One by one, Chinese NGOs are settling in Geneva

The Chinese Peaceland foundation, who is in the process of setting up a representation office in Geneva, took part in the rescue operation for missing football players and their assistant coach at the Tham Luang cave in Thailand, 04 July 2018. (Credits: Keystone/EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT).

In the past five years, Geneva has witnessed the arrival of the first two Chinese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the city, who have set up representative offices. A third one is coming soon, and many more are showing interest. What does this new trend mean for International Geneva? Geneva Solutions takes a look.

Times are hard for historic Geneva NGOs, between the adaptation to a new hybrid environment and fears of the crisis’s delayed impact on their budgets.

Read also: Geneva NGOs face funding uncertainties amid Covid and government cuts.

But the future could lie further east: in fact, interest from organisations based in southeast Asia has never been higher, according to the International Geneva Welcome Center (CAGI).

The organisation, which helps newcomers settle in the city, told Geneva Solutions it had been receiving an unprecedented number of requests from China and Indian-based NGOs looking to open representative offices.

Given the high cost of living and of renting office space in the Geneva area, however, there is a big step between the first point of contact and the bureau opening.

So far, demands from Indian organisations have not materialised into office openings. The same cannot be said for China, with two organisations currently registered at CAGI – and a third one coming soon.

Julien Beauvallet, head of the NGO service at CAGI, estimates that between five and 10 Chinese NGOs have reached out to his service in 2021 – a number nevertheless reduced by the impact of the pandemic, with organisations delaying a potential move.

“If we compare by continent, removing local initiatives supported by actors from International Geneva, it’s clear that requests from China and India are the most numerous,” he says.

A recent phenomenon

The Amity foundation, a Christian humanitarian assistance organisation created in 1985 and based in Nanjing, was the first Chinese NGO to open a Geneva office, in March 2016.

As explained by representative Qian Xiaofeng, its funding did not allow them to hire full-time staff. To date, there is only one part-time employee on site. But it was “fortunate enough” to find cheap office space in the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) building, in the Grand-Saconnex area.

Among the factors behind the move was the proximity with its partners, including WCC: “Having an office in Geneva will definitely facilitate swifter coordination and interaction with these organisations”, Qian says. “Our presence in Geneva will greatly enhance our accessibility and connection with the international humanitarian community.”

The expansion of Chinese NGOs and other charitable organisations abroad follows China’s gradual opening to globalisation. Until recently, the Chinese government required Chinese civil society organisations to focus on domestic issues – meaning they were unable to operate abroad.

But, since 2000, the country has moved to spread Chinese culture and ideology – and its organisations are now “going out” of the country. Confucius Institutes were the first to test the waters, opening in Seoul in South Korea in 2004, and later at the University of Geneva in 2012.

Other organisations subsequently followed: “Amity began its exploration of ‘going out’ around 2010, dispatching staff to conduct biogas training and engage in disaster relief in African and Asian countries,” Qian explains.

Several have since shown interest in the ecosystem of International Geneva. Following the Amity foundation’s footsteps, the Child Law International Alliance (CLIA), a child rights organisation supported by a legal research centre in Beijing, settled in the Environment House in Chatelaine, in 2019.

It will be joined by the Peaceland foundation, a Beijing-based humanitarian assistance organisation focusing on natural disaster and post-conflict relief which will open a Geneva office before the end of the year.

The NGO notably took part in the rescue operation to save a junior football team trapped in a cave in Thailand, which made international headlines in 2018.

Like the Amity foundation, Peaceland first opened offices in Lebanon, Cambodia and Zimbabwe, before planning a move to Switzerland.

“All international, governmental and non-governmental, have offices in Geneva. So Geneva is a good place for us to get in the circle with the other humanitarian actors,” says Zhan Weizhen, project coordinator for the Geneva Office.

The young organisation is currently looking for office space in Geneva, Zhan explains, which will likely be a one-person operation, to “minimise the costs”. It also has one employee currently in Geneva, on a fixed-term contract, to smoothen the transition.

Mixed responses from the locals

With the arrival of these new actors comes the prospect of a more inclusive future for International Geneva, as explained by Beauvallet: “I personally see it as something very positive. Simply put, it better reflects the diversity of civil societies in various countries.”

But not all International Geneva actors – whose vast majority come from Western countries – see the matter in this light.

“I am unsure whether these NGOs are always well-received; Western and historic actors welcome them with suspicion – and perhaps rightly so,” Beauvallet qualifies.

The Amity foundation, for its part, says it has not been experiencing any kind of backlash so far: “As far as we know, the international NGOs, especially Amity partners, have been very welcoming and helpful to Amity when we told them our intent,” Qian adds.

It is also on the board of two international NGO networks whose secretariats are in Geneva, ACT Alliance and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) – which have both been in Geneva for decades.

The Peaceland foundation, on the other hand, has been received with a mix of surprise and curiosity. “In the past, not many Chinese NGOs did this kind of thing. When we come to Geneva, people always say ‘Ah, you are doing this? It’s a Chinese NGO?’” Zhan says.

“Because we just began, two or three months ago, there hasn’t been a huge reaction yet. When we communicate with other organisations, they are always surprised that there’s a Chinese NGO doing this,” Zhan adds. “Also, I think people became a bit interested in Chinese NGOs, in how they were going to work, so they like to communicate with us, to know more.”

These reactions are unlikely to stop Chinese NGOs, who are on a quest to get recognition for their work. As summarised by Beauvallet: “By having an office in Geneva, the humanitarian capital, (these NGOs) have access to other humanitarian agencies, which legitimises them and gives them credibility.”

A charged history

This reluctance on the part of some International Geneva actors does not come out of the blue: it has to do with the alleged ties between some Chinese NGOs and their national government.

This phenomenon of so-called “governmental non-governmental organisations” (GONGOs) – an ironic label designating organisations launched or sponsored by a government to further its political agenda – is not new. In 2015, Reuters identified 34 from mainland China, Macau or Hong-Kong operating within the UN system as GONGOs – out of 47 NGOs in total.

According to a new report from a Geneva-based NGO, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), GONGOs can play several roles, such as intimidating other NGOs or human rights activists, making their interventions last longer to prevent others from participating, and promoting narratives which support their government’s agenda.

The ISHR report states that out of the 28 Chinese NGOs that have received a UN accreditation since 2016, only one had clear ties to the Chinese Communist Party or government.

Within the Amity foundation, which received a UN accreditation in 2014, four out of nine board members currently hold official positions in China. They are all members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body made up of government-approved political parties.

This alone should not be taken to mean that these organisations are government-sponsored. After all, NGOs are often supported by governments.

But these kinds of government ties, especially from organisations whose funding sources are not always publicly available, could help to explain the sometimes distrustful response from other actors from the sector.

A sector lacking oversight

Against this backdrop, there is also a wider issue of classification, within a world of Geneva NGOs that is, at times, rather opaque.

Stephan Davidshofer, lecturer at the University of Geneva, is the lead author of the first study mapping all International Geneva NGOs, which was published in 2019.

“NGOs are the kingdom of the approximate: there is no official definition,” Davidshofer says. “So we made this official list of NGOs in Geneva, which did not exist – which is just crazy.”

Putting together various registration lists – including CAGI’s and the UN’s, but also local NGOs receiving grants from Swiss authorities – his team found 759 NGOs active in Geneva, almost twice as much as earlier estimates.

But even this does not cover it: the full list of organisations tracked in the report, seen by Geneva Solutions, does not mention the Amity foundation, which was already in Geneva at the time of the study.

The lack of official records contributes to the fog surrounding certain organisations, and does not facilitate the identification of all the actors from the sector.

This is even more relevant for newcomers like the three Chinese NGOs; given that the list has not been updated since its publication, neither CLIA nor the Peaceland foundation are included.

This is an issue which is likely to arise again in the future, as more Chinese organisations settle in the city of Calvin: “There will be others,” Beauvallet confirms. “But, given the important obstacles – notably the budgetary constraints – I do not think we ought to expect a wave of (Chinese) NGOs,” he concludes.