China's most respected publication on development issues, widely read by international aid donors and local nongovernmental organizations, has been ordered by police to close, the magazine's British founder and editor said Wednesday.
The closure of the Chinese-language edition of China Development Brief was seen as a major blow to efforts to build civil-society groups in China, which relied on it as an independent clearinghouse for information about their work.
The move appeared to represent at least a temporary victory for forces within the Chinese government that remain wary of allowing unofficial organizations, such as charities, to operate outside – and possibly threaten – Communist Party control.
"On the one hand, the government recognizes that civil society can play a positive role in a number of areas," helping the authorities to resolve glaring social and environmental problems, explains Yiyi Lu, an expert on Chinese politics at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, a think tank in London. "On the other it is obviously worried that so-called hostile forces might use NGOs to undermine the government."
Nick Young, who founded China Development Brief (www.chinadevelopmentbrief.com) as a nonprofit magazine 12 years ago, said he was given no reason for the closure during a visit to his office by Beijing city police and other local officials last week. He said he personally had been accused of conducting "unauthorized surveys" and forbidden to write anything on the magazine's English-language website.
A Beijing police spokesman said he had no information about the affair.
"Closing down 'China Development Brief' would be a huge loss, not only for domestic NGOs but also for the Chinese government in the long run," said Ge Yun, director of an environmental activist group.
The publication "has served as a bridge between Chinese NGOs and the government," she said. "It has never been confrontational."
Mr. Young said he has often been consulted by Chinese officials about the development of charity in China and has been paid to train and advise government personnel working on environmental issues, womens' rights, and rural development.
"China Development Brief" has earned a wide and influential subscriber base, including such organizations as the World Bank and the United Nations, while operating in a semilegal gray zone without official licenses to publish in China or to conduct journalistic activities.
"To have set this up legally would have involved political oversight" by the Chinese government, said Young. "Our coverage ... is completely independent. That's the value of it – it is genuine, coming from the heart of China, uncensored and objective."
For Chinese NGOs, much of the Chinese language edition's value lies in its role as a "very effective, friendly hub for Chinese NGOs to communicate and exchange information," said Ms. Ge, who heads the Xinjiang Conservation Fund. The publication's closure would leave China's budding civil society groups atomized and out of touch with one another.
Young said he did not know why the authorities had shut down his publication now, after having tolerated it for more than a decade, even if under close surveillance by the secret police. "We may be victims of our success," he suggested; "maybe we have become too visible and taken too seriously."
Young still hopes that "these actions have been precipitated by zealous state security agents, and that more senior figures in the government and Communist Party will realize that actions of this kind are not in China's best interest."
"The only thing that could save us now," he adds, "is a fairly powerful ally stepping in."