Emma Tomalin, Professor of Religion and Public Life – University of Leeds, reflects on her recent trip to Nanjing, China where she spoke at the first Amity-Heren International Philanthropy Forum on ‘Social Innovation and Sustainable Development’.
I have been researching the topic of religions and development for more than a decade but have not focused on China in any of my work. With the rapid social and developmental changes that have taken place in China over the past few decades, as well as the growth of religious practices and identities, as the country moves away from the strict secularism of earlier periods, I was becoming increasingly interested in learning more about religion and development in China.
An invitation to present a paper at a conference on ‘Social Innovation and Sustainable Development’, 7-8 November 2017, at Nanjing University was therefore very welcome. The invitation came from an organization called the Amity Foundation, co-sponsors of the event. Amity Foundation was not only one of the earliest NGOs in China, but the first faith-based NGO. It was established by Chinese Christians in 1985, following China’s Reform and Opening-up period, headed by Bishop K. H. Ting, with its headquarters in Nanijng.
Today it has nearly 100 staff, being one of the largest NGOs in China, and has Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It’s vision is threefold:
- ‘Contribute to China’s social development and openness to the outside world
- Make Christian involvement and participation in meeting the needs of society more widely known to the Chinese people
- Serve as a channel for people-to-people contact and the ecumenical sharing of resources’
Amity has played a very large role in supporting the millions of rural poor in China, from education to health, social welfare, blindness prevention, special education, poverty alleviation and integrated rural development, ecological protection and women’s development, and has a growing interest in supporting and promoting the growth of civil society. It also has a printing company and in collaboration with the United Bible Societies is one of the largest producers of bibles worldwide. 
Shifting from a nation in receipt of international aid, economic growth over the past few decades means that China is now positioned as a donor nation. Reflecting this shift, I was particularly struck by ongoing references during the conference to the internationalization of Chinese NGOs or the idea of ‘going out’. This was a focus of a previous event held by Amity Foundation in Geneva a year earlier, in November 2016 ‘Stepping out of China: Perspectives on Chinese NGOs’. An office had been set up in Geneva earlier that year, a first for a Chinese NGO, where the UN headquarters are also located, to ‘enable Amity to better fulfill its responsibilities as a consultative body and to promote the voice and participation of a Chinese NGO in the international community on social development’.
While the reach and impact of Chinese FBOs may be strengthening globally, what about domestically? With President Xi Jinping’s recent pledge to end rural poverty in China by 2020, I wonder what the role will be for Amity Foundation and other faith-based organisations in this national task. As the South China Morning Post reports the role of faith in this renewed push to eradicate poverty is by no means seen by all as having a potentially positive contribution to make. In Yugan county in Jiangxi province, known for its poverty and large Christian community, Christians have been encouraged to have swap their posters of Jesus for portraits of President Xi Jinping as part of a local government poverty-relief programme that seeks to “transform believers in religion into believers in the party”’.
These various opportunities and challenges for Chinese FBOs, internationally and domestically, and how this fits with broader global religious dynamics makes this a particularly attractive area of academic research to me and one that I look forward to developing with collaborators in China in the coming years.