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China cracks down on NGOs

Government has closed some civil organizations and placed individuals under house arrest.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2007


Last Thursday morning, five law-enforcement agents marched into Zhai Minglei's Shanghai apartment, seized his computer hard disk and copies of the small magazine he used to publish, and ordered him to report for questioning the next day.

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It was the latest blow in what one leader of a nongovernmental organization here calls a "systematic crackdown on the voices of civil society" in China, as the government manufactures the unruffled image it hopes to project to the world during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Civil society groups formed by activists in fields such as environment, social welfare, health, and education "have really suffered setbacks and tougher controls since earlier this year," adds Wen Bo, China program director for the US NGO Pacific Environment.

Mr. Zhai published an open letter online late last month revealing that his magazine, Minjian, an apparently innocuous publication chronicling NGOs' development projects, had been forcibly closed by the authorities in July. His quiet efforts to win a reprieve had failed, he says.

Minjian is not the only victim of what Zhai calls an "intellectual strike hard campaign" by the government against NGOs. Most recently, the largest independent support group for Hepatitis B carriers, "Gandan Xiangzhao," was closed on Nov. 20. Last summer, the best known NGO magazine and clearing house, "China Development Brief," was shut down.

Other groups have also been closed, while organizers of some have been placed under house arrest. Police surveillance has been stepped up, a number of activists report. "Visits by the police are quite normal," says one environmentalist who asked not to be identified.

"It is a difficult period. It has affected all the organizations we work with and anyone else they work with," says one representative of a foreign agency that is funding Chinese NGOs.

Such moves appear to run counter to President Hu Jintao's pledge at the recent 17th Communist Party Congress to "step up education about citizenship" and the hope he expressed that "social organizations [will] help expand participation by the public" in "self-governance."

They also cast doubt on International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge's claim after Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics that "the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record in China." Many NGO activists attribute the current crackdown specifically to government preparations for the games.

Officially, the Chinese government has encouraged the emergence of NGOs. Using the slogan "small government, big society," the authorities hope the private groups can raise private funds to help provide social services the state no longer offers.

There are now more than 350,000 NGOs, according to official figures, but the large majority, experts in the field say, were set up by government agencies as GONGOs, or "government organized nongovernmental organizations."

The genuinely independent groups are almost all engaged in providing particular services such as running schools for migrant children, homes for the elderly, or rural health clinics. Only a very few Chinese NGOs resemble their independent Western counterparts, which are often feisty and combative.