Foreign NGOs - Wang Daohan, Ford Foundation and the Chinese government’s attitude at the start of Opening and Reform

This year’s events in China – including the passage of a law that emphasizes strict control of foreign NGOs and the show trials two weeks ago of Chinese rights activists whom Beijing accused of working with “hostile foreign forces” – have shown that Chinese leadership is extremely wary of a “color revolution” inspired by the outside world.

In light of current concerns of the international community, it might be useful to recall the very different situation in 1979. China was just opening, and I was in Beijing at the invitation of the city government to help train its economic officials in international business law. I got to know Wang Daohan, then head of the new national Foreign Investment Commission, through his very able assistant, a young economics graduate named Tang Yunbin, whose English skills had proved helpful in efforts to develop an updated Chinese legal vocabulary for terms like “foreign tax credit”.  Wang had just been moved into his new job from an earlier post as Minister of Foreign Economic Relations. More than most PRC leaders, he saw the need for Chinese officials to learn about foreign economic transactions and institutions but felt frustrated by the limited opportunities for them to do so.

I knew that Ford Foundation, which had sponsored Harvard Law School research on the legal systems of China, Japan and Vietnam, was eager to enter China and be helpful but seemed frustrated in efforts to do so. It plainly made sense to try to bridge the gap, so I invited Carl Green, an American lawyer who was then Ford’s representative in Tokyo, to come to Beijing to have lunch with Wang.

Since the PRC for three decades had been denouncing foreign foundations like Ford as running dogs of imperialism, Green was understandably apprehensive that China might spurn Ford’s interest. Lunch was pleasant through the main course, but neither Wang nor Green appeared willing to initiate discussion of the subject that brought us together.

As dessert arrived, feeling a bit anxious about the way things were going, I said to Wang what he obviously already knew - that Ford might be willing to help with the training of Chinese officials in international economic matters. He feigned welcoming surprise and asked Green to what extent Ford might help. Carl, visibly tense, mustered all his gumption and said that Ford might be willing to contribute as much as one million USD to such training.  Wang almost snorted in scornful disbelief. “What”, he said, “do you know how poor China is and how huge its needs are? One million dollars is nothing.”  

At that point Green, instead of being offended, began to relax, for he saw that China was prepared to behave like the governments of many other developing countries and that cooperation would be possible, at a heftier price, to be sure!

What a difference 37 years have made!