Contracting Services to NGOs in China

This project investigates how, why and with what consequences the Chinese government formally procures welfare services from NGOs.

Joining the debate on welfare provision, civil society, and authoritarianism - an international research project


This project investigates how, why and with what consequences the Chinese government formally procures welfare services from NGOs. Governmental sub-contracting of welfare services from NGOs has become commonplace in many Western countries. However in China this is a new endeavour. After the introduction of market-oriented reforms in 1978 the old system of welfare under the socialist planned economy began to break down. Since the mid-1990s the Chinese government has begun systematically to reform the welfare system. The need to expand welfare provider capacity to address a burgeoning range of increasingly complex welfare needs has led the Chinese government to look for non-state alternatives to welfare provision such as the private sector and NGOs.

However a key obstacle to expanding NGO provision has been the restrictive regulatory framework, which required NGOs to identify two government sponsors. The resultant limited pool of registered NGOs that the government could formally engage with had put a constraint on governmental ambitions to expand welfare provision capacity. By making it easier for NGOs to register, the government sought to promote the development of a non-governmental sector of welfare provision that could address the shortage of provider capacity to deal with increasingly complex, differentiated and urgent welfare needs. After five years of experimentation, in July 2012 the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ (MOCA) amended the regulatory framework governing NGOs to enable certain types of NGOs to register directly with it, waiving the need for a second government sponsor. It gave the green light to local governments across the country to roll out service procurement from NGOs.

These developments are significant because relations between the Chinese government and NGOs have often been tense, particularly for rights-based and advocacy groups that the government perceives as a threat to stability. Yet NGO-state relations are pivotal to the effective implementation of this regulatory shift which could not just expand provider capacity but also promote a more relaxed climate for NGOs in general.  Getting NGO-state policies right in these sub-contracting arrangements is thus central to building effective NGO-state relations and balancing expanded welfare provision with stability concerns.

Aims and research questions

There is surprisingly little evidence about the effects of these new contracting arrangements in China on welfare provision or on NGO state-relations. This projects aims to fill this gap in knowledge by investigating how the Chinese government formally procures welfare services from NGOs through contracts, why local government officials and NGOs agree or not to enter into contracts for service delivery, and the effects of this on welfare services provision and on the development of an NGO sector.  It comes at a timely moment when the Chinese government is rolling out service procurement from NGOs across the country to expand welfare services provider capacity.  As services sub-contracting from NGOs lies at the intersection of concerns around stability and welfare, it provides an ideal lens through which to observe how these processes of readjusting NGO-state relations unfold and their implications for NGO development and welfare services provision.  The research will not only generate new empirical evidence about this process but also contribute to themes at the heart of social policy and political science, such as welfare-state building; sub-contracting arrangements and their impact on welfare provision; civil society development in authoritarian regimes; and the relationship between welfare and authoritarianism.

The research has several objectives:

a) To collect and analyse the specific legislation, policies and contractual rules governing the procurement of welfare services from NGOs in China at national and sub-national levels,  and information about the areas of debate and contestation in their design and implementation;

b) To generate original empirical data on the incentives for government officials and NGOs at sub-national level to engage in service delivery contracts, and assess the impact of sub-contracting on NGO operations and on the dynamics of NGO-state relations;

c) At the policy and practical level, to highlight examples of best practice in terms of regulatory and policy arrangements, and NGO-state relations that can inform policy development in China and other similar contexts.

d) To develop conceptualisation of emerging models of sub-contracting and of NGO-state relations and to advance theoretical understanding of welfare-state building and civil society development in China. 

To address this gap in understanding about welfare services sub-contracting to NGOs in China, this project poses four research questions (RQ) related to the four objectives above.

  • RQ1 What legislative, regulatory and policy changes have been introduced at national, sub-national and sector levels to facilitate the contracting of welfare services by NGOs? What have been the points of contention and debate?
  • RQ2: Why do NGOs and local governments enter into service delivery sub-contracting arrangements?  How does sub-contracting affect NGO operations and NGO-state relations?
  • RQ3: what kind of best practices can be observed and could be shared?
  • RQ4: What kinds of models of welfare services sub-contracting to NGOs and NGO-state relations are emerging? What is the consequence of this changing relationship for China’s authoritarianism


Project funder


October 2018

Roundtable on contracting of basic public services to NGOs in China

Professor Jude Howell hosted a roundtable on the Contracting of Basic Public Services to NGOs in China in October 2018 on behalf of a joint National Development Reform Commission (China) and UNICEF programme on the Innovative Delivery of Public Services. Key speakers included Dr Regina Enjuto-Martinez (LSE) on experiences from the disability sector in the UK and its relevance to China, Dr Andy West on experiences from children’s services in the UK and their relevance to China, and Michael Birtwistle (National Council of Voluntary Organisations, UK) on the lessons from contracting government services to NGOs in the UK. Both Dr Enjuto-Martinez and Dr West were contributors to an edited volume by Wang Puqu and Jude Howell on the UK and China experiences of government procurement of public services from NGOs.

As contracting out services to the private sector and NGOs is relatively new in China, participants were eager to learn about the experiences of the UK, which extend over three decades. Participants included high-level government officials from the China National Development Reform Commission and UNICEF. There was considerable debate around the forms of contracting, the monitoring and evaluation processes, the importance of accountability and participation, the lessons from UK’s experiences and emerging issues in China. It was clear that there was considerable overlap in the experiences of the UK and China and mutual concern about how best to organise delivery so as to ensure high quality care.

Find out more about the funded project here


Contracting Welfare Services to NGOs in China: Control or Opportunity?

Monday 14 - Thursday 17 September 2020, (BST)

This programme of events arises out of three years research on Contracting Welfare Services to NGOs in China. It was funded by the ESRC and comprises an international team of researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, Beijing Normal University and University of New South Wales. The research was carried out over five locations in China and focused on three sectors, namely, children living with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS and migrants. Over 120 qualitative interviews were conducted as well as extensive analysis of laws, policies, regulations, and secondary research. 

The event is free. Participants should sign up at the following link. All papers (including Q&A) will be available as podcasts, which will be available in a few days after the event. Panel presentations will be recorded but Q&A is not recorded.


Past events:

Government contracting of welfare services to NGOs in China

The CSNC (Contracting Services to NGOs in China) project team is happy to announce its second international workshop, titled ‘Government contracting of welfare services to NGOs in China’, which will be held on 20 September 2018 at the LSE.

The workshop will gather academics from UK, China, Norway, and Australia, and NGOs from the UK. It will focus on issues such as the building of China’s new welfare system through services contracting, emerging findings from fieldwork in different locations and sectors such as children and care for the elderly, the impact of China’s Foreign NGO law on civil society organizations, and perceptions of NGOs in China. It will also involve presentations and discussions of findings from other relevant projects and experiences of services contracting in the UK. 

‘Contracting Services to NGOs in China’ is an ESRC-funded project which investigates how, why and with what consequences the Chinese government formally procures welfare services from NGOs.