Among the most noticeable trends in China in recent years have been the expansion of the nonprofit sector and an increasing boldness on the part of informal networks of citizens to call for political reform and rights protection. However, this has prompted increasing repression of such groups by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Restrictions on freedom of association and assembly intensified beginning in 2005, as party leaders grew wary of the role that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), lawyers, and labor activists might play in fomenting a “color revolution” or stirring dissent in the run-up to the 17th National Party Congress in 2007 and the Olympic Games in 2008.
Freedom of Association
Despite the recent growth of the nonprofit sector, freedom of association remains severely restricted in China. Domestic and foreign NGOs must register with the government, and they require the sponsorship of a government agency to do so. There is also a limit of one registered NGO per sector in each region. According to official statistics, over 300,000 NGOs are registered, but most domestic groups are actually “government-organized NGOs,” or GONGOs. The more independent entities generally choose to avoid contact with the authorities or to disguise themselves as companies, though technically this is illegal. New regulations for fund-raising foundations were adopted in 2004, but they maintain restrictions including a mandatory minimum endowment level that is beyond the reach of organizations lacking government support. According to the new law, foreign foundations are prohibited from fund-raising inside China.
All registered NGOs, and many unregistered groups, do not challenge the CCP’s authority but rather supplement the work of the state, especially at the local level. Their work focuses on medical or educational service provision, poverty alleviation, and some environmental protection.
Vaguely worded laws bar NGOs from engaging in activities such as advocating nonparty rule, “damaging national unity,” or “upsetting ethnic harmony.” As a result, NGOs face suspicion and closure if they adopt an investigatory and critical stance on issues like HIV/AIDS or environmental damage. They are effectively prohibited from addressing “sensitive” topics such as the rights of petitioners, Uighur Muslims, or adherents of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.
Government policies on NGO activity pass through alternating and unpredictable periods of relative openness and repression, creating an uncertain atmosphere in which both domestic and international groups carefully choose their programs and self-censor public statements to avoid offending the authorities. While it is normal practice in China for security agencies to monitor NGOs’ communications and visit their offices, many have reported heightened surveillance in the past year. Some groups, like China Orchid AIDS Project and the Empowerment and Rights Institute, have had their offices raided and their documents and hard drives confiscated. In many cases staff members were interrogated or detained. In addition to formal closure, several organizations have reported attacks by armed thugs who were apparently hired by the authorities.
Party officials are particularly suspicious of NGOs whose publications promote networking within the civil society sector, and three such organizations were shut down in 2007. In an incident that many perceived as a warning sign to foreign NGOs, China Development Brief was closed in July 2007 after 12 years in the country. According to founding editor Nick Young, the office was closed after he refused an offer from the Public Security Bureau to copublish the group’s newsletter.
The government’s attitude toward civil society initiatives in the aftermath of the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan followed similar patterns. The authorities, finding it expedient to “outsource” certain tasks, encouraged an unprecedented mobilization of Chinese citizens for grassroots aid activity, but NGO coalitions seeking to formalize their status and citizen initiatives deemed overly critical of the CCP encountered the usual restrictions. The Sichuan Union Relief Office, which had been coordinating the work of over 100 NGOs in the earthquake zone, announced at the end of May that it would discontinue its efforts because it had been unable to register as an NGO and received harassing visits from police. In July, parents urging an investigation into the shoddy construction of school buildings that had collapsed in the quake were coerced into abandoning their campaign in exchange for financial compensation. Huang Qi, a local activist who had posted criticism of government relief efforts online and sought to assist the parents, was arrested in July, apparently on charges of possessing “state secrets.”
Independent trade unions are illegal, and enforcement of labor laws is poor. By law, all unions must belong to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which functions more as an arm of the CCP used to control workers than as a genuine vehicle for representing their interests. ACFTU officials often hold senior management positions in state-owned enterprises, and in recent years the unions have attempted to expand into private companies, including foreign multinationals such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Collective bargaining is legal in all industries but does not occur in practice. In June 2007, the National People’s Congress passed a Labor Contract Law meant to crack down on sweatshops, protect workers, and empower the CCP-controlled unions. The degree of enforcement remains to be seen, however, and some labor monitoring groups have questioned the law’s ability to significantly improve workers’ conditions without additional structural changes, such as the creation of an independent judiciary, instatement of the right to strike, and the establishment of genuinely representative unions to negotiate collective contracts. Human Rights in China reported in December 2007 that many companies had been firing employees and rehiring them under new contracts to circumvent protective provisions of the law before it took effect on January 1, 2008.
Advocates of independent unions are harassed, detained, and jailed for their efforts. Due to poor enforcement of labor laws, employers frequently ignore minimum-wage requirements and fail to comply with health and safety standards. Consequently, factory and coal-mining accidents kill tens of thousands of Chinese workers each year. Although workers lack the legal right to strike, there has been growing unrest in recent years. From 1995 to 2006, the number of labor disputes rose by 13.5 percent, with most involving layoffs; dangerous conditions; or unpaid wages, benefits, or unemployment stipends. Strike leaders are often arrested, while the workers are frequently granted partial concessions.
Though the days of peasant associations have passed, other sectors of society remain under party control through “mass organizations” similar to the ACFTU. These include the All-China Lawyers Association (ACLA), which in recent years has taken steps to rein in reform-minded members’ engagement with human rights cases. In 2006, the ACLA issued a series of “Guiding Opinions on Lawyers Handling Mass Cases” that, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), severely limit lawyers’ ability to represent protesters and plaintiffs filing collective lawsuits. In July 2007, the Beijing Municipal Lawyers Association dissolved its Committee on Constitutional and Human Rights Affairs after members repeatedly undertook sensitive rights cases and exerted increasing domestic influence. Several lawyers who had publicly offered to represent Tibetans detained during protests in March 2008, or who had defended Falun Gong adherents in court, encountered difficulties renewing their licenses in May.
Freedom of Assembly
Article 35 of the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, but Article 51 states that its exercise “may not infringe upon the interests of the state.” In practice, assembly rights are severely restricted. Permission to protest is required by law, but applications are almost always denied, and in some cases applicants have been arrested simply for lodging a request. Nevertheless, workers, farmers, and others have held thousands of public protests in recent years over wrongdoing by local officials, especially land confiscation and fatal police beatings. In some cases, security agencies or hired thugs use excessive force to suppress this unrest, as when 70 young men reportedly used knives and clubs to attack villagers resisting eviction in Hubei province in January 2008. In other cases, officials tolerate demonstrations as an outlet for pent-up grievances. The CCP sometimes even agrees to protesters’ demands, as when 20,000 local residents in Xiamen took to the streets in 2007 and successfully halted plans to build a chemical plant. Whatever the immediate response, protest leaders are usually arrested and may face long prison terms, often on vague charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.”
The government has been particularly intolerant of protests in regions populated by Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. Security agents suppressed peaceful marches by monks in Lhasa on March 10, 2008, the anniversary of a 1959 uprising, and four days later the city was shaken by riots in which some Tibetans attacked local Han Chinese and burned Han-owned businesses and government sites. Protests, a majority of them reportedly peaceful, soon spread to nearby provinces with large Tibetan populations. The authorities reported that 19 people were killed on March 14 in Lhasa, and according to overseas Tibetan groups, at least 140 Tibetans were killed as the security agencies cracked down. Chinese forces moved swiftly to establish a lockdown, confiscating communications equipment and barring entry to foreign journalists, and subsequently detained thousands of Tibetans in raids on monasteries and private homes. As of July 2008, at least 40 people had received prison sentences ranging from two years to life. Several hundred others were released, but thousands more remained in incommunicado detention and at risk of torture. Separately, security forces conducted large-scale arrests in Xinjiang after hundreds of residents, many of them women, protested on March 23 in the city of Hetian against the detention of political prisoners, the torture of Uighur detainees, and the general lack of religious freedom.
Given the restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, several alternative methods have emerged for Chinese citizens to air grievances. Among these is the millenia-old tradition of petitioning the central government over instances of local injustice. According to Chinese official statistics, the number of petitions increased from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2007. However, a 2005 report by HRW found that the vast majority of appeals are left unresolved, while petitioners regularly face harsh treatment, including sentences to “reeducation through labor” (RTL) camps. Despite new petitioning regulations passed in 2005, 71 percent of respondents to a 2007 survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said they had been beaten, and 64 percent reported being detained at some point during the petition process. Beijing authorities demolished an area known as the petitioners’ village ahead of the 17th Party Congress, forcing out some 4,000 people, and detained hundreds of petitioners in and around the city in the run-up to the Olympics. Despite official designation of certain parks as protests zones during the games, applications to demonstrate in these locations were reportedly refused.
The submission of mass open letters to China’s leaders has developed as a variation on the petitioning tradition. A number of these letters, signed by prominent scholars and activists, have urged human rights improvements ahead of the Olympics, and in October 2007 a letter signed by more than 12,000 petitioners from 30 provinces called for reforms including the abolition of the RTL camp system. Over 40,000 farmers in Heilongjiang province issued a statement online in December 2007 to claim ownership of state farmland, and in May 2008 some 150,000 unemployed teachers signed an open letter urging better protection of welfare benefits. The government’s response has generally been to ignore such appeals and imprison the organizers. Many have been sentenced to RTL camps, including Liu Jie, initiator of the letter urging the camp system’s abolition.
Another substitute protest mechanism that has emerged in recent years is a loosely organized network of lawyers, legal academics, and activists known as the weiquan, or “rights defense” movement. The group has sought to uphold constitutional rights through litigation, online publication of abuses, and a 2006 relay hunger strike that drew participants from 29 provinces. However, they have faced a gradually intensifying crackdown in the past two and a half years. Prominent members—including AIDS activist Hu Jia, attorney Gao Zhisheng, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, and blogger Guo Feixiong—have been placed under house arrest, abducted, tortured, and in several instances sentenced to long prison terms for “inciting subversion of state power.” Illustrating the scale of the recent crackdown on political dissent, the Dui Hua Foundation reported that in 2006, Chinese prosecutors “approved the arrest of 604 individuals on charges of ‘endangering state security,’ more than double the number for 2005 and the highest number of such arrests since 2002.”