Restrictions on non-governmental organizations in China are stifling civil society, but they also reflect a strategic dilemma for the ruling communist party.
Rules announced in March by the official foreign exchange bureau require NGOs to sign legally notarized grant agreements before they are allowed to receive money from foreign sources.
Analysts and activists fear that the rules will curtail NGO autonomy and impose tighter restrictions on the activities of civil society groups, especially those addressing issues of democracy and human rights.
The shackling of NGOs is “necessarily linked to the government’s strategies for managing social tensions,” writes Stanley Lubman, a China specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, and typifies the dilemma facing the ruling communist party:
If economic growth continues to enrich many Chinese, civil society will grow as it has in recent years, and under those circumstances how much will NGOs be able to support the assertion of claims of rights, in or outside the courts? On the other hand, if economic growth falters or slows and social protests grow, how much will NGOs be permitted to give voice to them and help reduce them?
The State Department’s recent report on China’s human rights practices notes that the authorities “routinely warned domestic NGOs, regardless of their registration status, not to accept donations from the National Endowment for Democracy and other international organizations deemed sensitive by the government.”
The impact of the new regulations is evident in the case of a group that did receive NED support:
Sitting in a bare office behind an anonymous steel door, Yu Fangqiang feels under siege.
His small nongovernmental organization, Yirenping, has enjoyed remarkable success in helping HIV and hepatitis B sufferers fight discrimination by Chinese employers, universities, and government departments. For this challenge to the authorities, though, the group is paying a high price.
Last year, police raided Yirenping’s Beijing office and confiscated all its publicity material and legal aid brochures – hence the empty bookshelves. In March, officials subjected their accounts to an unusually prolonged investigation and warned them of more to come.
Now, new government regulations are starving Yirenping and other controversial NGOs of funds.
“We are very concerned about how these regulations affect the operation of our grantees in China,” says Jane Riley Jacobsen, an NED spokeswoman.