Weekly visits and random questioning by local police officers are not unusual for the Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Disputes Centre in Guangdong province. This summer, though, has been different, says Zhang Zhiru, the centre’s director.
The centre provides legal training and advice for workers in countless factories in and around the economic powerhouse of Shenzhen. It teaches migrant workers how to negotiate with employers and organise, and for this reason it has regularly provoked the ire of local authorities.
“Since we launched in 2009, we’ve always been under pressure. So over the years, I’ve gotten used to it,” Zhang said in an interview. This spring and summer, however, visits by police are more frequent.
“The situation feels more tense than before,” Zhang said.
On May 19, Shenzhen police took Zhang to the police station, where he spent several hours answering questions about the source of Chunfeng’s funding, its staff and its operations.
Chunfeng is just one of a handful of NGOs that have spoken out recently about a new trend in police questioning. Employees at four NGOs and two founders of major NGOs operating in Henan, Sichuan, Guangdong and Yunnan tell the South China Morning Post they have received a noticeably different kind of police attention this summer.
They say that they have all been questioned either orally or asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their source of funding, ties with foreign donors and foreign organisations, as well as their day-to-day operations.
Focus on foreign funding links
The growing interrogation and even harassment of these NGOs, along with the leaking of some local government documents online in recent months, seem to indicate tightening controls over these groups – both foreign ones that operate in China and tens of thousands of small domestic groups funded by and linked to overseas counterparts.
A notice accidentally posted on a local government website in Shanxi Province stated that China’s new National Security Commission would be investigating foreign NGOs in May and June. Another notice, from Pinghe county in Fujian in June, said the government was probing schools and education-based NGOs with ties to foreign NGOs and overseas organisations.
But why? Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said this latest round of NGO investigations follows what human rights groups see as a larger crackdown on dissent over the past year and a half. This has included the arrest and criminal detention of popular bloggers and human rights lawyers, as well as increased surveillance of social media and text messaging.
“Ever since Xi Jinping came into power, there has been this larger, kind of fairly strategic and fairly proactive tightening of civil and political freedoms, and the crackdown is not only on NGOs, but also on the internet, mass media, universities, limiting, further narrowing civil and political freedoms,” Wang said. “There seems to be a multi-layered or strategic targeting of various facets of Chinese society, which in the past were fairly strong, [and] have grown even stronger in recent years.”
China has more than two million NGOs operating under different legal frameworks. There are half a million official NGOs in China, or “social organisations”, registered as legal non-profits with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. These typically include trade unions, charities and NGOs that provide social services.
The remaining 1.5 million unofficial NGOs are a diverse group of organisations ranging from small-scale community groups to advocacy organisations working in such controversial areas as human rights or HIV/Aids awareness. Many of these NGOs are legally registered as businesses, though in practice they are not-for-profit. These organisations must rely on community donations and overseas funding to pay for their work, but many of these donations are heavily taxed because of the NGOs’ legal status as a business. There are also several thousand foreign NGOs operating in China, which often provide assistance and funding to local partners.
Many of these unofficial NGOs operate with little government interference, but those that work in more controversial fields often report varying degrees of harassment and surveillance, according to Wang. This may include regular invitations from the police to “drink tea”, a common euphemism for a police interrogation, but authorities can also disrupt the work of NGOs they dislike by charging them with tax violations or by freezing their assets.
NGO lawyer arrested
One of the best-known examples of this kind of harassment are the problems faced by Zhengzhou Yirenping, an NGO based in Henan that provides legal support for people living with hepatitis B. The organisation has had problems with the police in the past for providing non-profit services, such as counselling for hepatitis B carriers, who are discriminated against in China, even though they are registered as a business.
This summer has been particularly difficult for Yirenping after its lawyer, Chang Boyang, was detained on May 27 for “disturbing the public order”, according to Chang's lawyer, Pang Kun.
Pang has not been allowed to see his client since his detention, but says Chang was formally arrested in July for conducting an “unlawful business operation”. Pang said the police have also accused Yirenping of accepting overseas funds and providing “unlawful” legal services.
The central government has yet to issue an official statement on this large-scale survey of its NGO operations, though the story has been in the news for most of the summer. The South China Morning Post submitted questions by fax to the Ministry of Civil Affairs on Wednesday and has not yet received a reply. However, people familiar with China’s NGO landscape have offered several explanations to what this latest trend could mean.
Wang said she thought it was a “worrying sign” that the government had indicated it wants to learn about foreign NGOs so that it could increase controls over their operations.
“I don’t recall NGOs being punished for receiving foreign funding in recent years, but they have certainly been closed for relationships with foreign funders,” Wang said. The acceptance of foreign funding without the proper registration could be considered a tax violation, but maintaining a relationship with an overseas NGO that, for example, supports a democratic cause is likely to cause a shutdown.
“NGOs are being harassed for relationships with, and receiving funding from, foreign NGOs and this is a signal to civilian society, which are already quite worried about what’s been going on in the past year and a half. This might signal further restrictions on NGOs to come.”
Gearing up for a crackdown, or reform?
Shui Yan Tang, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, took a more positive view of the situation. Tang, who researches China’s public administration policies, has helped to lead short-term executive training seminars for visiting Chinese government officials. He thought that China’s NGO probe might have more to do with a desire of the government to regulate the work of NGOs rather than crack down on them.
“My general impression is China’s leadership has been speculating about to what extent they should allow the development of NGOs or civil society,” Tang said. “… For a number of years, they tried to restrict the sector’s development, but now I think even the officials are undergoing training. They all realise China has developed to a stage where it is impossible to contain [this sector].
“Double-checking international NGOs, clearing whether you have connection to foreign funding ... I would say it makes sense. I’m not saying that they have this grand strategy, that this kind of guided development might indicate that they do want to support the development of the sector in the way that [the NGOs] want.”
Shawn Shieh, deputy director of development at the China Labour Bulletin. a labour rights group based in Hong Kong, also did not see the latest NGO survey as a punitive measure. He thought it could be a possible precursor to a reform of NGO laws.
Government departments have been studying NGOs in China for quite some time now, particularly starting around 2008-09, when high-level leaders begin to recognise the value of NGOs and began making plans to strengthen their regulation of them,” Shieh said.
“This may sound like they want to control them, but actually NGOs have not been well-regulated in the past, and the government recognises it needs to do a better job,” Shieh said. “The same goes for international NGOs, the large majority of which are not properly registered in China.”
Additional reporting by Nectar Gan, June Sun and Chris Luo.