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“ESCies” in China

There is no such a thing called Entrepreneurial Spaces and Collectivities (ESCies) directly in Chinese. The most approximate thing I can imagine is social incubators in China, if we exclude various commercial incubators and high-tech innovation labs.

In China, social incubator is the counterpart of the Impact Hub. By the middle of 2013, there are 56 such social incubation bases established in China, that almost equal to the global scale of the Impact Hub in the same year. At present, the number of social incubators is still growing. In terms of the geographical distribution of these incubators, as shown in the figure, Shanghai has the highest number, as many as seventeen. The provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu have ten social incubators respectively. Zhejiang has five, and Beijing has three. Other provinces such as Tianjin, Anhui, Hunan, Hubei, Liaoning, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, and Jiangxi, have at least one social incubator.

social incubators in ChinaFigure: Social incubators in China, 2013. Created by the author

The first Chinese social incubator was established in Shanghai in 2006, called “non-profit incubator” (NPI). At present, NPI is probably one of the best well-known support organisations dedicating to promote social entrepreneurship and social innovation in China.

My interest in NPI dates back to 2009, when I worked in a think-tank in Beijing and engaged with a research team to investigate survival and developmental difficulties of Chinese social organisations or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). With colleagues, I conducted 68 interviews with various NGOs in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Yunnan, through snowball samplings during 2009-2010. At the end of interview, every organisation was invited to offer several names of other NGOs that it frequently interacted or recommended us to visit. One organisation quickly attracted my attention. It is called “Non-Profit Incubator” (NPI), one of the organisations that were frequently mentioned or recommended by other NGOs.

NPI is specialized in providing various support services for grassroots NGOs and social enterprises in China. From 2006 to 2014, NPI grows from one person to more than 180 full-time paid employees, while the average staff number of social organisations in China is only 12 according to official statistics. When I first interviewed NPI in 2009, it only had four branches in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Chengdu). In 2013 when I visited it again in the fieldwork, NPI has extended offices and projects to 15 Chinese major cities (some social incubators in other cities are not managed by NPI), and has incubated and served more than 1,200 organisations in total. Almost no a second social organisation in China has such a high speed of growth and expansion. Moreover, NPI is no longer a single organisation. It has emerged from one incubator to a group of 16 independently run and closely collaborating organisations, each of which is specialised in one field of social support services. Without exaggeration, NPI now has become a conglomerate of support organisations promoting social entrepreneurship and social innovation in China. NPI is crucial for understanding the emergence and spread of social entrepreneurship in China.
Furthermore, NPI has successfully facilitated the formation of three new policies from the local and central government agencies. The three policies are nonprofit incubation policy, venture philanthropy competition, and national charity fair. Before the emergence of NPI, there is no policy of nonprofit incubation in China. NPI has first promoted the Shanghai municipal government put forward the policy that nascent NGOs and social enterprise can achieve incubation services before registration and bidding for government purchasing of services. This policy soon spread from Shanghai to other cities and regions in China. Venture philanthropy competition was also first initiated by NPI and collaborated with Shanghai government, and afterwards it was soon emulated by other cities. Exhibition of social organisations was piloted by NPI as well in Beijing, and later the Ministry of Civil Affairs took over this form of exhibition and upgraded it into a national charity fair held annually in Shenzhen.

Therefore, NPI is a typical organisation of ESCies in China, and more importantly, it has successfully influenced at least three government policies. Previous studies on Chinese NGOs or third sector organisations either focuses on how the Party-state controls or co-opts NGOs, or how NGOs survive or adapt in the authoritarian context. Yet, what kinds of social organisations are more likely to influence government policies, and how and why they can influence government policies are significantly understudied. To fill this gap, social incubators represented by NPI are therefore worth close attention of political and organisational scientists. In one empirical chapter of my PhD thesis, I draw on a detailed case study of NPI to map out the emergence and spread of social entrepreneurship and social incubators in China, and unfold the underlying mechanism of the policy influence of social enterprises.

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