A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

China suspicious of nonprofit organizations; It fears that money from West may be backing democracy

San Francisco Chronicle

June 25, 2006

Jehangir S. Pocha, Chronicle Foreign Service

In the United States it might seem odd for the government to crack down on Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill, yet here authorities have been conducting intrusive audits of China's fledgling nongovernmental organizations.

NGOs -- mostly nonprofit organizations involved in a wide range of social, medical and environmental work -- have only recently been allowed to operate in China, and some have been focusing attention on the country's human rights and environmental policies.

Critics say the audits are meant to intimidate and disrupt the groups, particularly those receiving money and support from foreign sources.

Yu Xiaogang, director of Green Watershed, an environmental NGO in southern Yunnan province that has received grants from the Ford Foundation and other large U.S. donors and that is opposing the construction of a large-scale dam, said the investigations greatly hampered his organization's work.

"We experienced investigations through almost the whole of last year," Yu said. "Some of our actions were limited by some orders from the government, (and) for several months we could not legally operate."

But others say the investigations are an understandable reaction to concerns in Beijing that the United States, Europe and some wealthy individuals have been using NGOs as fronts to push for greater democracy, and even regime change, in authoritarian states around the world.

"I think what's happening is very clearly connected with the 'color' revolutions in Central Asia," said Nick Young, editor of China Development Brief, a Beijing-based journal focused on China's aid and nonprofit community.

He was referring to the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Lemon Revolution in Kyrgyzstan -- all movements seeking greater democracy in their home countries. It is a widely accepted view that the movements all were fomented by local NGOs funded by pro-democracy organizations, such as George Soros' New York-based Open Society Institute and the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan organization established and financed by Congress.

After Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who China saw as an ally, was toppled last March, Beijing asked security officials to closely study the dynamics of the "color" revolutions, a diplomat said, asking that he not be quoted by name.

The following month, the Chinese Communist Party -- which is determined to keep China "red" -- repeated often-voiced concerns that the West is using NGOs such as the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy to orchestrate a "heping yanbian," or peaceful evolution toward democracy in China.

The Chinese media, including Hong Kong-based Open magazine, have reported that President Hu Jintao has issued a report entitled "Fighting the People's War Without Gunsmoke," which exhorts officials to contain a potential "counter-revolution" by increasing Internet censorship, removing controversial books from libraries and closing down potentially subversive organizations.

To signal China would pre-empt any homegrown movements, last August authorities here raided the offices of the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a human rights NGO funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. The endowment describes itself as "a private, nonprofit, grant-making organization created to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts."

Thousands of Chinese NGOs that are actively working in areas such as environmentalism, human rights, AIDS, labor rights and religious freedom and that have received funds from overseas have been investigated by the government over the last year, activists said.

In most cases, government-affiliated think tanks, such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have evaluated the NGOs' projects, while elements of the official security apparatus, such as the Public Security Bureau, have investigated their financial and political links.

"They've gone around asking: 'What is your real purpose? Are you trying to overthrow the government?' " Young said. "This may make no sense to you or me, but it makes perfect sense to the folks doing it because they are trained to find conspiracies and temperamentally inclined to suspect there is more than meets the eye."

The Chinese government and Communist Party leadership have a very limited understanding of NGOs, a movement that originated in the West. It was only in 1994 that China's first NGO, an environmental group called Friends of Nature, was allowed to open. Since then, the number of registered NGOs has reached 800,000, according to Human Rights Watch.

But many party officials, Young said, are "looking for ways to believe these NGOs are anti-state -- capable of coalescing and presenting a threat to their authority."

Last year, more than 87,000 public protests swept China. While there is no official tally of NGO involvement, many protests were jointly organized by several NGOs openly working together.

Dai Qing, a political and environmental activist who was jailed for a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, organized training camps for NGOs that were sponsored by Probe International, which tracks Canadian aid, and the Open Society Institute, which advocates democratic governance.

But while China's once-disparate, underfunded, untrained and badly equipped NGOs are learning to organize and empower themselves, there's little evidence to show they are anti-state.

"We've done research into Chinese NGOs and the way they think, and we can tell you the overwhelming majority are very patriotic," Young said. "The government's concerns may be real to them, but they have nothing to be worried about. In fact, the single thing many NGOs want most is better relations with the government."

Ding Ning Ning, director of social studies at the Development Research Center of the State Council in Beijing, said it is time China developed a comprehensive new policy on NGOs.

Currently, there is no clear legal status for NGOs in China, and even the concept of a nonprofit organization does not legally exist. Many groups register as commercial companies -- and pay full taxes on their income.

Yu, of Green Watershed, said the recent wave of audits might end up convincing the government that most Chinese NGOs do not have sinister motives.

"Things improved after a conference of NGOs the government organized in Beijing in November," he said. "Most of the investigations have already recognized the role of NGOs in China, and their basic finding is that China needs to develop more NGOs," Yu said.

But, Young said: "Many officials remain suspicious about NGOs. ... The problem is that the U.S. Department of State also does not have a very sophisticated understanding of NGOs. In fact, it's when (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice says things like the U.S. is sending NGOs into Iran to promote democracy that the Politburo here sits up and takes notice of NGOs and wants to know what the hell is going on."

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