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.
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.
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.
"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.