Paul French, China editor, finds the Chinese authorities are still far too suspicious of international NGOs
NGOs are interesting beasts in China. Their number has grown rapidly in the past few years and jumped considerably around the time of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
Now China’s NGO sector is a burgeoning mixture of small and medium Chinese organisations working on specific issues or with specific communities, as well as a few larger ones. Alongside them are about 200 international NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and some other big names.
The relationship between NGOs, local or international, and the Beijing government remains problematic and can get quite fraught.
For domestic activists a major problem is in actually starting an NGO, given the government’s torturous registration regulations. For the international agencies it’s endeavouring to find a space to operate in that doesn’t get them shut down or thrown out.
It’s a balancing act for everyone involved – Beijing doesn’t want simply to wipe the sector out, rather maintain control. And recent developments show just how shaky the relationship can get.
Some sort of government connection is virtually unavoidable for an NGO in China, which instantly raises questions of independence both in the minds of the public and the media. This became an issue during the Sichuan earthquake when donations from all over the country were distributed to the stricken region only via the Red Cross Society of China or the China Charity Federation.
These are both examples of what are known in China as Gongos, or government operated non-governmental organisations. A rather torturous logic at work there. Local NGOs wanted more involvement and greater monitoring of the aid distribution but the government by and large maintained a strict control.
Unsurprisingly, conflicts have occurred. The latest international NGO to fall foul of Beijing’s control system appears to be Oxfam, which has been active on mainland China for two decades.
Details are inevitably murky, but the problem appears to be an internship programme Oxfam has been running since 2006. This places 40 Chinese students with NGOs that are supporting China’s vast number of migrant workers. Oxfam recruits the interns though adverts at graduate recruitment fairs held on China’s university campuses.
All had apparently been running smoothly until an official notice from the education ministry appeared on a graduate recruitment website at Beijing’s Minzu University. It said: “All education departments and institutions of higher education must raise their guard and together recognise and take precautions against the unfriendly intentions of Oxfam Hong Kong’s recruitment of college volunteers.”
Harsh stuff. Oxfam was further described as a “non-governmental organisation seeking to infiltrate” the mainland and a “stalwart of the opposition faction”.
This is not exactly the image of Oxfam generated by thousands of small charity shops staffed by well-meaning volunteers to raise money for the hungry.
What exactly all the fuss is about remains unclear. It probably has much to do with the fact that Lo Chi-kin, chairman of Oxfam Hong Kong, is a member of the territory’s Democratic Party, which advocates reforms including direct elections for the legislature.
Oxfam has been taken aback by the news. Charlotte Kong, its communications manager, told the Hong Kong press: “In the past four years we never received any warning that this programme was sensitive.”
Oxfam’s rather worrying experience of being branded unfriendly and oppositional isn’t stopping others from appealing to the government directly.
A few weeks after the Oxfam episode, China’s National People’s Congress – what passes for China’s parliament – gathered in Beijing for a week of deliberations.
On the first day, Greenpeace publicly called on the NPC to draw up strong policies that would accelerate a transition to a green economy. Greenpeace’s suggestions include a carbon tax to discourage coal use, the removal of subsidies assisting fertiliser manufacturers, an immediate halt to the commercialisation of genetically engineered crops and a strenuous tightening of the existing pollution laws against hazardous chemicals.
What the response of the NPC was to Greenpeace’s suggestions and whether they even got to hear of them is unclear. The NPC doesn’t really invite such appeals. Perhaps they will studiously ignore them or perhaps Greenpeace’s volunteers will join those of Oxfam as stalwarts of the opposition faction?
Based in China for more than 20 years, Paul French is a partner in the research publisher Access Asia.