the fact that this is usually the case with community affairs in China this was not surprising. Also, the primary objective of the training series for domestic workers was to increase employers’ satisfaction rather than to (also) help and empower these young women.

Next, we discussed the proposals with resident representatives (for more details see the Challenges section). As a result of these discussions two project designs were revised. The domestic workers project added the establishment of a meeting room for relaxation, learning and exchanging of information to its objectives and the migrant workers project shifted its focus to the creation of a children’s activity centre and a second-hand clothes and toy store.

In September, we were finally ready to form project teams (or what we called ‘boards’) and begin the actual project implementation. Team members included not only RC staff but also residents. A brief training session was held to discuss the role and function of each team member.

Four months later, the children’s centre and the second hand store opened. The government’s support in securing a suitable location and collecting clothes and toys was and remains crucial. Day-to-day management, however, is conducted by a team of four dedicated migrant women. The children’s centre is open three times a week; classes are run by the migrant women and college student volunteers. All four women earn a very modest salary from the proceeds of the store.

The training program for domestic workers has started. A meeting room, which was provided for free by the local real estate management company, is currently being renovated and will be ready for use after the Chinese New Year in February. Costs for the renovation are being paid for by the SD office.

The cultural association has been established and a much needed additional activity room has, after the intervention by the SD government, been provided by the local real estate management company.

The project to provide daily meals for needy elderly residents did not materialize in the end, despite repeated visits and lengthy discussions. The reasons for this never became entirely clear but an important obstacle was the lack of support for the project by the RC head.



SSCA and the SD office will continue to support and foster the development of the projects described above. The Ford Foundation has agreed to lend financial support to our endeavour. We were, moreover, able to secure funding from a Chinese foundation for capacity building activities and educational material for the migrant workers project. Since the plan to provide meals for elderly residents failed, a creativity program for children is now being considered instead.

In addition, a new round of project proposals will be invited from the remaining 19 communities. To this end we already trained RC heads in conducting a needs assessment. A major innovation this time will be that projects will be selected together by resident representatives, RC heads and SD officials during a public meeting.

During the first half of 2008 we intend to conduct a seminar to share and discuss our experiences with leading Chinese scholars, government representatives and NGO activists.



The extent to which urban community development in China is administered in a top-down fashion is probably difficult to imagine. The government hopes to control the community building process. RCs mostly implement instructions received by the SD office while residents are seen as passive beneficiaries. Higher level instructions do not take local realities and the diversity of communities sufficiently into account. They usually require all RCs to implement the same regulations or policies. In one city, for example, all RCs had to open a community library, despite perhaps more pressing needs or priorities that the communities had. When government officials speak of participation in this context, they refer to the participation of residents in one-off events designed and organized by the RCs.

Our project introduced a very different approach. Our starting point was the needs and capabilities of the communities, not the perceptions of the SD office. We always asked RCs to consider the particulars of the community they were serving. To understand the needs of citizens and to involve them in the project cycle as early as possible, we encouraged the holding of meetings where residents could articulate their concerns. Thus the 23 communities proposed a wide range of activities and the four projects eventually funded by the SD office were all distinct from each other. Moreover, residents are part of the project management teams, playing an active role in the actual implementation. While the degree of their involvement varies from project to project, this is clearly a government’s conventional approach.

departure from the Two aspects of this approach deserve further highlighting. First, it redefines the roles of the main actors involved in urban community development in China. The SDO takes on the role of funding service projects by RCs and residents and monitoring their implementation rather than providing these services itself or demanding RCs to do so. As a consequence, RCs become enabled to play a proactive role in developing community services instead of only following the instructions of the SDO, and residents increasingly change from passive receivers into providers of services.

Second, by adopting projects as a vehicle for providing social services (and providing training in project management), community workers and residents are encouraged to become more systematic, professional and process-oriented in the design and delivery of services. We have found, for example, that most lack the experience to develop an initial idea into a full-fledged proposal with goals, concrete steps to be taken, a sufficient risk analysis, and a realistic budget.

The capacity of involved SD leaders and RC staff to foster citizen participation has markedly increased during this process. The confidence of residents, especially migrant workers, in their own ability to improve their lot has also increased. Ms. Zhang, the head of the SD Service Centre and in charge of the project, has wholeheartedly embraced the concepts put forward by us. The idea to hold a public meeting to select the projects of the second round was conceived of by her (after attending our introductory course on concepts and methods of community participation). She, moreover, proposed that during 2008 we should systematically train all 23 RC heads in participatory community development. According to her and Mr. Gan, the four RC heads involved in the project have begun to apply what they have learnt in their regular work. The most impressive example so far is the organization of a meeting of more than 100 community representatives using the Open Space technique to confer about work priorities for 2008.

In the Context Section I introduced in some detail how the cooperation between SSCA and the Qingyuan SD office came about. I did so because in China such cooperation is still unusual. The Chinese government usually views NGOs with marked scepticism (both regarding their motivation and abilities). The willingness of the SD office to pay for our services is thus an acknowledgement of the positive contribution that NGOs can make to society. It also indicates that SSCA possesses skills and expertise that the government values.

To sum up, the project introduced the following innovations: 1) a bottom-up, not a top-down, ‘one size fits all’ approach to community development; 2) a project-based approach to service delivery; 3) an emphasis on assessing community characteristics and residents’ needs; and 4) residents’ participation in decision-making processes. While these might seem modest by international comparison, they are substantial given China’s environment. Moreover, the government’s willingness to pay for our services is also a new phenomenon in China and an indication of an increased recognition of the contribution of NGOs.



Promoting citizen participation in urban China is, of course, not without challenges. During the first round many RCs did not, in fact, undertake the required needs assessment. Instead, the opinions of residents were often only sought after the RC had already prepared a draft proposal. This was in part our mistake. While we had emphasized the importance of assessing residents’ needs, we had not explained in any detail how to do this. Thus before the second round we conducted a half-day training on conducting needs assessments. We even considered accompanying RCs during their needs assessments, but due to the large number of communities this was not feasible. An obstacle that remains is the fear of many RC staff that they will be overwhelmed by the needs and problems that residents might raise during a needs assessment.

Another challenge is the small number and the lack of representation of participating residents. During our meetings the number of residents seldom exceeded ten. They are selected and invited by the RCs. Some of them are so-called building leaders (louzhang) and can be considered resident representatives; others are present because they are party members or receive welfare benefits from the RC and thus have to maintain good relations with the RC staff. In any case, the small number of participants limits their representation of a diverse community of 2,000-2,500 households (though the actual target group of each project was significantly smaller).

Related to this is the lack of transparency. Residents are often unaware of the project meetings or sometimes even the project itself. While the majority of residents are busy with their own lives and neither need nor want the interference by the RC, there are some residents who would be interested in their activities but are not aware of them. During the recent training on needs assessments we therefore encouraged public announcements of meetings, but it is not clear yet whether the SD office and RCs will be willing to implement this suggestion.

The underlying reason for the above challenges is the central role that the RCs are still playing in the communities and that in fact the Ministry of Civil Affairs wants them to play it. While we encourage the RCs to empower residents and to support and facilitate their initiatives, the government expects the RCs to guide and control the community building process. The RCs themselves also fear that one day resident organizations could be stronger than the RCs and residents might then not obey the RCs anymore.

Essentially this is a matter of power and control. The Machiavellian aspects aside, it is also a question of how to understand stability and progress. Both the Chinese government and people abhor chaos and wish for stability and peace. At the same time China has embarked on an ambitious reform program to build a prosperous and progressive society. How does one balance the requirements of stability and progress? What role do unity and diversity play? The answers to these questions will have to be determined, again and again, by the Chinese government and citizens. Our work seeks to provide positive examples of alternative conceptions of power distribution, progress and stability that can serve as a reference during this search process.

A fundamental challenge is also how to sustain the individual projects as well as the innovations in the approach to governance as a whole. Since the role of the government is still so decisive, projects might falter should the government withdraw its support (should, for example, Mr. Gan retire or change his mind). The migrant workers might be able to use some of their sales proceeds to pay for the shop rent but it is highly unlikely that the real estate management company would continue to give a meeting room to the domestic workers free of charge. Even if the women would be able to pay rent, which is unlikely, the management company could be unwilling to continue the lease for fear of upsetting their main clients, the house owners and employers of the domestic workers. At least in this early stage, the migrant women would also have great difficulty in acquiring enough clothes and toy donations on their own.

But not only the community projects would be put in jeopardy should the government lose interest, the new, generally more participatory approach, could be replaced again by the customary top-down approach. Should this happen, the only consolation would be that the power of the new approach, once in the world, would continue to exist and inform our project and advocacy work. After all, our objective is not primarily to change individual SDs but to introduce and advocate a new governance approach for all of China.

Last but not least, our own role as change agents poses questions. Many of the perhaps more innovative aspects of the community projects were actually introduced by us. In one community, for example, women had identified a lack of affordable kindergarten education and job opportunities as priority challenges. We suggested to them that they could open a children’s activity centre and a second hand shop to address these challenges. At first, neither the RC nor most of the women themselves thought that they could do this. Only after visiting another community that was already doing something similar they became convinced, even excited, about this possibility. Did we go too far in suggesting these activities? Should we have presented them with more options or none at all?  While in this case the results are so far clearly positive, this might not always be the case. Also, as mentioned above, what will happen to these activities should the government withdraw its support? Will the women be able to sustain them on their own? If not, how will they feel about it? Will they feel let down by us and society?

I think that we were justified in contributing our ideas not just on the process but also on the content of the projects. Yet, caution is needed when doing so. As project initiators our contributions are taken very seriously by both community workers and residents. We thus need to be doubly careful not to misuse our position and impose our own ideas but rather share them in a spirit of humility. After all, it will be the residents whose lives will be influenced by the actions taken, for better or worse.


Lessons learned

Working with the government in China is clearly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is necessary in order to produce significant results and avoid marginalization. On the other hand, there always looms the danger of being co-opted. Some NGOs therefore try to stay away from the government. This, however, limits their impact and makes them and the results they produce vulnerable. At any time the government can decide to stop their activities. The great majority of NGOs therefore choose to cooperate with the government.

In our case working with the government is especially important since in China it is largely the government that determines the space open for citizen participation. Besides, it would simply not be possible to work with urban residents and to foster self-organization without government involvement. Not only would the government disapprove of it but residents themselves would be reluctant to work with us. Our main approach is therefore to train and assist government officials and community workers in the use of participatory approaches so that they gradually extend the space open to citizen participation. At the same time, we encourage the formation of self-help groups and invite active citizens to our training courses. Interestingly, this form of cooperation has not come at the expense of being influenced by the government. Rather the government chooses how much they are willing to be influenced by us.

Finally, the government obviously commands considerable resources, both financial and otherwise. Our experiences show that their involvement in community development can help produce results to an extent otherwise not possible. The migrant workers running the second-hand store, for example, would not be able to attract enough clothing and toy donations on their own. And none of the projects would have had the funds to rent the rooms needed for their activities or possess the social capital to negotiate successfully with the local real estate management companies. Thus in our experience drawing on the government for support remains a sensible strategy in many areas of development in China.


Selected literature on community participation in (urban) China

Benewick, Robert, Tong, Irene & Howell, Jude (2004): Self-Governance and community: A preliminary comparison between villagers’ committees and urban community councils, China Information, 18, 11-28.

Derleth, James & Koldyk, Daniel R. (2004): The Shequ experiment: grassroots political reform in urban China, Journal of Contemporary China, 13: 41, .

Leung, Joe C.B. (2000): Community building in China: from welfare to politics, Community Development Journal, 35: 4, .

Plummer, Janelle & Taylor, John G. (eds.; 2004): Community participation in China: issues and processes for capacity building, Earthscan.

Yan, Miuchung & Gao Jianguo (eds.; 2005): Social engineering of community building: examination of policy process and characteristics of community construction in China, Community Development Journal, 42: 2, .

Zhong, Yang & Hua, Shiping (eds.; 2006): Political civilization and modernization in China: the political context of China’s transformation, World Scientific Publishing.
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