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January 3, 2017
This Q & A can be read as a companion piece to the Guardian report. It focuses more on Dahlin’s work, the interrogations, and the legal features of his case. Given that China’s “Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations” took effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective. – The Editors
CHINA CHANGE: Peter, you are a Swedish national; on January 3, 2016, you were taken into custody by Chinese national security agents for allegedly “endangering national security.” It was not until nine days later that the international press reported that you had been disappeared on your way to the Beijing airport. Then, on January 15 and 19, the Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency reported your detention. On January 19, in a CCTV news section, you “confessed” that you “violated the Chinese law through your activities here, caused harm to the Chinese government, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” While it was appalling and a pain to watch, people also laughed because everyone immediately recognized that these were forced words. On January 26, you were deported and barred from entering China for the next 10 years. A lot went on over this 23-day period, and we hope to unpack it for our readers. First of all, please tell us how events unfolded on January 3, 2016.
PETER DAHLIN: I was taken in a raid on my home in Beijing late that evening, not on my way to the airport as reported. The misunderstanding is easy to see, as I had notified a few people in the press- and diplomatic corps that I might not make it out, leading people to assume I must had been taken at the airport.
Earlier that day, I heard that high-up officials in the Beijing domestic security police were inquiring about me, following accusations against me made by individuals who had at that time been held in ‘residential surveillance’ from several months to half a year. Less than 10 hours after I heard about that, State Security showed up at my home, with search and detention warrants for both me and my girlfriend.
For a few weeks we had been in a ‘heightened risk situation,’ knowing that something could happen to me or others. We had been taking precautions, clearing out and processing paperwork, tying up loose ends, and doubling down in IT-measures. I had not only heard stories from those who had been through detentions before, but as a form of preparation also read books like the great but unfortunately-titled In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon with stories on interrogations, secret detention, torture etc. This was of course the first time I myself was taken, but over the years there had been many similar situations, and thus this procedure to prepare had been undertaken numerous times before.
In this case, I took the preparation a bit further than normal. Since similar situations of heightened risks had happened numerous times before, besides our normal organizational procedures, I also had my own. In those cases I would keep a small overnight bag packed next to the bed, with passport, some clothes, medicine, and money, along with shoes and a jacket, and more or less have memorized the night flight schedule out of Beijing – if I ever got the message or call that an action against us was being taken and would need to try to leave the country. In this case I was already scheduled to leave China just a few days after I was taken, but moved my flight up to that very same night, and packed as much as I could – knowing that if something happened and I managed to get away, I would not be able to return and would have to start anew somewhere. In the end, the raid on my home happened just a couple of hours before I was set to leave for the airport.
CHINA CHANGE: I admit that, even though I’ve been a busy human rights and rule of law advocate for the last three or four years, I had barely heard of your organization — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (中国维权紧急援助组). So there is quite a bit of mystery around it. Can you describe your organization’s activities in China? A New York Times report mentioned seminars, legal aid work, and training sessions. The Chinese state media portray your activities in dark, conspiratorial and menacing terms. Help us demystify them.
PETER DAHLIN: The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) was in operation from 2009 until early 2016, and it ran a number of different programs concurrently. It was largely unknown, as we operated quietly, and even though parts of the international rights community, and much of the press and diplomatic corps knew of us, we did not allow anyone to publicly speak about us, keeping our profile as low as possible while still being able to cooperate with others. A few reports linked on our dormant Twitter account are about the only public information available.
Since its founding, China Action has responded to attacks on lawyers, journalists, and other rights defenders, especially women defenders, but perhaps our main focus has been on training and capacity development for rights defenders. We have specialized in barefoot lawyers, with the goal of strengthening the legal movement and civil society, to develop the rule of law and improve protections for Chinese citizens.
Our founding program was the urgent action program, working to arrange lawyers for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk and to provide needed financial assistance for victims’ families, ranging from support for housing, medical bills, or a child’s education. We paid special attention to women HRDs and grassroots activists who often lacked the network and support of more high-profile defenders. We did this both on our own as well as in partnership with international and regional organizations. Later on, for the last few years, we have also had a subsection of that program to specifically address and arrange help for those with mental health support needs after detentions, kidnappings, interrogations etc.
Although primarily about direct support, through the urgent action program we also engaged in limited advocacy measures around priority cases, which involved ensuring diplomatic attention in Beijing or foreign capitals and communication with relevant human rights special procedures of the United Nations, and participation in the Universal Periodic Review of China, both alone and in collaboration with international organizations.
Many people may not be aware that governments and institutions in the EU and other countries have been offering assistance to Chinese state actors involved in the judicial system, such as police, judges, or prosecutors, in developing the “rule of law” (rule by law really), which is important. At the same time, at least until recently, there was a growing number of international and in particular Hong Kong-based organizations that provide financial assistance and training for licensed rights defense lawyers who work on public interest and rights defense cases. Unfortunately this approach has left a key group without any support. Due to financial or geographic limitations, the majority of rights abuse victims in China must rely on unlicensed barefoot lawyers, and yet this is precisely the group that has been most left out of the majority of rule of law development efforts. This is why we focused on barefoot lawyers, and our work was more preventive than reactive, with focus on training and capacity development to address the gaping hole in access to legal aid, especially among rural or poorer Chinese citizens.
CHINA CHANGE: Speaking of barefoot lawyers, Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) immediately comes to mind. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was a barefoot lawyer too in his early rights defense activities. Another example is Ni Yulan (倪玉兰). These are citizens who are not licensed lawyers, but who seek to defend rights through legal means. This is fascinating. Tell us more.
PETER DAHLIN: Because they are not licensed, the barefoot lawyers can almost never take up criminal cases. But in China, the main procedures for defending rights against government abuse are administrative laws and regulations, and this is where any citizen can get involved (although legal efforts by the State to limit their ability to take on cases continue). Barefoot lawyers can thus be both self-taught legal activists as well as lawyers who have lost their licenses. The work takes the form of filing lawsuits against government bodies responsible for illegal behavior such as torture, arbitrary detention, or forced evictions and demolitions. Barefoot lawyers have also taken the lead in testing and pushing the use of China’s 2008 Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information (《中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例》), scoring many successes. As a result, we have witnessed increased use of the Regulations in defending human rights.
In order to improve barefoot lawyers’ knowledge and practice of the Administrative Law, information disclosure regulations, and other procedures, China Action has run a number of different training programs since 2009. For example, our programs ranged from in-depth week-long training sessions in administrative law, shorter trainings on information disclosure, to specific legal issues, depending on the needs of target beneficiary groups.
To maximize the result and output of the main program, we designed the program in what we believe was both an innovative and cost-effective way:
A rights defense lawyer and an experienced barefoot lawyer would be responsible for each in-depth legal training session, selecting a group of participants from a cohesive area, along with guest teachers. Of those trained in these in-depth sessions, which would also include training in freedom of information (FOI) regulations, we would then select from the best of more suitable students, and arrange for them to, on a more local level, arrange their own shorter training in FOI or another specific legal topic. Thus the larger and more extensive trainings would give us a pool of local teachers for such smaller trainings.
When needed, a lawyer or barefoot lawyer in our network would attend those local trainings to assist. Finally, from the group trained in these shorter local trainings, the trainer would select the most dedicated participants and offer support for them to organize their own local trainings at the most grassroots level, to extend the output among the trainee’s friends and fellow barefoot lawyers.
This triple layer system allowed us to not only extend our results to the most local levels in a relatively low key and safe manner, but to ensure significant multiplier effects, all while keeping the costs very low.
Another key aspect of the training activities was about nurturing mutual trust among participants, which is part of the reason our training groups were never larger than 10 people, and always drawn from a coherent geographic area. This is especially important for barefoot lawyers who tend to have experience with only one or two particular legal issues. In this way, drawing a group of 10 barefoot lawyers from, say, Shandong to spend a week of in-depth study together would create new connections and expand their effectiveness, as they can build a mutual support network when dealing with issues outside their area of expertise. Each group would also get a direct connection to both the rights defense and barefoot lawyers arranging the training, greatly expanding networks for us as an organization, as well as for the participants, who would get a direct link to a mentor from who they could seek guidance.
The organization designed its own curriculum for these training and capacity development activities. A large part of that has included creating practical self-study guides with the beneficiaries, pairing the experts with the beneficiaries to create not only practical guides on, for example, information disclosure regulations or administrative detentions, but also manuals that deal with what the beneficiaries actually want. This approach would seem obvious, but looking at a lot of the material available, it often seems it’s produced by experts telling the readers/beneficiaries what they think they should know, instead of developing the material together with the group itself.
Finally, connecting the urgent action program and the training and capacity activities, the organization has also been working, on a small scale, to set up what we referred to as ‘legal aid stations’ around the country run by barefoot lawyers to enhance access to justice. This third core component thus consisted of barefoot lawyers who would receive training in issues ranging from arbitrary detention to information disclosure, alongside minor ongoing financial support, and they would then provide pro-bono assistance to victims in their respective regions. Many of these cases would have clear public interest components to them.
CHINA CHANGE: During your custody, did the Chinese security investigators tell you which of these activities are illegal and endangering China’s national security?
PETER DAHLIN: We always assumed that their key interest would be our work with urgent actions, and they certainly had a very strong interest in knowing which lawyers had been engaged for different cases, but their key interest turned out to be the barefoot lawyers we supported to provide pro-bono legal aid. They wanted to know about our ‘legal aid stations.’ When we first started, each station had several staff and an office, but beyond the very beginning stage, the aid was actually carried out by only one individual lawyer. However, we kept internally referring to them as ‘legal aid stations’, meaning State Security at first assumed that they were local branches of the organization, which of course was not the case at all.
They also had an interest in the various training activities, many of which over the years had been shut down by either local police or provincial state security. They found a few questionnaires from one of those trainings (distributed at all training activities for evaluation purposes), and found that some of the answers were rather anti-Party. That wasn’t helpful.
In general though, my own placement under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ was mostly because of the incompetence of State Security. They had been led, wrongly, to believe that I was personally involved in a list of activities, which I was not, and could easily prove I was not.
A key focus of my interrogations was lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), who has now been held in secret custody for over a year. Wang and I worked closely for many years, but we parted ways and haven’t worked together since early 2014. Our work was regarding holding trainings, offering informal mentoring to local lawyers, providing criminal defense for those facing trial, and developing training materials. It would be a stretch even for the State Security to argue that any of these was bad for China, let alone being illegal.
CHINA CHANGE: You said that Chinese security organs had been monitoring your organization’s activities before your detention. Can you expand on that? How did they do so?
PETER DAHLIN: Beginning in 2013, a co-worker was repeatedly summoned by another branch of State Security for long sessions of questioning. Using carrots and sticks, State Security tried to make this person a ‘mole,’ who would continue working with us but report to the police on me, my co-founder Michael Caster, and lawyers we worked with, or any others who worked with us. State Security asked this co-worker to make copies of documentation the person had access to, and any work I gave this person to do. On several other occasions we found that either I or Michael Caster had come up in police questioning of rights defenders we had worked with.
CHINA CHANGE: You were detained in what’s essentially a black jail for 23 days, and you said you were interrogated every day. I’m always interested in knowing the questions they asked. Do you think you can go into more detail about your interrogations?
PETER DAHLIN: Overall, the interrogations were made harder by two facts: They found almost no paperwork in their raids, and their disappointment was visible when they raided my home. But they had taken in up to five people in this operation (and I also assumed that these people had been taken, although initially I could not be sure) and they were getting (some) information from them, which they used as leads for their interrogation of me. Three earlier partners had at this point been missing for many months, placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’, and numerous other staff and partners, (then-) current and previous, had been detained and/or questioned throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2015.
However, all core organizational aspects, details on projects, financing etc., have been the domain of only myself and Michael Caster. Others have been involved only in parts of a project or projects, without details on the organization as a whole. This was not what State Security had assumed early on. Making it clear that this was the responsibility of myself and Michael was imperative to lessen the burden on other staff and partners.
Michael was not in China at the time of the crackdown. I, being a Westerner with, I assumed, strong diplomatic support, felt a much greater sense of security than any Chinese national would. This, alongside with much information, accounts, banking etc., being based outside of mainland Chinese jurisdiction, also gave me a good position.
Thus, claiming to focus only on the administrative aspect of our work, and having poor Chinese language abilities, I could convincingly claim to only know the general outline of our work, but not the specifics for each project, and this approach allowed me to protect others.
I could, and did, also maintain the line, which is also true, that all our work had one thing in common, namely to enhance the practical application of law, that is, improve the enforcement of law, which is lacking greatly in China. We did not even involve ourselves in advocacy to improve the law itself, but focused on simply bringing practice in line with the law, especially on provincial and local levels. Even though the law is not meant to be followed to some extent, having this focus should logically decrease how and to what extent we are seen as a threat.
Despite this approach to limit what I needed to say, they did utilize extensive technical forensics on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, USBs, etc. Everything stored is done so in encrypted form, and they never got the passwords to access those. On the other hand, using file recovery programs they could access parts of documents that had been worked on, deleted, etc. What they could get was limited, but they were able to gain access to some new documents or parts of documents every day.
This meant that I had to plan my interrogation keeping in mind to limit information, remove details such as names, locations etc., while at the same time make sure not to say anything that might be contradicted by the document they might have the next day. Keeping this in mind late at night after hours of questioning was perhaps the hardest part, but due to preparation it went fairly well. Basically, I had to make sure not to directly lie, but also make sure to not give out information that could be used against me or others.
The first 24 hours, I was under detention and not residential surveillance, they asked about my background, family and education, a few coworkers, and they also brought up the names of Wang Quanzhang, Xing Qingxian (幸清贤) and Su Changlan (苏昌兰). The first three days were handled by a ‘bad cop’ interrogator, who overplayed his hand and made me uncooperative, since I don’t respond well to being forced. After that, a ‘good cop’ took over most interrogations. All along I knew my girlfriend, who has no connection to my work, was sitting in the same facility somewhere, unable to give them anything, which at least at first I assumed State Security would think of as being uncooperative and possibly take measures to try to force non-existent information out of her.
For the first two weeks there was, on average, one session per day, lasting usually five to six hours, often held throughout the evening and night, with some minor variation. Later on they would accompany those with what I came to think as ‘fireside chats,’ with the ‘good cop’ coming into my cell, opposite to the interrogation room, to have informal chats. He’d offer cigarettes and an occasional Nescafé. These fireside chats would allow for more philosophical discussions, and for me to offer more extended explanation on why I disagreed with this or that.
Later on, one interrogation session would also double as a lie detector test, or ‘psychological test to enhance communication’ as they framed it. They attached electrodes to my fingers and used specialist cameras on the pupils, asking me a combination of test and real questions. The guy brought in to administer it couldn’t quite get it working, and in the end they didn’t seem to get anything from it, and stopped it for the last part of that interrogation session.
They used an interpreter at the interrogations, but as time went on they started to shed that charade, since the interrogators had far better English than the interpreters.
Two weeks into my detention, they realized that neither I nor China Action was related to the alleged crimes of Xing Qingxian and Su Changlan. They also realized we did not work with Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所), and had had no partnership with Wang Quanzhang for years. On top of that, upon learning that the activities I developed and worked on with Wang were related to provision of legal aid, training lawyers, and developing training materials, they must have realized that these would not be all that useful to smear him or convict him of any national security crimes.
They also became aware of my medical condition and just how serious it was. Not wanting to have a dead Western human rights activist on their hands, they paid close attention to my condition for the rest of my custody, which limited what methods they could use against me. I also knew that media broke the story after the first two weeks, and it was quickly gaining momentum, as I had expected it would. I realized that media had broken the story because the interrogator asked me one day about the reporter, Megha Rajagopalan at Reuters who first wrote about it. The annoyance and anger was very clear.
It must be around this time that they decided to eventually deport me and move on. For the remaining days, they tried to get from me as much information about how NGOs work and about civil society in general. Of course I would also be used as a propaganda tool against foreigners, civil society, and NGO work. For the last week or so the amount of interrogations dwindled, and besides some more “fireside chats” I was just killing time waiting for the next step in the process. This mostly consisted of staring into the suicide padded wall, spending time doing some basic calisthenics, and trying to remember Bob Dylan lyrics. His song “Love minus zero / no limit” was especially helpful to keep my mind occupied for a few days. Each day and every minute was feeling longer, not shorter, and it started getting to me.
Many people who talk on the subject of solitary confinement mention that at some point your thoughts turn to suicide. It was never a serious consideration for me, but yes, at some point I spent hours analyzing the room and considering the possibilities for committing suicide. The padding and setup was so meticulous, though, that I realized it was not going to be possible even if I wanted to.
CHINA CHANGE: The reports said that your organizations received grants from various sources, the largest donor being EU, but the Chinese seem to have a fixation on NED – the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. How is that?
PETER DAHLIN: The EU was by far our largest donor, but my interrogators had almost no interest in this fact. Instead their focus was on NED, whose support to us, being crucial for one of our key programs and the organization as a whole, was nonetheless limited to a few hundred thousand dollars through the five years the program ran. To some extent they were also interested in rapid response assistance groups like Front Line Defenders. Me pointing out that the EU had supported numerous training activities for Chinese state actors, and that we were basically just doing the same for barefoot lawyers perhaps made them realize focusing on the EU angle would be more difficult in terms of painting it as a crime, a threat to national security, or in general play the ‘anti-China forces’ card. At this point they had also stopped trying to paint me as an EU spy.
Specifically, they wanted me to admit that NED was guiding us, that they were the ones giving orders on what we should do. I think this was partially because it’d fit their narrative, but also (to a lesser extent) because they don’t understand the grantmaker and grantee relationship. Likewise, they liked to refer to the barefoot lawyers we support as our ‘branches.’
Naturally they also inquired about other organizations, like International Service for Human Rights, who provides training on international law related issues (outside of China), and various groups based in Hong Kong. They however had very little information on our work with such groups, and it passed as a topic of conversation.
State Security became aware of our ‘legal aid station’ work from an internal NED document they somehow had access to, but the document did not contain names or exact locations, so a fair amount of time was spent on interrogating me about who these lawyers were. The names of some of the lawyers were provided by coworkers, and later documents they retrieve through file recovery work on hard drives etc. provided the legal aid station lawyers’ names. In the end, State Security gathered enough information about it, and it was the first program to be shut down as we started closing the organization after my deportation.
CHINA CHANGE: I have read a fair amount of interrogations of Chinese human rights defenders, and the interrogators always want to know whom they are connected to. I imagine they want to know every single person you have worked with or known in China.
PETER DAHLIN: They seemed to place a lot more interest on people than the work. They asked about a long list of people — some appeared in documents they had found, and others whose names had come up during interrogations of someone else. They wanted to know who attended our trainings, but they seem to accept that, due to the breadth and amount of our work, I could not have retained names of attendees of various trainings in my head, or even which teachers had been involved in what trainings. They also asked me about people simply because they are well known HRDs, key rights defense lawyers, and NGO workers. But I maintained, as I had done earlier, that my work focused on administrative issues and, having poor Chinese, I had very limited knowledge of most of these people, except for a few which they already had evidence that we had worked with directly.
They assumed that we would have connection with domestic NGOs, but that was in fact not the case. Likewise, our cooperation with international groups is limited to a handful of groups. They spent considerable time trying, but got very little on that topic. Same with the Fengrui Law Firm and people like Wang Yu and Li Heping, with whom we have had only limited contact.
They spent considerable time trying to convince me that some coworkers had ratted me out and I should respond in kind and come clean, basically that all blame was being placed on me, and if I didn’t defend myself my fate would be far worse. This mostly just triggered my Churchillian instinct. When they realized after repeated attempts that I would do nothing but defend them, they gave up. I remember repeating the same line over and over again: These people “not only constitute the best China has to offer, but people any nation should be proud to have as their citizens.”
CHINA CHANGE: The television confession — tell us what that was like.
PETER DAHLIN: Toward the end, when it became clear that deportation was likely, a late night final deposition was made in the interrogation room which basically summarized the key points they had learned from interrogations of me and others.
The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.
The next day, in the early evening, the ‘good cop’ walked into my cell. Cigarettes and small talk. He said a panel of judges would decide on my fate, whether bringing charges or deportation. The best way, he said, would be to record an interview on camera for them to review. Knowing that they already finished the active investigation and would not get any more information by an interview, that my girlfriend would be kept for as long as I would, and that only with my deportation would she be set free, and also knowing that time was ticking in terms of my medical condition (by that time I had already lost some 5-6 kilos), I said yes.
What followed is easy to imagine. He came back with a paper with both questions and answers written down, which in their mind ‘summarized’ our discussions over these weeks. Some arguments followed as they wanted me to call Wang, Xing and Su criminals, despite none of them having been tried. My refusal was finally accepted and some changes were made.
When I saw the final line on that paper, “having hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” I realized that the recording was obviously for CCTV, though they had never said so. Later, when I was led into a meeting room, also part of the same secure wing as the cell and interrogation room, I saw the CCTV ‘journalist’ and her cameraman.
The CCTV lady was about my age, perhaps slightly older, not overly friendly, but relaxed and someone with obvious experience as an interviewer. All the key State Security people, maybe 8 of them or so, were sitting in the back behind myself, the CCTV woman and the camera man. We ran through the questions and answers pretty quickly. The only hiccup was saying that final line on hurt feelings. After the 4th attempt the ‘journalist’ said to me, “you really don’t want to say this, do you?”
However, that line on hurt feelings is a key reason I agreed to do it despite knowing it was for CCTV and PR. It’s a well-known meme in the China community, and I knew that everyone would know the true nature of the ‘confession’ when they heard that line. Basically, including that line negated the whole purpose of it, from the point of view of the international community, and to some extent, inside China too.
CHINA CHANGE: Following your deportation, the Beijing-based lawyer and legal scholar Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) penned a commentary, taking issue with the legal procedure of your deportation. He said that the deportation order should have been made by a court if you were guilty of a crime, or by the PSB or national security agency if you were found to have violated an administrative statute but had not committed a crime. Your case had never been brought to a Chinese court, and yet the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that you confessed to having committed “the crime of funding criminal activities that endanger China’s national security.” She, a government spokeswoman, convicted you of two crimes in one breath! I bring this up because the arbitrariness of the entire episode highlights precisely the importance of your organization’s work and the work of those barefoot lawyers and human rights defenders. It’s so basic – it’s the ABC of ABC of the rule of law, yet it’s not acceptable to the Chinese government and it’s demonized by state propaganda.
PETER DAHLIN: As far as the law is concerned, I was placed under residential surveillance and investigated for violation of Article 107 — using foreign funding for illegal and subversive activities. But besides accusing me of supporting Su Changlan’s alleged protests and of me being the mastermind behind Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun’s alleged crime of taking Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, across China’s borders, they could not really pinpoint any activity that I had undertaken that would be illegal (besides illegal business operations, which is not a national security crime). And I had nothing to do with these two incidents anyway.
Their argument that actions supported by us would challenge national security, based on the National Security Law, is easily dismissible. They did spend time picking on our operating in the mainland without registration, and thus failing to pay tax, but that was not the crime I was accused of and it seemed just a minor issue for them.
In the end, I was deported under the new Espionage Law, but was not allowed to receive any documentation of any kind about any step in the legal process against me: the list of confiscated items, the house search, personal search, detention, residential surveillance, deportation, and the ban from entering China for 10 years — nothing.
Also, deportation under criminal charges would require a court decision, with notification to the embassy, myself, and the allowance of a lawyer, even if only a state-appointed one — but none of those things happened. That would render the process itself illegal, since deportation can only be decided by the police if it’s part of an administrative punishment, and if the latter is true I would first have to be released from criminal detention and moved to an administrative detention facility. Even with the world watching, China’s police and justice system couldn’t even operate, despite having such a wide range of tools and exceptions available, within their own law.
CHINA CHANGE: The way your case was dealt with, the Chinese law is apparently irrelevant despite all the rhetoric of the state media about the law being served. What do you think your real ‘crime’ is anyway? The Global Times said you stepped on a red line, what’s the red line?
PETER DAHLIN: Well, it’s hard to know who claimed I had participated or directed actions that led to “crimes,” as all of these people remain detained and incommunicado. So what led to the action being taken, I don’t know.
What can be said is that nothing that I was doing in 2016 was any different from, say, 2013. What earlier led them to want to monitor and keep tabs on us now meant they wanted to take us down. That would be in line with a general harshening of the climate, a greater focus on “anti-China” or “foreign forces” in their work to counter civil society growth, and also seeing an opportunity to use me as a tool concurrent with the new law and regulations on foreign funding and NGO operation.
CHINA CHANGE: Before and around the year 2008, the international community was euphoric about China embracing international norms. I remember there was a catchy phrase in those years in state media: “China and the World Joining Tracks” (“与世界接轨”), about China’s supposed integration into the world order. Today you don’t hear this phrase anymore and China’s outlook has changed. Many independent NGOs have been shut down over the past couple of years. You came to China almost 10 years ago as a young man, and 10 years later you were expelled as a national security threat. Do you have any final thoughts as we conclude this Q and A?
PETER DAHLIN: Outsiders are slow to react and adjust their thinking, which I guess is natural. However, it will become harder and harder for outsiders, including politicians, to keep up the charade that China is continuing its peaceful rise and, if only incrementally, developing a system of laws, and therefore creating a better society. The longer Xi Jinping stays in power, the harder it will be to continue to pretend things are developing in the right direction — but few nations want to be the first to reverse course in how to develop ties and interact with China, especially if economic ties are threatened. Luckily, China is so inept at PR that their threats against sovereign nations who seek to change course are becoming clearer, with the UK being a good example. Not even the Tory party can pretend anymore, as seen in the report they released (The Darkest Moment).
Despite having my life’s work, in a professional sense, thrown into the garbage, and the fact that my lifelong medical condition came from my time in China, I’d still say it was worth every bit despite the risks. We cannot publicize the specifics of our work, especially on urgent actions, but knowing the results for myself was enough to motivate me to continue. Even if the positive results we saw as a result of our interventions were cut in half, I’d still say it was worth it all. Sometimes you’ve got to “put your money where your mouth is,” as they say, and I believe I did that.
Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016
Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Li Maizi (李麦子), is one of the “Feminist Five” in China who were detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2015; they were planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation, which is insidiously prevalent in China. The women were released after 37 days in detention following an unprecedented international outcry. I met with Li Tingting recently over a Sunday brunch, and we spoke about her detention, women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, and civil society. — Yaxue Cao
YC: Let’s begin from your experiences during the arrest of the Feminist Five on March 6.
Li Tingting: At that time my girlfriend and I were living in a rental. The police came knocking on the door at about 10:30 pm, but I didn’t open it — initially I thought that they weren’t looking for me. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, and had the event the following day to get ready for. But they knocked on the door continuously for about 30 minutes, and from their conversation I knew they were after me. They said they’d been monitoring my phone calls, and that I’d just called so-and-so. Then they called in a locksmith company to pry open the lock, so I opened the door for them. They looked flustered and furious and made a show of trying to frighten me. They took out a blank warrant of detention as well as a blank notice of criminal detention, slapped them onto the table, and began searching the apartment. They confiscated all of our electronics, including computers and cell phones, of which I had more than one. Then, they took us away. Downstairs, they were going to put Suan Xiaola (酸小辣, Li Tingting’s partner) and myself in different vehicles, and I told her: just say you were only staying with me for a couple of days and had planned to leave tomorrow. The police then forbade us from talking. Suan never acknowledged our relationship — if she did the police would exploit our intimate relationship to get information from her. At the local police station, the police went through our private conversations, listening to them one by one. It was infuriating. Later an opportunity presented itself: an officer asked me how to unlock my phone. I said: “I can do it for you,” and then went in and deleted my entire WeChat history. At that point I didn’t think that they’d detain us, because we hadn’t even carried out our activities — there was nothing we’d done for them to lock us up.
On that first night we arrived at the police station at 12am. The following evening we were led into a basement carpark and taken away in a 9-seater van. At that point they’d already let my girlfriend go. The whole time they were afraid I’d escape, and held me by the arm the entire trip. Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) was in front of me. I was in the middle. Wang Man (王曼) was in the back.
YC: Had the other two been brought from elsewhere to the same police station?
Li Tingting: Right. We drove for a long time. I don’t know where we ended up. Wei Tingting was in front of me, and it was easier to speak with her. I said: “It looks like we’re going to a detention center. Let’s keep our mouths shut for 37 days, and then we’ll be let go.” My thinking at that point was really naive. When we got to the detention center we were handcuffed and made to stand and wait. I was chatting with Wei Tingting. She remarked: “This is on my to-do list.”
YC: Ah — going to jail being on one’s to-do list. That would have to be a “Chinese characteristic.”
Li Tingting: Wei Tingting asked me: What is there to do in jail? I said, you can have a one night stand. She said: can you really? In the end when she left jail she really did find a girlfriend.
YC: Based on the interrogation, what did the police primarily want to find out?
Li Tingting: Their early questions were all about this anti-sexual harassment activity that we had planned, and they asked about it thoroughly, again and again. Then they asked about foreign forces, whether we were being used by foreign forces. They were extremely nervous about these “foreign forces.” “Who are paying for your activities?” they asked. But I didn’t know, and I really had no idea.
YC: Do these kind of activities need much funding at all?
Li Tingting: They do — for instance to cover the cost of printing materials. Some activities are paid for by volunteers themselves. The police asked about this over and over again. Then they asked about our other public protests: Occupying Man’s Room, the Wounded Bride protest, and the head shaving protest, as well as how we exposed our breasts to oppose domestic violence. When they printed out photos of our bare chests, they even censored out our nipples with black crosses. I thought it was hilarious.
YC: Where was that topless protest?
Li Tingting: The photos were posted to social media, but they were professional shots taken in a studio. They asked again and again: “Why are you doing these activities?” I said that everything we did was for gender equality in China, it’s not for anything else. Another question they asked was: Why are you working at an NGO? I said: “I have to work, I need to survive.”
YC: What kind of question is this? Is working at an NGO illegal or scandalous in China?
Li Tingting: There was a period in which every day they asked us about our organization. They also raided our office.
YC: At that time you were at Yirenping. What specific work did you do there?
Li Tingting: I did gender equality advocacy. Later I did LGBT work. They were asking about the details of those projects — they wanted every possible detail of them. They asked so many questions, but I was not in charge, nor in control of a lot of resources, nor did I receive any money from “foreign forces.” Besides, even if we did receive money from abroad, did the law prohibit it? Now China has passed the NGO law, but there wasn’t the law at that time.
They’re very good at scaring us. They’ll suddenly burst into the room and yell: “Li Tingting, you haven’t been honest with us, you’re lying again!” Then they’ll intimidate me, saying: “We’ve gathered such-and-such new evidence.” I thought it was quite amusing. Just like a cops and robbers movie, like they were deliberately acting out the drama, trying to scare you.
YC: Were you scared?
Li Tingting: I was at first. But as they just kept doing this, I got used to it and wasn’t afraid anymore. I feel that, while you are in their clutches like that, it’s like playing a game of chess with them. When you’re locked inside, you can’t think about when they will release you. I always expected the worst, so I’d be psychologically prepared.
YC: Did you ever think that your work would land you in jail?
Li Tingting: I was more prepared for it than others. Before we were arrested, lawyer Chang Boyang (常伯阳) was taken in, and the offices of Yirenping (亿人平) in Zhengzhou were raided. At that point I knew that there was risk in doing what we did. Actually, even earlier, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was arrested, I’d considered this possibility.
YC: Do you know Xu Zhiyong?
Li Tingting: I don’t know him. But the fact that he can be charged with disturbing public order and sentenced for four years, just for helping the children of parents with non-Beijing household registration (户口) attend school in Beijing, means that the authorities could use the same charges against us.
When lawyer Chang Boyang was released, he told us a lot. It was a very good preparation for me. He said, firstly, don’t collaborate with the police; secondly, don’t go along with the kind of predatory behavior that inmates often resort to to survive; and thirdly, if someone bullies you, ring the alarm. These points were extremely useful for life behind bars.
YC: How have these 37 days in prison changed and impacted you, a young NGO worker and rights advocate?
Li Tingting: For a long time after being released I had a very hard time focusing. After a period of mental training, I improved to some degree. Another thing is that I often had nightmares of being arrested. Others in the Feminist Five were the same. Also, we’re now all on the Chinese media blacklist, so no one dares to speak about or report on us.
Another direct impact is that our NGO was shut down, so I had no stable work and source of income. We became a “model case” in the NGO crackdown, and the surveillance against us was increased as a result. In the past we were just “troublemakers,” but now we’ve become political offenders in their eyes. Even though the platform of our movement is gender equality, once the government arrests you, life becomes harder. The government is still resorting to all sorts of methods to prevent the issue from reaching a wider audience.
YC: I recently saw the film Hooligan Sparrow (流氓燕). An elementary school principal in Hainan province took 11-year-old students from his own school to a hotel room, and it was suggested that these young girls were offered up as gifts for the “use” of local officials. It’s such a revolting act that you’d think the All China Women’s Federation (妇联) would immediately come out and condemn it. But the Women’s Federation didn’t make a sound. But when rights lawyers and activists went to the scene to protest (lawyer Wang Yu and lawyer Tang Jitian, as well as several other female activists, went to Hainan with “hooligan sparrow”), they were stalked, violently confronted, and later harshly retaliated against. This incident demonstrates how important citizen power is in China. If civil society doesn’t come out and organize protests, this society has no effective channel for seeking justice or resolving problems.
We also know that in February of this year Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) was closed. As far as you know, what’s the current state of affairs in terms of civil advocacy on behalf of the rights of women and children in China?
Li Tingting: Right now the “path struggle” (路线之争) is more obvious than ever. When us young people began doing street activism, a lot of the older generation of feminists were supportive — including when we went to universities to give speeches, a lot of the teachers in the state system were very welcoming. Now the number of teachers that invite us to speak has dropped considerably. In 2012 and 2013 many universities invited us to come and give speeches. When I went to the Shandong University of Finance and Economics, I was received by the dean of the law school. At that time, even though we were considered sensitive, we weren’t so sensitive that state-affiliated teachers didn’t dare cooperate with us.
YC: What exact is this “path struggle” that you just referred to?
Li Tingting: It’s that there are women’s rights activists in China who think we’ve made this issue politically sensitive and have negatively impacted their own work. They keep a distance from us now. We used to work with the Women’s Federation, but not anymore.
YC: The detention and release of the Feminist Five was quite a shock to me in different ways. I had never heard of any of you, nor had our site written about women’s rights before then, because I had never really considered it part of our focus. When you were detained right before International Women’s Day, I was slow to react, thinking you’d be released after a few days at most. I was shocked because, firstly, I never thought the kinds of activities you engaged in would land you in jail, and it was an alarm bell for how bad things were deteriorating for activists — activists of any kind. Secondly, the global response was something rather amazing, unprecedented in speed and scale. The fact that feminist organizations and LGBT networks like All Out came out, in the tens of thousands signing petitions, also created a classic case study for effective activism, because these are not the “usual suspects” who speak out for human rights in China. And as it happened, Xi Jinping and his wife were to preside over the UN Women’s Summit. What a joke, but also, what an opportunity!
So ever since the release of the Feminist Five, I have been talking to the usual suspects about identifying the unusual suspects in each case, and about exploring potential opportunities.
Now, let’s talk about the state of LBGT rights in China.
Li Tingting: Most of mainland China’s LGBTs are still living in the closet. They might come out of the closet in their circle of friends; they might have their own communities, or bars, but they do not come out to their parents and employers, because the cost would be very high.
YC: The costs include?
Li Tingting: If you’re homosexual, you will be fired. If you tell your parents, they will beat you, curse you. There’ll be family discord. Some have been sent to mental hospitals, others have been stalked or detained. There are a lot of such cases. I knew a case where parents twice sent their daughter to a mental hospital and forced her to take medication until she promised her parents that she’d never engage in homosexual relationships again. Such private violence against LGBT is prevalent in China.
Take myself for example. My aunt, who is my mother’s eldest sister, cursed me in the most vicious language when she learned that I’m a lesbian. When I had my wedding ceremony with Suan Xiaola, she said I was a pervert and my parents would die as a result of me marrying my partner. It was so hurtful. I’ve never been close to her — what makes her think she has the right to judge my life? Well, just because she’s my mother’s older sister, she feels she has the authority to do so.
YC: What about your mom?
Li Tingting: My mom was embarrassed by me. She didn’t attend my wedding, my dad wouldn’t let her. She also said to me: “Can you not have your ceremony so close to us?” In other words, don’t shame us on our doorsteps. But my girlfriend’s parents were supportive. They spoke to my mom, so my mom called my aunt, telling her that “my daughter’s life is not your business.”
YC: Are there individuals and organizations openly advocating the legalization of gay marriage?
Li Tingting: Yes, there are. Some couples advocate gay marriage, like us, by holding marriage ceremonies to make a political statement about their rights and their desire to see the legalization of same-sex marriage in China. In Changsha, a gay couple went to the government asking to register their marriage. There has been an effort to rally support for same-sex marriage from parents whose children are homosexuals. This is a very good strategy, because Chinese culture values family, and parents want to see their homosexual children living in a family setting. Also, when parents support their children, it greatly increases the visibility of the issue.
YC: I read in the news recently that, in a college in Guangzhou, a lesbian proposed to her partner on the day of their graduation. Yesterday I noticed that there is an All Out signature campaign that collected over 20,000 signatures in two days since its initiation. According to Wang Xiaoyu — one of the lesbian students, though that’s not her real name — Party officials at her college outed her to her parents, and threatened to withhold her diploma. The police also raided her apartment.
Li Tingting: I know this case. The university sent people who opened her apartment, and had the police search it.
YC: That’s right, to collect “evidence.” Evidence of what?
Li Tingting: They said these students were manipulated by foreign forces.
YC: You’re kidding! “Foreign forces” everywhere! In a way, this incident reflects the official attitude of the Chinese government: it’s like, we’ll hold our nose and tolerate you homosexuals, but don’t “overdo” it, or we’ll get you. So, it’s worrisome. Now on top of that, we all know that over the last three years the rights advocacy work, not only in political rights but also women’s rights, has all but been shattered as a result of severe crackdowns and the promulgation of laws, especially the foreign NGO management law. Is there room for LGBT advocacy work?
Li Tingting: Yes, there is, because it hasn’t been politicized. But as soon as an LGBT activist is arrested for his or her work, it will become political.
YC: Give us some examples.
Li Tingting: The more mainstream advocacy that I just spoke about, the homosexual friends and family associations that identify with mainstream family values — they are occasionally reported on in mainstream media outlets. And they raise funds from the public, because they want the support of average citizens. There is also the Chinese Rainbow Media Awards given to media outlets that are friendly to the LGBT subject. In other cases, advocacy groups work with companies to hold job fairs just for gays and lesbians. One such event was held by a foreign company.
There is also a network of public interest lawyers known as “the rainbow lawyers” — they help meet the legal needs of the LGBT community.
The other recourse is lawsuits. The first case was in 2013, when a lesbian named Yanzi in Chongqing sued a psychological counseling center that used electric shocks to “treat” homosexuality. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness. That was a historic ruling. Since then there have been other lawsuits, but not all of them were successful. [Here, here, and here.]
But with litigation, if you are getting support from NGOs, the government can accuse you of working with foreign forces, because most advocacy NGOs receive funding from foundations overseas.
YC: Are you saying then that the civil advocacy work right now is still being done by NGOs?
Li Tingting: Right. Work done by civil society has already decriminalized and depathologized homosexuality, but they haven’t managed to normalize it. The wider public and the government are still prejudiced against homosexuality, like it’s something dishonorable. The problem is that they simply have no interest in actually understanding this group of people. But because LGBT groups have started to spring up in recent years, the police need to monitor them, and they also need to understand them. The reason this issue is still fairly safe is in part because the authorities don’t really want to touch it. So the government’s lack of advocacy and support also protects this population, allowing them to continue their advocacy in the current climate.
YC: Have you gotten involved yourself?
Li Tingting: Of course. Getting married is a prime example. When I was in second year university in Xi’an, myself and three others founded a “Lesbian Community Training Group.”
YC: Doing what?
Li Tingting: We played board games the first time. When we grew in number, we begin some advocacy work. Mainly it was service delivery: for instance, psychological counselling, providing all kinds of other support.
YC: One thing I noticed was that, when the five of you went to prison, the lawyers who took on your cases were all human rights lawyers. I was puzzled: you’re advocating women’s rights — are there no other lawyers who are willing to represent you?
Li Tingting: They were the only ones who dared. Our’s was a political case. There were also public interest lawyers willing to take it on, but their defense strategy was completely different to that of human rights lawyers. And I definitely prefer the human rights lawyers.
YC: When I meet you, the impression I get from you is that you’re really free — your facial expressions and gestures, everything about you seems to proclaim: I’m free. And yet this totalitarian system every day presents you with another message: I’m controlling you, you’re not free. You make me think of myself when I was in my 20s. At the time I was still living in China, and every single day I felt a fundamental, intrinsic sense of freedom clashing sharply against the external oppressiveness. But at that time there was no internet, no so-called civil society, so disgust and helplessness became a state of life. But I had never thought, in 2016, the term “freedom” still remains a remote, dangerous expression. You’ve been jailed, and you’re gay — tell us about your existential state.
Li Tingting: I think that the pressure is inescapable — it affects your personal relationships, and it affects your daily life. So we’ve all had to become superhuman: we have to stand against the pressure, and also work while under it. The government’s invisible tentacles are reminding you every single moment: “I’m watching you.” I’ve always been a rebellious person, incompatible with a mainstream lifestyle. Other people have said I’m “radical.” But once you choose your way of life, you have to walk the path to the end. So, freedom has its costs. Every way of life has its costs, it’s just a matter of what costs you choose.
YC: I hate the very thought, but have you considered the possibility that you’ll be jailed again? You didn’t think you’d be jailed when you planned the anti-sexual harassment protests on buses and subways. Maybe one day you’ll do something that you don’t think is dangerous in the least, and yet you might get arrested.
Li Tingting: Right. We can’t control whether we’re arrested or not, so there’s no point thinking about things we can’t control. We can’t censor ourselves excessively.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
Who the activists are, and why the government is striking hard against their NGOs
By Yaxue Cao, published: December 10, 2015
Chinese police on December 3 began a series of sudden raids of labor rights organizations in Guangdong, questioning at least 25 staff members and managers of about five organizations, according to labor activists and lawyers in the area.
Three individuals—Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaohai (朱小梅) and He Xiaobo (何晓波)—were confirmed to be criminally detained. On December 7, Deng Xiaoming (邓小明) was criminally detained, while two other NGO staff members are still in police custody and their status remains uncertain. The father, wife, and older brother of Zeng Feiyang have all been interrogated by police. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇) also may have been criminally detained, given that the police said that they had sent a notice to his address.
Many of the NGOs are based in Panyu, a district of Guangzhou with a high concentration of migrant workers.
Zeng Feiyang and Zhu Xiaohai, a manager and staff member respectively at the “Panyu Migrant Worker Service Document Handling Center” (番禺打工族文书处理服务部) in Panyu, Guangzhou, have been accused of “organizing a crowd to disrupt social order.” The NGO is typically known as Panyu Dagongzu Service Center.
He Xiaobo, the manager of the Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center in Foshan City (南飞雁社会服务工作中心), has been accused of “embezzlement”. It is unclear what charges have been levelled against Deng Xiaoming, a staff member at the Haige Labor Center (海哥劳工服务部) in Panyu, and Peng Jiayong, the leader of the Panyu Workers’ Mutual Assistance Group (番禺区劳动者互助小组).
A labor rights defense website reported that this “surprise attack” has targeted some of the leading NGOs defending and advocating labor rights and awareness in the Pearl River Delta.
The Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center (“Dagongzu” hereafter) was founded in 1998; its primary business was legal consultation and representation for workers. This included assisting injured workers in navigating applications for compensation, getting involved in collective bargaining and strikes in order to see that workers are paid their social insurance, assisting in the drafting of labor rights agreements, and abolishing the use of temporary labor agencies, among other activities. As one of the earliest labor rights NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, it became a model for many of the later labor rights activists; before long, over a dozen similar labor NGOs had blossomed in the area, and Dagongzu earned the playful moniker of the “Whampoa Military School” for labor rights. (One of Republic of China’s military academies, Whampoa trained many top Nationalist and Communist Party military officers before 1949.)
The Foshan-based Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center was founded in 2007 and officially registered with the local Civil Affairs agency in 2012, according to Caijing, a business magazine. Nanfeiyan began with a focus on helping injured industrial workers to gain compensation, but its range of activities later expanded significantly, including the provision of service to migrants in Foshan. The range of community services it provides includes supporting education for the children of migrant workers who are denied enrollment in local public schools; medical insurance for women giving birth; and shelter services, among others. According to Nanfeiyan’s website, in the seven years of their operations up to 2014, the NGO has “provided legal training workshops to over 7,000 people, and cumulatively assisted nearly 10,000 injured workers in gaining legally prescribed compensation. The agency has accumulated rich NGO work experience from a large number of injury compensation cases.”
According to its Weibo account, the Panyu Mutual Assistance Group was founded by Peng Jiayong and advocates a worker representative system, direct elections for union leaders, collective bargaining, and solidarity among workers.
The Haige Labor Center in Panyu, although only founded in November 2014, is led by a veteran labor rights activist—Cheng Huihai (陈辉海). He began as a worker in a jewelry factory, first defending his own rights then helping and training other workers to defend theirs. In an interview this year he said that the Haige Labor Center primarily focuses on training workers to use collective bargaining to ensure the protection of their rights, and that many such cases have been successful.
Another labor rights NGO that has been raided and questioned is the Sunflower Women’s Center (向阳花女工中心) also in Panyu district.
The Detained NGO Workers: Who Are They?
Zeng Feiyang graduated from South China Normal University with an associate degree in law in 1996. Through family connections he secured a position in the judicial bureau of his hometown of Nanxiong in Guangdong—the sort of public service post widely sought after in China. But Zeng found it far too dull, left it in less than a year, and moved to the Jinglun Law Firm in Guangzhou, according to 2010 profile by Southern Window (《南风窗》).
At the law firm his principal job was to represent corporate clients in their disputes with workers: mediating wage negotiations, injury compensation, backwages, and more. His clients and his firm were very happy with his work, but he sunk into guilt. “The migrant workers make a living by selling their cheap labor. Now they have lost their only asset—a strong and healthy body—and can’t get fair compensation, how will they face the future?” He felt compelled to help them.
He soon became the head of the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center, or Dagongzu. The first few years were a struggle: they received hardly any service fees, found it difficult to keep running, and were regularly harassed by the government. At one point their business license was revoked. In early 2000s Dagongzu transformed itself into an NGO and started accepting funding from Hong Kong and abroad, no longer charging any fees from migrant workers. Dagongzu became China’s first labor NGO.
In 2003 Dagongzu set up a “Migrant Worker’s Cultural Service Center” in the Shiqi township (石碁镇), using a sponsorship of $15,000 by Reebok. The center provided cultural and sporting facilities, and held training classes and activities that built fellowship among workers. There were computer classes, dancing classes, and English classes on a rotating basis. The goal of the center was to enrich the lives of migrant workers through learning and camaraderie, to give them a sense of belonging. Workers appreciated these activities. But in 2007 police closed it down because they feared that with hundreds of migrant workers congregating in one place, it would be easy for them to get organized and set off “mass incidents.”
Zeng Feiyang recognized that, while labor NGOs had resolved many problems for the government, by making life easier for workers and reducing their pressure and anxieties, the government’s stance towards these NGOs was still deeply suspicious and apprehensive. He remarked that the primary obstacle to the growth of labor NGOs in China came from “government and industry.” In reality, Zeng was perfectly clear on what he was doing: his organization was not based on creating a social movement, but serving and supporting migrant workers as and when they needed it. “Getting involved in mass protests—that’s absolutely off the table,” he says in the Southern Window profile.
A month prior, Dagongzu had helped Shatou street sanitation workers to win a collective rights defense case, awarding them their seniority compensation.
In December 2014, when Dagongzu was helping workers at the Lide Shoe Factory (利得鞋厂) in Guangdong in a collective bargaining negotiation, police detained Zeng Feiyang for 24 hours. While in custody, the police essentially threatened to kill him, intimating that these days, if someone dies under mysterious circumstances, police can’t always solve the case. Two days later Zeng was assailed by four unidentified men. Over 1,000 activists signed a petition protesting violence against labor activists.
Zhu Xiaomei is a worker at Dagongzu. At midday on December 3, police came with a warrant to search her home and make an arrest. Her husband, 10-year-old son, and still breastfeeding one-year-old daughter were all there. Her husband couldn’t take the baby because he had to work, and nor would the police allow Zhu Xiaohai to take her. In the end, the ten-year-old picked up the baby and watched on as police handcuffed his mother and led her away.
On December 4 the family received a notice of criminal detention informing them that Zhu Xiaohai was being held in the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center under suspicion of having “gathered a crowd to disturb social order.” When they attempted to bring the infant daughter to the lockup so she could be breastfed, they were turned away by police.
At the age of 16, Zhu Xiaohai came down from Henan to Guangdong to work, spending 16 years at a Hitachi factory in Panyu. When she’d just arrived in Guangdong she had little life experience and didn’t understand Cantonese (the local language). She was made to do endless overtime shifts, and she was afraid, lonely, and tired, yet didn’t dare tell her family back in Henan, according to an interview she gave to Chinese media this Mother’s Day. The first time she called home—when telephone calls still cost 3 yuan per minute—she said not a word, choking in tears before hastily hanging up. Because she worked diligently and took on hard tasks without complaint, she became a group supervisor within a few months. Four years later she was promoted to an entry-level manager. In 2014 Zhu, in her role as elected worker’s representative, sought to ensure that workers were provided with basic social security and received their pensions, as dictated by the law. For this she was illegally fired. She initiated a lawsuit against her employer for illegal dismissal, which she won, and then joined Dagongzu to become an NGO worker.
He Xiaobo went to work in Foshan in 2006 and soon lost three fingers on his left hand in an industrial accident. In hospital he encountered a Dagongzu volunteer and learned for the first time about worker’s compensation. For the next year or so he threw himself into learning the law and defending his own rights, while also volunteering for Dagongzu. He was 32-years-old then. He also experienced what every other migrant worker had faced: he had to leave behind his daughter in his hometown because she was not allowed to enroll in public schools in Foshan, and his wife was denied maternity insurance when she was pregnant with their younger daughter.
Later he founded the Rights Defense Workshop for the Injured, which was the predecessor of Nanfeiyan, and became a well-known labor activist. Up until last year his NGO was still working with the government on a number of projects and received official funding. Both He Xiaobo and his NGO received numerous recognitions and honors in Foshan: He was declared one of the Top Ten Social Workers, for instance, and Nanfeiyan was given the Red Rose Award for charity work, both awarded by the Foshan municipal government.
Peng Jiayong, from Yichang, Hubei Province, joined labor rights defense work in 2012. Previously he was himself a worker but was fired after participating in union elections and collecting bargaining at a foreign-invested enterprise in Zhongshan. He then began working at Zhongshan Laipowan (来泊湾, a labor NGO), Dagongzu, and the Haige Labor Center. In April he was assaulted by eight unidentified men and severely injured. In May he led the establishment of the Worker’s Mutual Assistance Group.
Deng Xiaoming, a native of Leiyang, Hunan, came to Guangdong to work when he was still a minor. After a work injury he got help from Dagongzu, and later became involved in labor rights NGO work, pitching in at Dagongzu and Haige.
Why the Authorities Launched This Crackdown
According to a report about the plight of Chinese labor NGOs by Financial Times Chinese earlier this year, Dagongzu began receiving fund from foreign sources in 2002, including from, at various points, the German-based Church Development Service (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst), the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, and the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, among others. But in September 2014 public security authorities warned Zeng Feiyang that his organization could no longer receive any funding from China Labor Bulletin, at that time their only source of financing.
In September and November, 2014, Zeng Feiyang attempted twice to enter Hong Kong and was refused on both occasions, upon which he was told that he had been placed on the list of those refused exit from China. When he attempted to fly to the Czech Republic for a human rights meeting in December 2014 he was again stopped by Customs.
In September 2015 several of Nanfeiyan’s service stations were shut down, their contracts with government severed. Their projects and funding for helping communities of migrant worker children were also affected, and their accounting books were re-audited by the authorities, looking for irregularities. In November, He Xiaobo was also restricted from traveling outside China.
The Sunflower Women’s Center in Panyu, meanwhile, used to be supported by the All-China Women’s Federation, but in June received a notice of administrative penalty from the Civil Affairs office, declaring that the center’s registration as an NGO would be revoked.
An open letter by Nanfeiyan in October provides some background on the sudden deterioration of the environment for labor NGOs in China:
“In July 2011, Wang Yang (汪洋), the then Party Secretary of Guangdong, put forth the ‘social construction’ doctrine during the 9th plenary meeting of the 10th Party Committee of Guangdong. … In March 2012, secretary Wang Yang came to Gaoming District in Foshan to conduct field studies for innovation in social management. He asked a manager of a company, who’s also a Party member: ‘If workers, wanting to have better benefits, come to odds with the factory, whose side will you lean to?’ The Guangdong government embraced the new social management concept in response to the increasingly acute confrontations between workers and their employers seen in the Pearl River Delta. As a result, in 2012, many NGOs in Guangdong, including Nanfeiyan, blossomed as never before: many groups were able to obtain NGO registration, and receive government funding to provide services. Between 2013-2014, Nanfeiyan also began to receive government funding for operating social work programs. However, the conditions changed abruptly at the end of 2014. The vibrant and innovative atmosphere for social management quickly withered. At first, the government suddenly cut funding for NGOs, including Nanfeiyan. Then, in the new social management regulations to be promulgated, the government made it very difficult for us to obtain foreign funding. On top of that, from around the end of 2014 to early 2015, we felt the government began to tighten control on, and suppress, a select group of NGOs. Our space for survival has sunk to its lowest, and we’re on the brink of extinction.”
A veteran labor activist based in Guangzhou, who wishes to remain anonymous, told NGO commentator Zhao Sile (赵思乐) that all the people detained or questioned this time have worked at Dagongzu at one point or another. He said that the authorities have been investigating Zeng Feiyang for a while. “It’s obvious that the raids were well planned from a higher level of government,” he said. “From the way several friends were questioned, you can gather that the authorities want to ‘prove’ that several independent labor organizations are part of a network, with Zeng Feiyang as the ring leader.”
This activist said that the latest assault on labor NGOs in Guangzhou and Foshan is a manifestation of the government trying to tighten control as the economy continues to slide. “On the surface it’s cracking down on labor NGOs, but in essence it’s suppressing the workers’ movement.” He predicted that the suppression will continue as more factories shut down and labor disputes multiply.
Guangzhou-based labor rights activist Liu Shaoming (刘少明) was arrested in mid-2015, charged with inciting subversion of state power, and has not yet been tried. In February 2015, the authorities in Guangzhou closed down a labor research center jointly operated by UC Berkeley and Sun Yat-sen University. Throughout the year, the Chinese government has closed or outlawed independent rights NGOs across the country, including NGOs for women’s rights, for HIV/AIDS patients, and for the disabled. The crackdown also aimed at independent think tanks. Meanwhile, China is moving towards passing the much-discussed “Foreign NGO Management Law.” It is widely believed that the regime seeks to pass such a stringent law in order to cut off foreign funding for NGOs, especially rights defense NGOs, in order to check the expansion of China’s civil society.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
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.”
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?
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》
By Song Zhibiao, published: May 17, 2015
We present you the second commentary out of China on the draft law. The first one, by Dr. Wan Yanhai, one of China’s NGO pioneers, briefly examines the operational path of Chinese NGOs from early 1990s to the present, and how the three recent laws will dead-end rights advocacy NGOs in China. This, it turns out, is what Xi Jinping means by “governing the country according to the law.” – The Editor
Among draft laws currently under a second reading in China’s National Congress of People’s Representative is the People’s Republic of China Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law (a bilingual version). What’s the merit of this law? Chinese legal professionals specializing in the public interest have given their verdict: Very Bad. Since in China law is not made to be your “shield”  of protection, such dissent is unlikely to be heeded by those who govern the country. Foreign NGOs have even less of a say in this, because naturally this is an “internal affair” that foreigners should not interfere with.
The purpose of the draft law is crystal clear: to set up a system to review and approve foreign NGOs’ work in China. It does not pretend to hide its political motivation, and, in key provisions, it reflects what the authorities have been doing already. The heart of the matter is to cut off foreign NGOs’ financial support for grassroots Chinese civil groups. Also, the government entities entrusted to regulate foreign NGOs’ activities are expanded to include all agencies with national security responsibilities.
In terms of legislative positioning, the draft law tucks punches in a defensive appearance. Chinese grassroots public interest groups and individuals, whose livelihoods are associated with foreign NGOs, are too humble to be written into the provisions, but they are clearly targeted. We can foresee that the overseas resources for their line of work will continue to dry up and become further drained.
Looking back at the past 30 years, foreign NGOs helped the emergence of NGO public service in China, such as the early environmental groups, and are instrumental in creating diverse types of public interest work as well as the eco-system in which the work has been done. In addition, the methods and models supplied by foreign NGOs have helped shape Chinese domestic NGOs and expanded them over the last 20 years. Foreign NGOs have been our mentors. Period.
The most distinguished contribution of the foreign NGOs is that they have successfully helped built China’s grassroots NGOs. Because of the support of the foreign NGOs, these public interest groups, lacking proper legal identity and unable to obtain resources from the government, have been able to survive on half a breath. Not surprisingly, members of these grassroots NGOs have become the driving force of China’s public service NGOs. There is no denying that foreign NGOs have been their tutors.
As the nascent Chinese NGOs received assistance and tutelage from foreign NGOs, the former have gradually built capacities over the last decade to tap domestic resources. In the last few years, the native NGOs have shown signs of maturity and strength, developing in parallel with foreign NGOs. As a result of the rapid transformation of the native NGOs, a trend has emerged in which government-sponsored NGOs and private NGOs have been competing but also cooperating with each other.
The growth and evolution of Chinese native NGOs can be looked at from many angles. It should be noted though that it has become a rule of thumb among native NGOs to depoliticize themselves and stay away from the red line of “sensitive issues.” In so positioning themselves, they have indeed been able to garner resources and make strides in their professional fields, but this self-limitation has also aggravated the ecological imbalance of Chinese NGOs with rights advocacy NGOs being singularly endangered.
Foreign NGOs end up being the ones who have persevered to do work in areas where domestic NGOs wouldn’t dare or are unwilling to do. The Chinese NGOs’ tendency to stay away from politically risky programs made foreign NGO funding in these areas stand out. To stop this tendency, the Chinese government has continuously pressured and encouraged domestic NGOs to stay away from sensitive issues so as to minimize the scale of demand and supply. With this new law though, the government is out to debilitate the source of funding altogether through legislation.
Against such a backdrop, the political intent of China’s draft law of Foreign NGO Management, now in its second reading, is conspicuous. It seeks to legally limit foreign NGO’s activities and programs by putting clamps on them and by directing their resources elsewhere. In this, the Chinese government’s design is equally conspicuous. That’s why this draft law is a product of utility at the expense of legislative quality.
When it comes to the specific application of this law, it is less about reducing the activities, or the number, of foreign NGOs in China, and more about forcing them to withdraw, even more quickly than before, from supporting civil society groups working on rights advocacy. Since it is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, for these Chinese advocacy NGOs, who have hitherto depended on foreign NGOs for funding, to find other sources of funding inside China, the domestic NGO scene will further deteriorate and have less diversity. That means it will be easier for the government to exert tighter control.
The Chinese domestic NGOs are not ready to take up the baton from the foreign NGOs. In particular, the capacity for serving public interest is still far short of where it needs to be, and the gap left by the foreign NGOs’ absence cannot be filled, not because there is a shortage of money but because there is a shortage of courage. Overall, the existing imbalance of China’s public interest NGOs will become much worse.
Foreign NGOs have in the past 30 years provided mainland China with two things – the values and the methods – as they poured in resources. The former has indeed grown and spread, while the latter has been remade with Chinese characteristics. In the long term, the draft law will ultimately stem the import of values, making them ill-fitting and out of place in native NGOs. That is where the law ultimately is heading to, beyond cutting the funding supply.
Saturday, May 9, 2015
From the Human Rights in China website: In response to a question about which law the foreign journalists who were roughed up by police on February 27,2011, violated, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu (姜瑜) said on March 3, 2011: “Don’t use the law as a shield” [”法律不是挡箭牌”]. Jiang made the statement at a regular press conference during which foreign journalists tried to obtain clarity about laws and regulations that govern them. Jiang went on to say: “The real problem is that there are people who want to see the world in chaos, and they want to make trouble in China. For people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.” – Translator
Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and well received for his commentaries on current affairs in China until May 2011. He was suspended that month for his article commemorating the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake. Last year he was fired again from another state media outlet in Guangzhou for writing for a Hong Kong media outlet. He has been a media watcher and public commentator on WeChat.
A Slow Death? China’s Draft Foreign NGO Management Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 10, 2015.
The Future is Already Present? How the Draft Foreign NGO Management Law Could Be Applied, Elizabeth Lynch, May 11, 2015.
One Love: How Foreign NGOs & Governments Should Respond to China’s Draft Foreign NGO Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 12, 2015.
(Translated by China Change)
Chinese original: 宋志标《境外NGO法案：乱拳打死师傅》
If the link become unavailable, use this one.
By Wan Yanhai, published: May 13, 2015
In March 2007, Guo Yushan (郭玉闪）and others co-founded Transition Social and Economic Consulting Limited, otherwise known as Beijing Transition Institute. In July 2013, Beijing Bureau of Civil Affairs sent Transition Institute (TI) a violation notice, alleging that the organization had not registered, and was operating publicly as a “private non-enterprise” without legal basis. Four years earlier in 2009, Gongmeng (公盟, or Open Constitution Initiative) was outlawed by the government for the same “reason;” the contents of its entire office, including research data, was confiscated. Falling prey to the same tactics that had affected groups like Aizhixing (爱知行) and Gongmeng, TI was twice the target of audits from Beijing Municipal Tax Bureau, in 2009 and 2013.
On October 9, 2014, Guo, the head of TI, was criminally detained under the crime of “provoking disturbance.” Along with Guo, several TI staff members and associates either disappeared or went into detention. On January 3, 2015, Beijing Security Bureau formally arrested Guo, the legal representative of TI Ltd., and He Zhengjun (何正军), TI’s manager, for the crime of “illegal business operation.” On April 15, 2015, the case was transferred to the Haidian District procuratorate for indictment.
Needless to say, the blow to TI is somber, and more than that, it has sounded the alarm for other nonprofit organizations registered as businesses. This essay explained why, over the last decade or so in mainland China, non-profit, public-interest organizations have resorted to registering as businesses, their predicament, and the harassment they have been met with.
In the 1980’s, a China devastated by the Cultural Revolution began the process of reforms and modernization. Many officials, some retired and others still holding offices, started civil society groups outside the government, focusing on training talent, independent research and social service. Since the founders were high-level government retirees or employees, these entities were able to obtain the official seals and bank accounts needed for operation without having to register with government regulators, perhaps with approving instructions from certain Party offices or governmental agencies. Some of these entities were hosted by existing organizations.
As the 21st century began, driven by the trend of global issues and collaboration, such as environmental protection, poverty alleviation, AIDS prevention and treatment, and gender equality, international funders thronged to China, and there was an explosive growth of independent civil society groups. The government was also looking forward to the capital, technology and vigor that foreign funders and civil society participation would bring.
Since the development of civil society organizations had been severely restricted in China, many independent civil society groups registered as businesses, while conducting for the most part nonprofit activities in the public interest. Well-known examples include the Beijing Red Maple Hotline for Women and the China branch office of Green Peace.
Wang Xingjuan (王行娟) had worked as a journalist before going to work at the Beijing People’s Publishing House; she was best known for writing a biography of He Zizheng (贺子珍), one of Mao Zedong’s wives. In 1987, Wang and several other women officials, reporters and researchers founded Beijing Women’s Institute (北京妇女研究所), hosted by China Management Science Institute (中国管理科学研究院). In 1992, they started a hotline to provide counseling service for women.
In 1995, the American First Lady Hilary Clinton compiled a list of Chinese women leaders she planned to meet when attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing; Wang Xingjuan was on the list. When the Chinese state security agencies got word of the list, they began to investigate Wang and Women’s Institute, and discovered that their host, the China Management Science Institute, founded by a retired high-ranking official, was not registered. To protect itself, the Institute severed its ties with the Women’s Institute.
A desperate Wang found, at this juncture, a woman-owned trade company named Red Maple willing to lend its support. Her organization was able to survive as a registered business. The hotline continued to operate, and received funds from foreign foundations.
As a long-time volunteer at the Women’s Institute, I borrowed from its experience when I registered the Aizhixing Health Institute, working on HIV/AIDS issues, as a business in Beijing in 2002.
The government took an amicable stance towards women’s groups of the academic type. After registering as a business, such groups did not have to pay sales and income taxes upon receiving foreign donations, as these funds did not constitute business income. That is to say, if the donations were not all spent by the end of the year and donors did not ask for a refund, the group can save the remainder for future use. There is another upside to registering as a business: groups can then take advantage of China’s relatively more open business laws and operate programs in locations around China and the world.
At the end of 2003, groups that were even more independent than Red Maple, including Beijing Aizhixing and Beijing Open Constitutionalism Social Sciences Institute, which later became Gongmeng, also registered as business groups. The tax agencies then determined such groups must pay an income tax on unspent donations at the end of the year. This could be solved, and no taxes need be paid, if the group arranged with the donor not to send funds for that quarter. The consequence, however, was that NGOs with a business registration found it difficult to save money. Should the funder withdraw support, the organization may not be able to survive, let alone provide social service or conduct independent research.
In 2004 and 2005, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Croatia saw waves of what came to be known as the Colored Revolution. Russia accused some American foundations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Institute, of being the hidden sponsors of these changes. Chinese Communist leadership began paying closer attention to the development of China’s civil society.
In March 2005, the district Industry and Commerce Bureaus throughout Beijing sent NGOs registered as businesses the “Registration Transfer Notice to Private Social Science Institutes.” It said, “in accordance with the spirit of documents from the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, the Beijing Party Committee and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, private social science institutes, as business units, social groups, social force and nonprofit social organizations operated by individual citizens using non-state assets and dedicated to philosophical and social science study, shall be classified as private non-enterprise business units that are within the scope of the ‘Private Non-enterprise Unit Registration and Management Interim Rules,’ and shall be managed by both civil affairs department and the Federation of Social Sciences.”
The notice states that “those institutes that registered with industry and commerce bureaus and whose names include ‘philosophy’ or ‘social sciences,’ as well as those enterprises or individual businesses whose chief or secondary mission is ‘philosophical or social science activities’ or ‘social science and humanities research and experimental development,’ must transfer their registration to civil affairs agencies. The industry and commerce agencies shall cancel their registrations, shrink the scope of their operation upon inspection, or change the names they register under.”
According to this measure, individual human rights groups found their registration canceled, and the majority of these groups changed their names. For example, my own Beijing Aizhixing Health Education Institute became the Beijing Aizhixing Information Consulting Center.
In 2008, around the time of the Olympics, Chinese civil society groups faced various forms of harassment and threats from tax authorities, industry and commerce bureaus, banks, civil affairs bureaus, and public security bureaus. Some were the target of tax fraud investigations, while others were threatened with shutdown. Banks demanded that groups modify their grant agreements with donors and start paying business tax. In some cases, public security cited violations and shut down groups and their programs.
On December 25, 2009, PRC State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued Notice 63, “On Issues Concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to or by Domestic Institutions,” going into effect on March 1, 2010. The rules safeguarded the cash flow between groups founded by the government and their foreign donors, but tightly restricted the donations from Chinese businesses to foreign charities, as well as the ability of religious groups to receive donations in foreign currency. Those who suffered the greatest impact, however, were independent, cutting-edge groups within China.
The fifth clause of the notice states: “Where the donations occur between domestic enterprises and overseas non-profit organizations, the domestic enterprises shall present the following documents so as to proceed in the Banks: …… (3) a notarized donation agreement with the purpose of donation prescribed; ……” It made clear that donation agreements required notarization.
Notarizing grant agreements poses a complex problem. Information about the donor and the grant agreement has to be notarized in the country where the donor resides, and then verification from the Chinese embassy in that country is required. Only then can the recipient withdraw the foreign donation from the bank and legally obtain the funding.
Some groups, in order to sidestep the complex process of international notarization, signed business contracts directly with funders, and paid business tax so that the donation was treated in business terms. However, this changed outright the nature of such donations. When Chinese civil society groups receive foreign funds, their purpose is to serve the Chinese people; they are only forced to accept and to rely upon these funds in the face of the twin hurdle of zero government funding and restrictions on domestic fundraising. When grant agreements changed to business contracts, it inadvertently ran up the legal risk for these groups on both economic and political fronts. Some groups received donations through individuals in the group, which likewise posed legal risks.
In recent years, the Chinese government opened up registration to civil society groups, encouraging public interest groups to register with civil affairs agencies, and supporting their development through government procurement of NGO services. However, it still limits the registration of groups that work on political and legal issues.
While groups dedicated to social service are beginning to earn recognition and monetary support from the government, the remaining groups that continue to need to register as businesses mainly work on advocacy and human rights defense; their sources of support are primarily from overseas. Given the recently passed the “Counterespionage Law” (a complete translation) as well as the “Foreign NGO Management Law” (a bilingual version) and the “National Security Law” (a complete translation) currently under consideration, it would appear that the alternative of business registration for NGOs has now dead-ended.
 Gongmeng (公盟): A legal advocacy NGO foundered by Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and two others in 2003 and shut down in 2009. The group restarted in 2010 under the name Citizen. – Translator
Wan Yanhai (万延海) “is one of the most prominent leaders in the global campaign against HIV/AIDS. He launched China’s first HIV/AIDS counseling hotline in 1992 while working for China’s National Health Education Institute. In 1994, he founded AIZHI Action Project, an NGO that uses health education, research, publishing, and conferences to confront the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in China. He directs the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, the largest AIDS NGO in China. The institute works on HIV/AIDS and public health related policy, legal aid and human rights, and community outreach among the most vulnerable population. Yanhai organized several challenging campaigns in China including a national compensation campaign for the victims of HIV infection caused by blood transfusion or blood products, a national working group for the educational rights of people with HIV, hepatitis or other health problems, and a China HIV/AIDS NGO Network.” (From Yale World Fellows) Fleeing persecution, Dr. Wan left China with family in 2010. He now lives in the U. S.
Transition Institute releases a list of its alleged “illegal publications” (in Chinese), April 29, 2015.
China’s new foreign NGO law will help silence critics, Maya Wang, March 25, 2015.
Chinese law would bring civic groups under state security supervision, Simon Denyer, March 23, 2015.
A Slow Death? China’s Draft Foreign NGO Management Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 10, 2015.
The Future is Already Present? How the Draft Foreign NGO Management Law Could Be Applied, Elizabeth Lynch, May 11, 2015.
One Love: How Foreign NGOs & Governments Should Respond to China’s Draft Foreign NGO Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 12, 2015.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)
Chinese original: 《萬延海專欄：傳知行「非法經營罪」敲響的警鐘》