August 15, 2009

China's NGOs fear for the worst

By Verna Yu

HONG KONG - China has in recent weeks resorted to unusually heavy-handed tactics to crack down on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), prominent lawyers and human-rights activists, sparking concern that a new round of persecution has begun on the nation's nascent civil society.

Last month, authorities closed down the Open Constitution Initiative (locally known as Gongmeng), a NGO that provides free legal assistance, accusing it of tax evasion. Two weeks ago, its founder Xu Zhiyong, a respected law professor, was taken away by police and no one has been able to contact him since.

About the same time Xu, 36, was arrested, police raided the Beijing Yirenping Center, another NGO which works to fight discrimination against Hepatitis B patients and HIV carriers, accusing it of illegal publishing.

More than 20 human-rights lawyers have also recently been disbarred, likely due to sensitive cases they had taken on.

Targeting NGOs is nothing new for the Chinese government - officials are always wary of groups over which they have no direct control. Unlike almost every other institution in China, from labor unions to schools, NGOs do no represent the ruling Communist Party and often receive funding from the West.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, there were 230,000 registered "social organizations" across the country at the end of 2008. By the government's definition, a registered "social organization" is the equivalent of a NGO, though some government-funded institutions (such as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the All-China Women's Federation) are also included in this category.

Although Gongmeng has adopted a low profile since its founding in 2003, the kind of work it does might have touched a raw nerve with authorities. It has challenged China's so-called "black jails", campaigned for the rights of migrant workers and death-row inmates, and helped the parents of babies poisoned during last year's tainted milk scandal seek legal redress.

Just two months before the authorities closed it down, Gongmeng also published a bold and bi-partisan report that questioned government claims that the exiled Dalai Lama incited the Tibet protests last year.

The Chinese government believes it has reason to fear the growth of a robust civil society. For a worrying precedent it need only look at the role an independent labor union (Solidarity) played in the eventual meltdown of the communist regime in Poland.

"Even for NGOs without a clear-cut political agenda, the fact that they're not at the beck and call of the party already makes the party feel they are a potential threat," said Willy Lam, veteran China watcher and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"They're outside the control of the party and ... they are still seen as destabilizing agents."

The authorities' sudden move against Gongmeng, and the arrest of Xu, have sent shivers down the spines of other NGO workers in China.

Wan Yanhai, who runs the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, a human-rights group for HIV/AIDS sufferers, said the crackdown on Gongmeng had many NGOs across China worried, with many putting projects on hold.

"We are expecting the police to come any minute," he said. "We're in someone else's hands - so you don't know when you'll be squashed. The action they took, the way they fined and outlawed [Gongmeng], can be applied to any organization, so the first reaction that many NGOs have is fear."

Lu Jun, head of the Beijing Yirenping Center, said what happened to Gongmeng and his organization had put off other people who wanted to set up non-profit organizations.

"We feel a lot of pressure now - there are too many difficulties and risks involved in public welfare work in China."

Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said he feared the targeting of a prestigious NGO such as Gongmeng, whose board comprises prominent academics and veteran legal professionals. He said it was a signal that the government had little tolerance for activism, even within the legal framework.

"The sudden move against rights lawyers and Gongmeng will send a chilling effect across China's nascent civil society," he said. "Most NGOs are much more fragile than Gongmeng."

Chen Ziming, founder of two independent think-tanks that were shut down by the authorities in the late 1980s, said curbing the rise of civil society was ingrained in the government's psyche.

"Authoritarian regimes have this habit of suppressing the development of civil society," said Chen, who was also accused of being the "black hand" of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and imprisoned for 13 years.

"The crackdowns come in waves. This time they don't like what they've seen so they have to suppress them, targeting their funding and their resources ... it's just a matter of choosing whom."

To make it easier to target the organizations it does not trust, the Chinese government has long refrained from giving NGOs legal status so it can retain control over them, critics say. Chinese NGOs are therefore always in a state of limbo - they can only register as companies and donations and grants can be considered profits.

"It's a very smart strategy," said Xu Youyu, a retired professor of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "If you do what is good for me, I'll let you do what you like, but over your head there will always be a Sword of Damocles. So if I want to get rid of you, I can do that easily."

There is speculation that the Chinese government is cracking the whip now because of its anxiety over sensitive anniversaries this year. Recent social unrest across China, including the turmoil in Tibet and the Xinjiang uprising, has also bolstered party conservatives' power, critics say.

"Our sense is that it [the NGO crackdown] reflects increasing anxieties by the leadership about social unrest, especially in the perspective of the symbolic 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China [on October 1]," said Bequelin. "[These] have resulted in the empowerment of the security apparatus and the hardliners within the system."

Critics say the latest round of suppression of civil society also shows that China has little to fear from international criticism.

China is the largest foreign holder of US debt, and with the US facing one of its worst economic crises ever, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House speaker Nancy Pelosi played down human-rights issues during their visits to China this year.

"This might have affected the leadership's decision to crack the whip because they see that the international opinion isn't too hard on China," Lam said.

Critics now fear the repression of lawyers and NGOs means ordinary people's legitimate channels of airing grievances have been closed. This, they say, will only intensify social tensions and further erode people's faith in the government.

"It's a very unwise thing to do - defending rights through law is conducive towards social stability, and when all the NGOs are suppressed, it will have dreadful consequences," said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, who is also a consultant at Gongmeng.

"People will either bottle up their grievances or turn into mobsters to defend their rights," he said.

Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hi Verna

Greetings from South Africa.

When you reading your blog one country came to mind Zimbabwe. It was initially applauded for its victory over suppression. But then the impact of Civil Society was systematicaly eroded throught disabling laws and accusation of civil society leaders. This is the road governments take when they want to increase their control.I am sure you know. But something else happened instead of taking p their activist role.To my surpire the Zimbabwean civil society became like a frog slowly boiled.

The point I am trying to make is, we either boil and erupt (activism) or we boil to death.

I liked your blog by the way. Well and clearly written.