Thursday, August 06, 2009

More on China's NGOs and GONGOs

Lauren Hilgers

A year ago, even as China locked down in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, things seemed to be looking up for NGOs.  The earthquake in Sichuan had seen a surge in charitable giving and volunteerism; the state seemed to be recognizing the worth of a vibrant, if well-monitored civil society.  A year later, this optimism has given way to a series of arrests, closures and criminal trials targeting China's activists and non-profit organizations.

It's become clear, in the past two months, that China is cracking down.  In addition to shuttering the open-constitution initiative (or, in Chinese, Gongmeng), Chinese authorities have raided Yi Ren Ping, a non-profit serving sufferers of Hepatitis B.  Xu Zhiyong, the legal representative of Gongmeng, disappeared last week and two activists who criticized the government after the Sichuan earthquake are scheduled to go on trial this month.   

No one is quite sure why China has chosen this moment to tighten its grip on lawyers and non-profit organizations.  It could be that the central government is nervous about the upcoming 60th anniversary of the People's Republic--Beijing is planning an elaborate show for the October first holiday.  It could be that they were shaken by the recent riots in Xinjiang.  Whatever the reason, the recent crackdown is not a great sign for China's NGOs.

This is primarily true for the NGOs registered as corporations rather than social organizations.  Even last year, when spirits were high, China's NGOs were split down the middle.  Those organizations willing to submit to some degree of government control can register as social organizations.  To do this, they must obtain sponsorship from a government department and receive approval from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.  Other organizations, those that deal in issues that China considers sensitive, or those that simply want to avoid government involvement, generally register as corporations.  

The Open Constitution Initiative, an NGO registered as a corporation, was never an organization suited to direct government supervision.  Gongmeng's lawyers, one of whom was disbarred earlier this summer, took on cases that China's authorities might rather have handled without involving China's judicial system.  In one of their most famous cases, Gongmeng lawyers represented the families impacted by the Sanlu milk scandal.  They negotiated financial compensation for the victims, overshadowing a government-backed payment scheme (offering the families much lower compensation) already in the works.  

While Gongmeng's plight and Xu Zhiyong's recent disappearance is sure to make many non-profits pause, there is an interesting foil to the current crackdown. In the past month or so, the All-China Environmental Federation, a government-operated NGO (or GONGO) has filed two court cases against local authorities (both have been referenced in the media as the first of their kind).  In one case, the Jiangyin Port Container Co. Ltd, located in Wuxi city, is accused of damaging air and water quality in the surrounding residential areas.  The second case, in Guizhou Province, takes on the Qingzhen Land Resources Bureau for leasing out land in an environmentally sensitive area to a drinks and ice cream processing plant.  

Both cases have been accepted by local courts and should be going to trial in the next few months.

In an interview with the AP, Ma Yong, the director of the legal service center at the ACEF said that this was the beginning of a trend a the federation.  "The case will serve as a warning for government departments and companies that damage the environment, as we're stepping up efforts to play a supervisory role."  

Of course, what Ma Yong is talking about is a government controlled organization taking on other arms of the government.  Xu Zhiyong and the Gongmeng lawyers, on the other hand, worked within the parameters of the Chinese legal system, but outside of the Party's control.  Their goals could and did diverge with those of the central government.  

The ACEF is helping to enforce a policy that has already been emphasized by the central government--environmental protection. This model of activism looks to be the one preferred in Beijing.  

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