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(New York) - The release of three leading Chinese civil society advocates shows that the Chinese government can be responsive to domestic and international human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The advocates - Xu Zhiyong, Zhuang Lu, and Ilham Tohti - had been arrested in recent weeks in Beijing.

While welcoming their release, Human Rights Watch stressed that the government's restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to leave tens of thousands of civil society organizations across the country vulnerable to arbitrary political and administrative interference.

"These releases are a step in the right direction, but we remain deeply concerned about the government's tight grip on civil society," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The arrests all appear to have taken place as a result of peaceful activities, and these releases should not be confused with an overall improvement in the government's attitude toward civil society."

Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the legal advocacy group Open Constitution Initiative (also known by its Chinese name, Gongmeng), and Zhuang Lu, its financial manager, were released by the Public Security Bureau on August 23 and 22, 2009, respectively. They had been arrested on July 29, for allegedly evading tax payments on a grant from Yale University, while Gongmeng itself was fined 1.4 million yuan (US$206,000). Although Xu was released on bail and can technically still be prosecuted, his lawyer has indicated that the authorities were most likely to drop the criminal charges against him.

Under China's highly restrictive NGO regulations, only organizations that have gained approval by the government prior to their establishment can register as non-profit entities; many who were set up without prior government approval opt to register as commercial enterprises to try to comply with the law. The Beijing authorities' decision to suspend Gongmeng on the grounds that it had "falsely registered as a commercial enterprise in view of carrying out civic non-commercial activities" has sent waves of concern through China's non-profit community. While Xu and Zhuang have now been released, it is not clear whether Gongmeng will be able to resume its operations and to continue representing clients in court given that it has no registration as an NGO and that all its work files, computers, and archives remain in the hands of the police.

In a separate development, the police also released Ilham Tohti, a Uighur professor at Beijing's Nationalities University, on July 23. Tohti was arrested on July 8, shortly after the governor of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region had blamed Uighur Online, a website run by Tohti, for helping spark the July 5 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. Tohti had written on the website about the central government's discriminatory policies in Xinjiang and warned about the risks of ethnic unrest. Tohti's website was shut down shortly after his arrest, in the same way that Gongmeng's websites were shut down after Xu's arrest.

Both cases had caused considerable alarm over a possible hardening of the government's attitude toward NGOs that had previously managed to operate and create space within the confines of the Chinese government's restrictions.

In recent years, China has witnessed an explosion of grassroots civic organizations working on social and legal issues, ranging from environmental protection to women's rights, HIV/AIDS and public health, consumer rights, rural poverty, and marginalized social groups. The government has publicly recognized the positive contribution that nongovernmental groups make to Chinese society.

Yet despite that rhetorical recognition, the government insists on registration and operational requirements that few organizations can meet, and that are incompatible with China's obligations to the right to freedom of association under international human rights law, such as being affiliated with a designated government entity.

As a result of these restrictions, the majority of China's civic organizations are either registered as commercial entities or simply operate without legal status, which leaves them open to potential prosecution for operating an "illegal organization."

"Civic organizations play an essential role in remedying social tensions and bringing about better governance," said Richardson. "The government claims to want to foster a ‘harmonious society;' it should foster an autonomous civil society rather than try to control and constrain it."

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