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
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 Womenís 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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.