A translation of a VOA report in Chinese, published: March 11, 2015
Professor Xia Min of CUNY: “Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
A documentary produced by the well-known investigative journalist Chai Jing, formerly with CCTV, Under the Dome, has struck a deep chord in China. At the end of the documentary, Chai mentions that as China’s revised Environmental Protection Law is implemented, civil society environmental groups will have the unprecedented right to bring public interest lawsuits against polluting companies.
However, according to a Beijing News (《新京报》) article , since the law went into effect in January 2015, only three suits have been brought out of more than 700 environmental groups accredited to bring public interest litigation. The newspaper reports that most of these are organizations run by the government, including many trade associations, that are lukewarm at best about such lawsuits. Only a handful of civil society groups are “both able and willing” to try. The vast majority of civil society NGOs often lack both funding and energy for such an undertaking, nor do they have law professionals on board.
The dilemma of public interest litigation Chinese environmental NGOs face is a reflection of what Chinese civil society looks like today. According to available statistics, China has more than half a million NGOs that are registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, a significant number of these are semi- or quasi-official organizations, some of which indeed only parade with an NGO front in order to qualify for government funding. The vast majority of the small number of independent civil society groups work in areas that are not considered politically sensitive, such as charity, environmental protection and the rights of women and children. In addition, China has another 1.5 million civil society groups that are not formally registered. These groups are likely to meet with pressures from the government if they venture into politically sensitive areas such as worker rights, the rule of law, or the rights of HIV patients [infected through government-sanctioned malfeasance].
Deteriorating Conditions for Independent Civil Society Groups
According to the New York Times, China’s independent civil society groups have “…long struggled to survive inside China’s ill-defined, shifting margins of official tolerance.” However, this sliver of margin for NGOs is shrinking further. Within the last several months, the Chinese government has targeted many NGOs.
Chinese human rights lawyer and former member of Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng, 公盟), Teng Biao, said that since Xi Jinping assumed power, the environment for independent NGOs has deteriorated. “Groups that used to be able to do things, such as the Transition Institute (传知行) and Liren rural libraries (立人图书馆) that were not considered too sensitive, have now been shut down. A lot of the people in charge of the groups were arrested and sentenced. The government’s controls on funding sources, as well as its ideological control, are clearly tightening,” he said.
In May 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued, for internal circulation, the “Report on the Current Status in the Area of Ideology,” known as “Seven Don’t” for short, in which Party members are asked to wage a struggle against “dangerous” Western values. “Do not mention civil society” ranks third among the seven forbidden topics.
Xia Ming, a professor of political science at CUNY, said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping at its center, sees ideas about civil society and “small government, big society,” promoted by the West, as two prominent and gigantic traps Western nations set up for China. “This is why last year we saw enormous destruction visited on some Chinese NGOs, with the most symbolic landmark incident being the arrest of Xu Zhiyong and approximately one hundred other people in his team; he himself got a four-year sentence,” Xia said.
The founder of Open Constitution Initiative (OCI) and constitutional scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in January 2014. Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled that Xu was guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu Zhiyong’s imprisonment, as well as the long-term harassment of other civil society groups, throws into relief the Chinese rulers’ zero-tolerance policy toward any societal force that may pose a threat to its power. Teng Biao said: “They are afraid that civil society NGOs, including some human rights defense groups and defenders, are growing in strength, and thereby becoming a challenge to the government. To be blunt, they are afraid that peaceful evolution, Color Revolution, will endanger the party’s rule.”
Limited Space for Civil Society Organizations
Other viewpoints hold, however, that the Chinese government does not take a monolithic stance towards NGOs. According to the Economist, some Party members believe that it is impossible to completely bar the growing middle class from social participation, and carefully limited participation can help the CCP win popular support. By 2014, four types of civil society groups can freely register, and they are trade associations, science and technology groups, charity groups, and groups dedicated to social service. Karla Simon, author of the book Civil Society in China, is confident that as the registration threshold is lowered, Chinese NGOs are likely to double within the next several years.
Tightening Control on Funding Sources of NGOs
Even so, CCP still insists on tightly controlling the funding sources of NGOs. The Economist reports that money for a lot of Chinese NGOs comes directly from local governments. In 2012, Guangdong provincial government gave as much as 466 million RMB to NGOs, while Yunnan province spent 300 million. However, in order to receive funding, civil society groups need sponsorship from entities with government ties, and they are not allowed to solicit funds from the public, even though they have permission to receive corporate and individual funding. This means that, through funding channels, the government can effectively rein in the vast majority of NGOs.
In addition, the Chinese government has recently stepped up monitoring of NGOs that receive foreign donations. In November 2014, Guangzhou government issued “Management Rules of Social Organizations,” putting in place the requirement that, effective January 1, 2015, NGOs that receive foreign funding must submit a written report to registration and relevant authorities 15 days before the receipt of funds at the latest. This requirement in effect blocks the funding conduit for the majority of labor NGOs which rely on foreign funding. According to the New York Times, employees of Transition Institute said that the bulk of the 3-4 million RMB of their organization’s budget is from overseas. Such overseas connections increasingly convince the Chinese government that Transition Institute is a dangerous entity. In its opinion, overseas funding is a tool for subversion.
Sometimes, even when NGO funding is domestic, they are still targeted by the government. Xia Ming of CUNY said, “Even when your money is from within China, the government still targets you quite harshly. One of the more obvious examples is Xu Zhiyong getting money from Wang Gongquan (王功权), a billionaire, who was arrested for a time too. This is the best kind of warning to make sure that Chinese private entrepreneurs would not get mixed up in supporting civil society organizations.” Wang Gongquan is a co-founder of the New Citizens Movement headed by Xu Zhiyong. On September 13, 2013, the Beijing police placed Wang in criminal detention, allegedly for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Wang was paroled in January, 2014.
China is also ramping up controls on foreign NGOs in China. Fu Ying, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress (NPC), told the media before the Third Session of the 12th NPC began, that China needs to better manage foreign NGOs from the standpoint of national security. She said that legislation will be undertaken so that foreign NGO activities can abide by them. According to Chinese media reports, the Foreign NGO Management Law will require foreign NGOs to register and receive government approval before setting up branches in China.
Anxiety about a Color Revolution in China
Chan Kin-man (陈健民), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Director at the Civil Society Research Centre, believed that even though Chinese NGOs are growing exponentially in number, the space for their activities is shrinking. Xia Min of CUNY said that CCP will not, in all probability, allow independent civil society groups to develop unfettered. “The outcome of deepening civil society development must be the organizing of political parties,” he said. “Therefore, I think Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
Judging from the series of steps the government has taken towards NGOs recently, while it may have sensed already the enormous potential of these groups, they are held to be dispensable up against the goal of sustaining CCP rule.
 I was unable to find this article in Beijing News. It might have been censored. – The editor.
National security? China ready to slam door on foreign NGOs, the Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2015.
In China, Civic Groups’ Freedom, and Followers, Are Vanishing, New York Times, February 26, 2015.
Chinese civil society: Beneath the glacier, The Economist, April, 2014.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)