(New York) - The Chinese government's current efforts to tighten control over nongovernmental organizations is threatening to roll back hard-earned advances made by civil society groups over the past decade, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 25, China's leading independent women's rights organization - the Women's Legal Research and Services Center - was abruptly notified that its affiliation with Beijing University had been terminated. Because China's restrictive laws governing the registration of nonprofit organizations mandate that applicants be affiliated and sponsored by a governmental unit, the decision effectively ends the existence of the center as a registered nongovernmental organization (NGO).
"The closure of the Women's Center is a serious setback for women's rights and civil society in China," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's general hostility towards civil society is starting to impact mainstream organizations whose work had so far been tolerated by the Chinese government."
The founder of the Women's Center, Guo Jianmei, has been unusually public in expressing her concern about the lack of justification for shuttering the center, which provides legal advice to women, and works on anti-discrimination legislation and on domestic violence. Guo has also expressed concerns about the signal this sends regarding the government's proclaimed commitment to eliminate discrimination against women, promote the rule of law, and support vulnerable groups in society.
In a statement released on April 2, the Women's Center noted that the dissolution "was only the last one in the long series of difficulties faced by the center in its 15-year existence." The statement pointed to systemic problems that stunt the growth of a healthy civil society in China, including barriers to raising charitable funds, governmental hostility to public interest litigation, and regulatory uncertainties that translate into a permanent struggle for organizational survival. Although Guo Jianmei intends to continue the center's litigation work through the private Qianqian law firm she established last year, the loss of its university affiliation has put the organization's future in jeopardy.
A group of Beijing University alumni have taken the unusual step of writing a public letter to the university and its president, Zhou Qiwei, on April 3, to protest the decision to dissolve ties to the center, but no domestic media has been allowed to report on these developments.
The dissolution of the Women's Legal Research and Services Center comes at a time when many domestic NGOs are reporting increased interference from the authorities with their work, including police surveillance and individual questioning of their staff; administrative harassment; pressures to cancel conferences and workshops; warnings about bringing public interest lawsuits; and the introduction of stifling regulatory requirements regarding funding and operations of nonprofit groups.
"The Chinese government should recognize that civil society groups play an essential role in remedying social problems and easing social tensions," said Richardson. "Instead, it is treating these groups as a threat to the Communist Party's monopoly of power, making China's most vulnerable populations pay the price."
On March 1, the government started implementing new regulations that place additional burdens on the ability of domestic NGOs to raise funds from international donors. The regulations introduce new requirements for receiving donations from foreign charities, philanthropies, and nonprofit groups - including producing notarized agreements and detailed application forms. Few international donors have publicly objected to these new regulations.
While governments may impose reasonable regulations on donation procedures of nonprofit organizations, Chinese legal experts have pointed out that the most onerous requirements do not apply to nonprofit organizations run by the government, but only to independent NGOs. Also, some of the provisions are at odds with China's own tax code. These rules open more avenues for arbitrary interference by government agencies and create uncertainties for civil society organizations even when they comply fully with the new regulations.
One group working on HIV/AIDS prevention, the Beijing Loving Source Information Center, which has partnered with the United Nations Children's Fund, Oxfam, the China AIDS Fund, and the Global Fund for Children, and other international organizations over the years, has publicly reported on the difficulties it has faced in complying with the new requirements. Several other NGOs have privately reported similar difficulties but are unwilling to voice their concerns publicly because they fear jeopardizing their work if they protest publicly and alienate the authorities.
The government's insistence on registration and operational requirements that few organizations can meet leaves NGOs in a chronically vulnerable position. In July 2009, the authorities used alleged tax irregularities over foreign funding to shut down another leading public interest legal aid and research center, the Open Constitution Initiative - better known under its Chinese name, Gongmeng - and detain briefly its founder, Xu Zhiyong, and another employee. At the time the Beijing authorities accused the research arm of Gongmeng of having "falsely registered as a commercial enterprise in view of carrying out civic non-commercial activities," a move threatening to the NGO community since many if not most nonprofit groups in China opt to register as commercial enterprises to try to comply with the law.
"The writing is on the wall for the international donor community working in China," said Richardson, "They must find a common voice and address their concerns to their governmental counterparts. Remaining silent when the situation continues to deteriorate only encourages the government to further clamp down on civil society groups."
Since its establishment in 1995 in partnership with the Beijing University Law School, the Women's Legal Research and Services Center has played a major role in the promotion of women's rights in China. Staffed by law department faculty, staff, graduate students, and lawyers, it provides free legal advice to thousands of women every year through its telephone hotline and works with a network of over 300 volunteer lawyers across the country. Its research and advocacy arm has worked closely with experts, international women's organizations, and the Chinese government on legislation pertaining to women and anti-discrimination legislation. In addition to providing free representation in hundreds of court cases over the years, the center has also been increasingly active in bringing public interest lawsuits to highlight particular issues faced by women such as discrimination and domestic violence.
Guo Jianmei is widely seen as China's leading women's rights activist, and has received numerous domestic and international distinctions over the years. The state-run China Daily hailed her in 2007 as "a patron for the weak" and the Women's Center was regularly listed by domestic media as one of the top public interest groups in the country.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Guo at the Women's Center at Beijing University during her last visit to China in February 2009, the third time they had met since Clinton first visited the Center in 1998. In 2007, Guo had received the Global Leadership award from Vital Voices, an international women advocacy group Clinton co-chairs. In January 2010, Guo was awarded the first Simone de Beauvoir award for women's rights.