Why China cracked down on my nonprofit

China should embrace, not antagonize, its able and caring NGO community.

"You can be the government of China's friend or our enemy; there is no other way."

This chilling message – and it is a direct quote – was delivered to me in Beijing this summer by an apparently high-ranking Chinese security official who would tell me only his surname: Song. He was, he said, "in charge of watching terrorism and NGOs," and he was offering me a real, not theoretical, choice. I could become an elite propagandist for China, or I would have to leave the country, where I had lived continuously for 12 years, and would never be allowed back.

On Sept. 26, after spending several weeks in Europe, I returned to Beijing and found that Mr. Song had spoken in earnest. Immigration authorities barred my entry, put me back on the plane to Helsinki, Finland, and canceled my multientry visa.

A worthy cause

My years in China were spent creating and growing a nonprofit newsletter, China Development Brief, which was subscribed to by a specialist readership of international aid agencies and China-watchers. We reported on efforts to achieve fair and sustainable development, sometimes taking international media and human rights organizations to task for facile and self-righteous China-bashing. In 2002, we added a Chinese-language edition, owned and run by a small team of Chinese writers who covered similar ground from their perspective for a readership of some 5,000 Chinese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), researchers, and government staff.

Neither newsletter complied with China's highly restrictive publishing laws, which entail political controls that prevent the kind of objective and independent reporting that we offered. But we seemed to have found a lacuna of tolerance that, I believed, might presage the gradual advance of free expression.

Our work in Chinese was sometimes cited and even reprinted (without permission) by state-authorized media. I appeared as a guest expert on Chinese TV programs covering such topics as poverty reduction and public health. On several occasions, central-government officials sought my opinion on issues such as the development of a legal framework for China's nonprofit sector.

Tolerance evaporates

The tolerance evaporated this summer. In the past two years, prompted by concerns about "color revolutions" elsewhere, security agents had been keeping a close watch on China's civil society. It seems that a sweep of potential troublemakers was deemed overdue.

On July 4, our office was visited by a dozen officials, police, and security agents, who ordered us to stop publishing. They came wielding video cameras, which they directed at us while rifling through papers and questioning us. Ominously, one of the group boasted to my colleagues that his team was "fluent in foreign languages, including Arabic and Uighur" – the language of the Muslim majority in Xinjiang, China's northwest frontier province.

I was made to sign a statement admitting to "conducting unauthorized surveys" in contravention of laws that give the Chinese state a monopoly on information gathering. Colleagues on our Chinese edition were charged with distributing an unlicensed publication and subsequently fined 12,000 yuan (about $1,500).

The charges could have been more serious and the penalty much harsher, so it seems the idea was to apply the minimum force needed to close this small window of free speech. I had been preparing to move on and transition the organization to new management, and the action against us seemed timed to prevent this.

In mid-July our predicament was reported by the international press corps based in Beijing. I had not broken the story to the press, but I hoped the coverage might pressure the authorities into negotiating with us. It did indeed lead to the bizarre interview with Song.

He began by saying he had evidence of our links with Xinjiang separatist organizations. This opening gambit shows both how closely we had been monitored and how sensitive an issue Xinjiang is for Beijing. The "evidence" almost certainly referred to an e-mail exchange two years ago with a Uighur exile group. We contacted them while researching a report that, in the end, I did not publish because it had been too hard to find information that was both new and reliable.

I told Song this, adding that I believe Beijing is courting disaster in Xinjiang by using heavy-handed treatment against its Muslim population. China, I argued, should learn from rather than mimic the calamitous failures of Western countries in their relations with the Islamic world.

Preparing to make a deal

I was equally frank in discussing several other issues Song raised, for there seemed no point in trying to reach an understanding based on pretense.

Then came the offer. Song said he could provide funds to expand our publishing and make it "famous" while helping the world to understand China better. In return, I would have to report directly to him. But, he warned, I should never tell anyone of this conversation, not even my wife. And if I rejected the deal I would be permanently barred. Pledging obedience to a threatening stranger was not an attractive idea, but I asked for time to think about it.

Two days later I met with Song again, having consulted colleagues and agreed with them on a negotiating position. We were prepared to try copublishing with a relevant government agency, accepting some loss of editorial independence; but would insist that the lines of accountability and control be transparent. We could accept Chinese cofunding only on a joint-venture basis with international backers, as is typically the case in aid projects.

But I had no opportunity to suggest terms. The second interview, at which a high-ranking uniformed police officer was also present, was short and frigid. I was told emphatically that I had to obey local laws or my presence would not be tolerated. Song did not mention his previous offer and dismissed all efforts to broach the subject. A few days later I left the country, planning to return in September.

I do not know why the door to negotiation closed so abruptly. Chinese friends speculate that xenophobic forces had prevailed in a behind-the-scenes debate. Perhaps my views on Xinjiang were relayed to superiors who found them dangerous. Or it may be that surveillance after the first meeting found me less discreet than they wished.

Confusing friend with foe

In any case, the decision to bar me is a grim reflection on China's concept of security. I have consistently argued that China has a right to develop and that the West has a duty to help it find a sustainable path in a global environment already seriously hurt by Western development. To construe this as enmity, or to believe that a better relationship could be achieved by bribery and bullying, is not only absurd but also deeply worrying.

Most disturbing is that this primitive "friend or foe" logic is still applied not just to foreigners, but to Chinese people. Recent months have seen heightened surveillance of local NGOs and the forced closure of some, such as a "rural reconstruction" initiative led by the eminent People's University professor, Wen Tiejun. This is the government's way of "killing the chicken to scare the monkey," as the Chinese proverb goes. It's a signal to others to watch their step.

Even social-service providers meet senseless constraints, such as the refusal to allow Meng Weina, whose Hui Ling organization cares for special-needs youngsters, to take a group of clients to the closing ceremony of the Special Olympics in Shanghai.

Faced with rising social and economic inequalities, President Hu Jintao has promised to create a "harmonious society." This will not be helped by security officials harassing a growing NGO community that embraces many of the country's most thoughtful, able, and caring citizens. This is talent that China needs to encourage, not alienate. As in Xinjiang, heavy-handed "security" measures risk creating the very forces of opposition that the state fears.

Nick Young worked as a journalist in Central America and Africa before founding China Development Brief.

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