A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

NGOs in China: for citizens' groups, the struggle for attention is not so lonely

International Herald Tribune

By Howard W. French

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

LUSHAN, China

For as long as he can remember, Du Jianhua's dream has been to find a way to contribute to his society.

Starting small, the glass cutter began by cleaning up litter around this town. Later, he began tracking the way garbage was dumped into the Nansha River, fouling the waterway he'd played in as a boy. Soon he began looking into mining and the clearing of forests in the hill country of Henan Province, where he grew up, and finally, hoping to spur the local government to action, he presented it with a report on his findings.

When the local environmental bureau dismissed him out of hand, he decided to form his own nongovernmental organization, or NGO.

"This is when I realized that volunteers are weak in our society," Du said. "No matter what we say, the government doesn't listen, but just ridicules us. The only way forward is to form an organization and to unite with other groups."

Over the next two years, Du, 37, worked hard to build a local environmental group and then to get it officially registered. His bid for legal status was frustrated, however, leading to two lawsuits, both of which he lost.

But if his battle often seemed lonely, the efforts of this man, with little more than a high school education and a strong dose of willpower, have been anything but alone.

In the space of 15 years, China has gone from having virtually no independent groups of any kind to having more than 300,000 NGOs by official count. Counting groups not registered with the government, some estimates place the number as high as 2 million. And as Du's experience attests, NGO- type activism has spread out of the big cities and well beyond the intellectual class that gave rise to the movement in the early 1990s by taking on what were politically less risky issues, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, such as environmental protection.

This explosion has begun to change the relationship between citizens and the government, and many activists say it has pushed the authoritarian system in the direction of greater openness and accountability. It has also aroused concerns, with some officials warning that NGOs could become a Trojan horse for Western-style democratization.

Although they rarely use the word Western to describe the inspiration for their efforts, for many activists within this movement, gradual democratization is precisely the point.

"In the past all decisions were made according to the government's sole judgment," said Wang Yongchen, a co- founder of Green Earth Volunteers, one of the country's oldest NGOs. "What we're saying is not only the government, but the nongovernment sector, too, should participate in decision-making so that broader public interests can be reflected in decisions. During this process, NGOs can help achieve good governance and a pluralism where decision-making will take into account multiple voices."

Activists like Wang tout the achievements of the movement, which they say has already changed many of the rules of the game. This has been achieved, they say, by organizing public hearings about government decisions, and by educating ordinary people about their rights.

An important landmark for the movement was the environmental impact assessment law, which took effect in 2003 and for the first time provided for public hearings on construction projects.

Still, the Chinese government requires that for any NGO to become a legal entity, it must first obtain sponsorship from a state agency, meaning any group whose agenda is seen as provocative or adversarial stands little chance of securing registration.

The standards of what constitutes provocative vary, and a near universal complaint of NGOs is that the boundaries of the acceptable are seldom clear.

Ren Guoliang, for example, a former soldier who is HIV-positive, formed an outreach group in the city of Xian of people with the virus for others who are infected, but could not find a local government department that would sponsor its registration.

"The government looked at us as if they thought we might have some political motivation, like there was some kind of political risk involved, as if infected people would start causing trouble," said Ren, 26.

This led to a decision made by a million or more other groups facing similar frustrations: to operate in a gray zone, technically illegal and sharply limited in operations.

"Because we can't have a bank account, it becomes very difficult to raise funds," Ren said.

"The other thing is that when we talk with a local government, or with infected people, our identity becomes an issue. People ask you for your credentials and for introduction letters, and not having them makes things really difficult."

Ren's is typical of the new kind of activism, which is not easily discouraged even in the face of such severe restrictions.

"People have much more information now, and they're much more willing to defend their rights, and I believe the future is very bright."

Outside of the major cities, where NGO activity is booming, the rules of registration also typically mean that groups with grievances must approach local governments to seek their sponsorship for registration.

Wang Ziqing, a leader of a farmers' group in Zhejiang Province that seeks to stop government appropriation of farmland, had this experience.

"They say we're fighting with the government and that's why they won't approve us," said Wang, 46.

Denied registration, Wang has repeatedly traveled with groups of farmers to Beijing to file complaints about the provincial government, frequently resulting in their detention and forcible return home by security agents.

"We have produced all of the necessary materials, but they just say, 'Your farmers' association is illegal,'" he said.

While many in government appear to see tighter law enforcement and old tactics involving a mixture of cash payments and intimidation as the best way to quell disturbances, others see the NGO movement as an increasingly valuable outlet for social tensions, because it channels people's grievances into legal and peaceful forms of mobilization.

"The government must allow civil society to grow and allow citizens to associate and organize together," said Jia Xijin, deputy director of the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University. "That's a healthy situation, and the government has to realize that, otherwise the situation could become very dangerous."