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I. Summary1

In recent years, China’s government has lifted some of its tight restrictions on the country’s long-dormant civil society. Senior Chinese officials have shown a growing awareness about the need to mobilize civil society in order to combat a range of social problems, ranging from humanitarian relief to education and legal defense. As a result, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), grass-roots groups, and non-profit websites have sprung up around the country.

But the Chinese state remains deeply ambivalent about these groups, as it does of any institution that is outside of direct state control. Continuing restrictions on civil society, free expression and free association, along with a general lack of accountability for government officials, have hindered the growth of grass-roots groups. Local activists and NGOs are also hampered by the Chinese government's sporadic harassment and detention of activists whose public criticism threatens the interest of some segments of the government. Even as NGO activity generally increases, activists and NGO staff continue to report constant state surveillance, a web of bureaucratic obstacles, and even open harassment in the course of doing their daily work.

The Chinese government seems to have become noticeably more tolerant of nongovernmental activity in the fields of environmental protection and HIV/AIDS. In the latter case, Chinese authorities, who confront a rapidly-escalating AIDS epidemic, seem to be drawing on experience with the AIDS epidemic in many other countries, which has shown that a key ingredient of any successful plan to fight AIDS is the active participation of a vibrant civil society. AIDS tends to strike hardest at those most marginalized by mainstream society: the poor, injection drug users, men who have sex with men, and sex workers. Grassroots activists and NGOs are often best placed to reach persons on the margins of society and to provide them with urgently-needed information and services, whether in person or on the Internet. NGOs can also assist with monitoring how well large-scale government programs are implemented—or not—on the ground. Their experience in living with and combating the epidemic on the front lines can strengthen AIDS policy and law.

While Chinese AIDS activists are playing a leading role in the country’s small but emerging independent nongovernmental organization sector, they continue to face institutional obstacles and, in some regions, severe harassment. This report documents such obstacles and traces their consequences for the battle against HIV/AIDS in China.

Testimonies of activists and experts gathered by Human Rights Watch show continuing human rights concerns in four areas:

  • Detention and harassment by local authorities in Henan province of AIDS activists who help orphans, speak to the media, or demand access to antiretroviral treatment;
  • Harassment of activists working with persons at high risk of HIV transmission, such as injection drug users and sex workers, who are themselves at risk of arbitrary detention;
  • Censorship of websites that provide AIDS information to men who have sex with men; and
  • A restrictive and outdated set of regulations that create at times imposing obstacles for new AIDS organizations seeking to register or work independently.

These practices have hamstrung China’s ability to mobilize citizens to respond to the AIDS epidemic. More broadly, the case material presented here illustrates how continuing obstacles to freedom of association and expression are limiting the development of a civil society that can address emerging social problems. We also provide concrete recommendations about removing particular barriers at various levels of the Chinese bureaucracy that continue to hamper the literally vital work of Chinese AIDS activists.

[1] This report focuses on AIDS activists and civil society groups, not on obstacles faced by all people involved in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in China. Human Rights Watch has addressed some of the broader problems in detail in its 2003 report, “Locked Doors: The Human Rights of People Living with HIV/AIDS in China,”available at

index  |  next>>June 2005