China cracks down on NGOs
Government has closed some civil organizations and placed individuals under house arrest.
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The government ensures control over the sector by a restrictive registration process. An NGO needs an official sponsor agency that will take legal responsibility for it. Such agencies are hard to find, most NGOs discover. At the same time, the government allows only one NGO to work in a particular sector in each region. Independent groups often find a GONGO has registered before them.Skip to next paragraph
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"The government welcomes citizen participation in certain areas, and contributions to its policies," says Jia Xijin, deputy director of the NGO Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "But it doesn't have enough experience to deal with independent voices."
The ruling Communist Party's reluctance to let such voices be heard, says Gao Bingzhong, vice director of Peking University's Center for Civil Society Studies, means that "we see only the shadow of real civil society in China, the shoots of a bamboo."
NGOs, which as conduits for people's participation in civic affairs often act as the building blocks of civil society, have proved most effective elsewhere when they have created networks among themselves.
That is a lesson Chinese officials appear to have learned: China Development Brief, Minjian, and Gandan Xiangzhao all acted as hubs, encouraging the exchange of information and the creation of networks.
"They initiated activity, made citizens more active," says Professor Jia. "I suppose the government may think it is better for citizens to be quieter."
The imminence of the Olympics, and the world attention they will focus on China, is one reason, say some activists. "Ordinary people's voices disturb the unilateral pursuit of a stable and united political environment and a happy and peaceful atmosphere before the Olympics," says Lu Jun, head of Gandan Xiangzhao.
At the same time, Chinese national-security officials appear afraid that NGOs could develop into a political threat, having seen how NGO leaders played prominent roles in the "color revolutions" that swept former Soviet republics.
"For them, NGOs are new, color revolutions are new; they know NGOs through color revolutions and they fear what might happen next," says Jia.
Minjian editor Zhai said in his open letter that he failed to convince the authorities that he published "stories … about people in China working for the public good … not out of resistance but because of our belief in the principle of civil society."
"NGOs are a channel to help government to coordinate and improve its relationship with the masses," Zhai says in an interview. "We are not scary."
Though almost all Chinese NGOs prefer to work with the government or find it expedient to do so, some observers see a few embarking on the same path that led US and European charities 40 years ago from relief work to policy advocacy.
"If you really want to address the roots of a problem, working at the policy level is more effective," says Pacific Environment's Mr. Bo. "But that is done by academics, not by NGOs."
That, explains Jia, is partly because NGOs are not allowed the independence to express criticisms of government policy. "More and more NGOs need to be independent, but it is still very weak," she says.