The Communist Party wants to squeeze civil society. That would be unwise as well as unjust
Aug 22nd 2015 | From the print edition
EARLIER this year the Chinese government arrested five women who were campaigning against sexual harassment on buses. This was not because China's leaders believe that groping is a good thing, or that it is acceptable if perpetrated on public transport. It was because the Communist Party is wary of any organisation it does not control. The five feminists were entirely peaceful, and they were not advocating anything subversive like democracy. But they were organised and demonstrating in public, and that made them seem dangerous. After a month in detention they were released on bail, but they remain under police surveillance and could still be hauled back to face elastic charges such as "picking quarrels and provoking trouble". Such are the hazards of working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in China.
Now the party proposes to squeeze NGOs even harder, particularly those with foreign connections. A new draft law bars any Chinese NGO from receiving foreign funding (see article). It also sets out strict rules for foreign NGOs operating in China. These rules, according to the minister for public security, are intended to "protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign NGOs" in the country. Really?
Under the new law, all foreign NGOs would have to find an official sponsor and register with the ministry of public security (rather than the less fearsome ministry of civil affairs, which previously dealt with such matters). Those that cannot find a sponsor will have to leave. Charities that look after sick children and steer clear of politics will doubtless be all right—and may even find the red tape a little easier. Those that venture onto controversial turf—agitating for human rights, for example, or pushing for legal reform—may have to close.
Vague laws empower bullies
The draft law's wording is so broad and vague that it could apply even to foreign trade associations (the American Chamber of Commerce in China has expressed alarm). Any non-profit group that wants to visit China would also require a sponsor. In theory, a student exchange or a tour by an American college orchestra could be cancelled because a pro-Tibet group once spoke on their campus back home. The law allows the police to burst into the offices of a foreign NGO at any time and go through their papers to make sure they are not doing anything that undermines national security, public order or "morality". This is a licence to intimidate anyone the party—or a local official—does not like.
The new draft law would be more oppressive than the legal uncertainty that preceded it. Previously, although overtly political NGOs were banned, many groups operated in a grey area, pushing for such things as the rule of law or greater transparency without being shut down. Currently about 1,000 foreign NGOs have offices and staff in China, and many domestic ones receive funding from abroad. The work that such groups do is now at risk.
Cracking down on NGOs is fashionable just now. Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, has signed a law banning "undesirable" organisations, which allows those who work for such groups to be jailed for six years and even threatens those who are "involved" with them. Russian human-rights groups that receive money from the West have been labelled "foreign agents" and face closure. Meanwhile in Uganda, an oversight body whose members are appointed by the interior minister may soon be able to refuse to register an NGO for any reason it deems relevant. The idea that foreign-funded NGOs are a fifth column is one that autocrats find wonderfully convenient.
Yet it is not merely outrageous to suppress NGOs like this; it is also a mistake. Although some NGOs are wrong-headed and many are tiresome for a busy bureaucrat to deal with, collectively they make society better off. They see gaps in public services and fill them, whether that means visiting lonely old folk or counselling drug addicts. They draw attention to problems that the government may not have noticed—and as the explosion at a chemicals warehouse in Tianjin last week tragically showed, there are plenty of problems the Chinese government overlooks (see article). The growth of civil society makes a nation more stable, and fosters the social harmony the Communist Party says it wants. Xi Jinping, China's president, messes with the little platoons at his own peril.