Chinese parliamentarians are due to take up controversial legislation this week to rein in foreign-based civil society groups.
But Beijing is not leading the international pack in political repression. Instead, it is playing catch-up.
Around the globe, from Malaysia to Morocco and from India to Ethiopia, governments have been cracking down on activists who are trying to hold them to account. The worldwide trend constitutes “the broadest backlash against civil society in a generation,” says Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Different governments use different methods: some simply close non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by decree; others starve them of funds, arrest their leaders, censor their reports, or send secret police to intimidate them.
Last year, according to a report by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations, there were “serious threats to civic freedoms” in 96 countries. That suggested “a renewed period of contestation about the acceptable bounds of civil society, the latest manifestation of the battle to protect citizens against state power,” the report said.
What is behind this blowback against the NGOs? Partly, it seems to be a reaction by authoritarian rulers – and some who claim to be democratic – to the increasingly vocal criticism that ordinary citizens direct at them.
From Brazil to Romania, people are out on the streets protesting against government corruption and other ills, and they are not alone. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank in Washington, has counted 60 countries hit by major protests between 2010 and 2015.
“It appears that a new era of political flux is emerging as citizens demand more from their governments and mobilize in pursuit of those demands,” the 2015 Carnegie report suggested.
“Many governments do not deliver anymore, and they are suffering a loss of credibility,” says Barbara Unmuessig, head of the German Green Party’s Heinrich Boell foundation, which supports NGOs in many developing countries. “Governments are afraid of people standing up.”
In a sense, this is a backhanded compliment. “Only when those in power feel threatened do they push back,” points out Chee Yoke Ling, programs director for the Third World Network, an international NGO. “The more confident of their rights and knowledgeable NGOs are, the harder the clampdown.”
“The resistance [to the NGOs] is more motivated because autocrats see the capacity” of their citizen-critics, adds Mr. Roth.
That resistance is hardening. In China, for example, though the NGO law’s text is still secret, it is expected to make the police responsible for managing foreign groups and to make registration more cumbersome.
“One goal is to kick some of these groups out,” says Anthony Spires, a civil society expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Range of measures
If so, China would only be following in the footsteps of the Indian government, which last year revoked the operating license of Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog, which had strongly criticized official mining and nuclear policies. The authorities have banned more than 9,000 Indian charities from receiving foreign funds since last April.
That is an approach taken most ferociously by the Russian government, which has forced NGOs receiving any money from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” a term suggesting traitorous intentions. If they take money from groups branded as “undesirable foreign organizations,” such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, they could be prosecuted.
Ethiopia has choked civil society that way too – banning local NGOs working on human rights or women’s issues from receiving more than 10 percent of their budget from abroad.
Elsewhere, governments have resorted to regulations to stifle critics. The Ecuadorean government can shut down groups that “compromise public peace.” Cambodian NGOs have been dissolved for breaching a law that forbids them from “jeopardizing peace, stability, and public order, or harming the national security, national unity, culture, and traditions of Cambodian society.”
Such laws “often do not specify what exactly is forbidden,” says Ms. Unmuessig. “They leave a lot of room for interpretation and arbitrary decisions.”
Sometimes the authorities rely on intimidation to silence their opponents; in Burundi, a gunman last year shot and nearly killed a leading human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who had spoken out against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.
In Israel, anyone who calls for an economic boycott of goods produced in settlements built in the occupied Palestinian territories can be prosecuted.
Some analysts see such moves as evidence of a broader geopolitical shift, partially reversing an earlier trend toward liberal democracy.
“Politically authoritarian regimes, particularly those with resources such as China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, have their own vision of how institutions should work and how expression should be understood, and they are pursuing that vision vigorously,” says Christopher Walker, who recently co-edited “Authoritarianism Goes Global,” a book of essays.
Western democracies’ traditional vision, on the other hand, has been compromised in recent years, argues Unmuessig. US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that in many eyes “democracy promotion is synonymous with Western imposed regime change,” undermining the West’s political influence, she says.
That does not mean that liberal democracies should pull in their horns, however, activists insist. “It is important to speak out about civil society, even to our allies,” says Roth. He regrets that when President Obama met Gulf potentates last week, “their crackdown on civil society was nowhere near the top of his list of talking points.”
Western leaders should be “much more vocal and forthright about repressive laws that contravene international standards,” adds Mr. Walker, a senior analyst at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. “That simply isn’t happening.”
In the absence of such protest, Unmuessig worries, governments seeking to protect themselves from citizen oversight will continue to shut down the political space that civic groups need. “This trend will continue. We won’t get rid of it soon,” she predicts.
At the same time, Walker points out, “it is remarkable how people continue to raise their voices even when governments use force to suppress them. These groups will not go away.”