China Clamps Down On Nongovernmental Organizations

China's nongovernmental organizations are playing a growing role in major events — from earthquakes to civil rights movements to outbreaks of infectious diseases. But some groups have been the target of a government clampdown, and some NGO leaders have been detained by police.

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In China, aid groups are playing increasingly active roles throughout the country, helping during such events as earthquakes and outbreaks of disease. But some groups are finding themselves the target of government clampdowns, and some of their leaders have been detained by police. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: China's NGO community was jolted recently by news that prominent AIDS activist Wan Yen-Hai(ph) had left Beijing for Philadelphia. Wan says that government workers from taxmen to firemen were searching his office and harassing him. He had received anonymous threats, and on top of that, he says, new rules restricting foreign donations to Chinese NGOs had hit his funding hard.

Mr. WAN YEN-HAI: (Through translator) Externally, we were under attack from numerous government departments and we had no way to hit back. Internally, we had insufficient funds to operate normally. Whether from the standpoint of my personal safety or the organization's operation, I had no choice but to get out of that environment.

KUHN: Wan left behind a field of nervous colleagues, including Yu Fang Chang(ph), who runs the Izenping(ph) Center devoted to stopping discrimination against Hepatitis B carriers. The center has hidden all its publicity materials so government officials won't confiscate them, as they did last summer. Yu says he was hoping the government would give NGOs more breathing room after the 2008 Olympics, but it hasn't happened.

Mr. YU FANG CHANG (Izenping Center): (Through translator) This year, a lot of NGOs like ours have been suppressed. Our allies have fallen one after the other and there is a lot of pressure on us. We keep worrying we'll be the next to be shut down.

KUHN: The government seems to have the least patience for human rights and public health NGOs. Yu says this has to do with public health scandals, ranging from the SARS epidemic of 2003 to 2008's tainted milk scandal.

Dung Gua Shun(ph) is an associate professor at Tsinghua University's NGO Research Center. He says many local Chinese officials remain ignorant and suspicious about NGOs.

Professor DUNG GUA SHUN (NGO Research Center, Tsinghua University): (Through translator) For many years, when we went to do research in the provinces, local officials would say to us that non-governmental organizations were simply anti-government organizations. They didn't understand.

KUHN: Dung says that in the space of a generation, China has gone from zero to a million-and-a-half NGOs. But he estimates that more than a million of those are unregistered and could theoretically be shut down at any time.

That's exactly what happened last summer to the Open Constitution Initiative, an NGO run by civil rights lawyer Xiu Juyung(ph). Police detained Xiu for three weeks. He emerged a bit chastened and he decided to adjust his tactics to be less confrontational.

Mr. XIU JUYUNG (Civil Rights Lawyer): (Through translator) We won't cause our opponents to completely lose face. We'll try our best to be less radical and more moderate. If, for example, our protests start getting results, we'll back off a bit.

KUHN: Xiu says he'll think more carefully about the feasibility of each cause he takes on. He says he'll also try to avoid irking conservative officials who see foreign-funded NGOs as potentially subversive.

Mr. XIU: (Through translator) As long as we're doing the right thing, it doesn't matter whose money we're using. But given the space we have to exist in, we decided that as of last year we wouldn't accept any more foreign funding.

KUHN: Like most NGOs, the Open Constitution Initiative couldn't secure official NGO status, so it had to register as a company subject to corporate taxes.

In the first half of the last decade, Beijing responded with alarm to the role of NGOs in the so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet republics. But scholar Dung Gua Shun says that the ensuing crackdown was short-lived.

Prof. DUNG: (Through translator) Less than a half year after the color revolutions, China's NGOs underwent another rapid growth spurt. So you see, these reversals are only temporary. The overall growth trend is basically irreversible.

KUHN: Dung says that some local governments are trying to make it easier for NGOs to register. But such changes at the national level will take longer. For now, China's NGOs struggle on in a regulatory gray area under a government that is unwilling to completely embrace them or outlaw them.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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