The Sword of Damocles Hanging Over Every Chinese NGO: Thoughts on the Sin of Transition Institute and the Uselessness to Stay “Apolitical”

By Lu Chai, published: May 21, 2015

“[F]ew options remain. You can turn your back on groups that are targeted and in trouble, and continue to advertise your own abstention from all things political. Or you can face up, with honesty, to the reality that civil society has little space to work in, muster your courage, and raise objections.”

Chuan Zhi Xing (传之行), or Transition Institute

Chuan Zhi Xing (传之行), or Transition Institute


The Beijing public security authorities have issued an indictment opinion that hammers the first nail into the coffin for the Chinese nonprofit think tank Transition Institute (TI, 传知行). The opinion recommends that the procuratorate indict Guo Yushan (郭玉闪)and He Zhengjun (何正军)on the charge of “illegal business operation.”

There isn’t much to say about the case itself. A lot of solid commentary with a sound command of the law have already been written about the fact that the accused are innocent, and that the crime in question either cannot be established, or amounts to deliberate framing.

Here are the three parts of evidence the indictment lays out:

First, the acceptance of foreign funds. According to recent statistics, the proportion that foreign funds constitute in NGO aid in China is plunging rapidly, but still clocks in at 15%. A significant number of Chinese groups used to draw the bulk of their support from foreign funders. Even as those funders are gradually sidelined, a certain number of groups are still recipients of their assistance. Moreover, given that many foreign funders have supported the charitable work of poverty alleviation and disaster aid in China, singling them out this way smacks of demonization. The fact that this funding has now become the hook with which the authorities are reeling in these two defendants is also reminiscent of the harsh tactics with which Russia went after foreign funders.

Second, TI is accused of investigating and analyzing social issues. Its main activities of analyzing social issues, writing reports and holding lectures are hardly unfamiliar to us; these are the standard ways in which public interest groups conduct their work. As for the promotion of structural social and livelihood reforms, such is the mission of public interest groups. TI also hardly differs from other groups in this regard.

Third, TI is charged with printing and publishing its own reports without permission. The so-called “illegal business operation” amounts to no more than compiling research data into books which were then printed and distributed. If TI had bought a government-issued book number, they would have had to pay another 20,000-plus RMB ($3,220). That is the reason they self-published their books and reports without planning to sell them on the market. May I ask which civil society group is swimming in so much cash, that they would buy an official book number for each publication they issue? The target audience for public interest content is quite small as it is, and this type of publication has no chance of survival within a market-based and censored system.

For example, the opinion from public security mentions that TI published a number of books over a span of seven years, however the total was calculated to be 19,000 copies only. If we put this in market terms, any publishing company that do things this way would have lost its shirt a long time ago. Therefore, the only way NGOs can overcome such controls is to do their best not to apply for book numbers, and to give away the publications they compile. Groups give away free books to grow their impact, and in the best scenario these gifts ramp up donations. Groups pray that someone would go home and send them money, but would not object if the reader pulls out some bills on the spot. Nonetheless, it is in the end this most uneventful part of NGO work that became the core allegation brought by public security against the Transition Institute.

Regardless of whether we knew of, or understood, TI, or if we agree with or support the group, when faced with the criminal charges against Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun, what stance are we to take? A look at the indictment opinion makes it clear that virtually all Chinese NGOs have acted in ways that are considered by the authorities to be criminal. That is to say, if all other factors are excluded, then virtually all NGOs have already been tripped up by and guilty of the crime of “illegal business operation.” With this sword of Damocles hanging over us, can we still afford to hide our heads in the sand? Perhaps we still can. This is not the first time something like this has happened to groups in our profession. However, a lot of people are acting, ostrich-like, as if what happened to TI is an isolated case and not symptomatic of the general pressure all of us share.

For those who choose to poke their heads in the sand, they draw their line at what they deem to be “political.” The reflex of a lot of people, when they hear about the tribulations visited on the Transition Institute, is to say “Those guys are too political with the things they do,” and muse that those of us who want to get things done in China must be quite cautious and take politics out of what we do.

By sheer coincidence, due to long-standing and random factors, the head of Transition Institute was involved in the Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚)case, so the organization got caught up in a political incident. However, TI has for a long time very conspicuously insisted on taking politics out of what they do; the staff have been involved in politics and know it well. Compared to the vast majority of Chinese NGOs, they have a much more calibrated and precise grasp on what is politically sensitive. Judging from both the group’s strategic plan and concrete action, it is very hard to find another action-oriented group that toes the line so closely to avoid political sensitivity. We can also see, in the treatment of Guo and He, that the authorities were in fact not able to put together a political angle on the case, and ultimately had to settle with “illegal business operation” as their rationale.

At the same time, thirty and more individuals are being charged with subversion or inciting subversion. “Illegal business operation,” relative to subversion crimes, are couched in more gracious terms, even though the sentence sought is just as long.

Given the way this crime is defined, which NGO can declare with confidence that it won’t be “violating the law?” Never mind “illegal business operation;” there are a whole bunch of crimes no one has ever heard of waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on their prey at any moment.

That is how absurd our reality is. The organization that insisted the most on taking politics out of what they did and now mired in crisis, is considered too political by groups that are even more careful about not being political. Let’s be honest about what we are facing: there is not a fixed political ceiling over our head.

Can NGOs, simply by announcing that they will never participate in politics, escape the ubiquitous snare? We still don’t know what happened with the shutdown of Liren rural libraries (立人图书馆) or the harassment of Aisi Youth Group (爱思青年). As for action-oriented environmental groups, they must in the end help the victims of the worst pollution cases challenge state-owned enterprises and, by extension, the government. Whether it is tipping off the government or pushing for transparency, people have gone to jail for these most reasonable steps. All that the five young feminists wanted to do was to fight sexual harassment, and for their pains they were taken on a weeks-long tour of detention centers. You can’t count the number of times those who take the initiative to depoliticize issues and choose the most prudent strategy for what they do, still end up irking the authorities.

If we ignore these problems, we can say that the relationship between civil society groups and the government is of course not an antagonistic one, nor do these groups have the wherewithal to take such a stance. Until now, the pressures from the state follow no clear logic and processes that can be identified. As the steak on the chopping block, we see no inspired way to escape the blade. Even One Foundation (壹基金), headed by the star Jet Li and the epitome of innocuous charity, could not presume on an exception. Pigeonholed as the enemy of government-affiliated charities, and bombarded in a smear campaign orchestrated by the Maoist left, One Foundation was pilloried for its emphasis on being independent.

“Political” is a neutral term, and its use and meaning are not limited to political parties. All public issues are political. We have nowhere to hide. The less social space there is in a country, the more politicized social problems become. It’s not that you are choosing to be political, but that politics would pick you.

If we take it one step further, can those groups that announce they would never become political targets still be in a position to help move society forward for the better? Many conflicts are continuing to emerge. Since NGOs are all about being the voice of public interest, advancing social progress, and solving problems, then they will inevitably have a hand in overcoming social divisions and challenging vested interest. If they stay away from absolutely everything that the state hints is off-limits, then in all honesty they won’t be able to do anything. It would be more straightforward for such groups to join the ranks of government employees outright, than to shuffle along as an extension unit of the state without pay.

Philanthropy groups have to challenge the state monopoly on the sector; environmental groups must take on government malfeasance and companies breaking the law; labor groups have to dare to defend the rights of workers; and animal activism clashes with antiquated assumptions. The way things are now, the only absolutely safe group is one that does nothing; any group that does something must necessarily run afoul of vested interest. And so long as the group does something, eventually it will inevitably cross the political red line and be met with government pressure in one form or the other.

Therefore, few options remain. You can turn your back on groups that are targeted and in trouble, and continue to advertise your own abstention from all things political. Or you can face up, with honesty, to the reality that civil society has little space to work in, muster your courage, and raise objections.

As the object of top-down controls, civil society is one indivisible community. The treatment TI received at the hands of the authorities is meant as a warning to all groups not to cross the line and to stay out of the prohibited zone. However, we have never been told even once where the boundaries are.

Groups can recognize that they belong to the same community. Or, they can see themselves as tiny clusters set apart and distinguished by their own specialized “depoliticizing” skills, all the while chanting the magic formula under their breath: This time it is only the Jews that are taken away, and this time the Catholics. When those within a disadvantaged population do not identify with the whole, but keep on choosing to cut away those who drop out of the pack, to hold their peace and to watch which way the tide turns, civil society can only grow more isolated until its collective demise. The future of civil society in China is exactly what those disadvantaged groups its represents are doing: United they stand, and say no together.

Groups that embraced political aspirations had been shut down, followed by those who did not. If we do nothing, where will the sword fall next?


This commentary was first posted on, but it has since been censored. You can find it here. We don’t know who the author Lu Chai (鹿柴) is.  




The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Recommendation for the Indictment of Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun, April 2, 2015.

Transition Institute releases a list of its alleged “illegal publications” (in Chinese), April 29, 2015.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: One Chinese NGO’s Alleged Crime of “Illegal Business Operation, Wan Yanhai, May 15, 2015.

China’s new foreign NGO law will help silence critics, Maya Wang, March 25, 2015.


(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original 《传知行之罪:每个公益机构头上的达摩克利斯之剑》



One response to “The Sword of Damocles Hanging Over Every Chinese NGO: Thoughts on the Sin of Transition Institute and the Uselessness to Stay “Apolitical””

  1. […] commentary was first posted on, but it has since been censored. You can find it here. We don’t know who the author Lu Chai […]

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