Fearing social instability, China waging ‘lawfare’ on NGOs


China’s Communist authorities are intensifying a crackdown on dissent, civil society and growing labor unrest, reflecting the ruling party’s concern that economic restructuring and dislocation will “threaten social stability.”

“If there is one thing China’s politburo simply cannot afford right now, is to layer public unrest and civil violence on top of an economy which is already in “hard-landing” mode,’ analysts suggest.

China’s government released and deported a Swedish man it accused of training and funding unlicensed lawyers, leading to an extraordinary taped confession broadcast on state television, AP reports:

Peter Dahlin [right], co-founder of China Urgent Action Working Group, was featured in a 10-minute segment on state broadcaster CCTV last week in which he confessed to helping unlicensed lawyers take on cases against the government “in clear violation of the law”.  The confessions have brought calls from journalists’ and human rights organisations for sanctions against CCTV, which has been pushing hard to build its brand internationally to compete with CNN and the BBC.

“By knowingly peddling lies and statements [that] were presumably obtained under duress, CCTV and Xinhua become mass propaganda weapons and cease de facto to be news media,” said Benjamin Ismail, the head of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk.

The spate of televised self-incriminations has reminded many of the forced public confessions by enemies of the state in the era of Chairman Mao Zedong, especially during the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, CNN adds.

“Unfairly receiving accusations with no chance of defending themselves — this is not new, but it’s an adaptation to new technology that now makes it possible for everybody to see this,” said Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University and one of the foremost Western scholars on China’s legal system.

The communist authorities have been unnerved by the emergence of a new generation of “Netizens,” an engaged force of Internet users numbering in the hundreds of millions, [who] move faster than the government—using the Web as a potent tool to fight corruption, petty crime and policy, Abby Sieff writes for The ABA Journal:

Lawyers and activists have tapped into this digital environment with great success. Online forums and messaging services have made large-scale organization possible while social media has allowed mass dissemination of narratives countering government propaganda. For a government intensely focused on controlling its narratives, the growing power of dissident groups on the Internet poses a grave threat.

In the government’s view, “this was an organized group of individuals who had grouped together to oppose government policy—the exact nightmare situation for the communist regime,” says Frances Eve, researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of international human rights NGOs headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“It’s something you always see when you look at civil society,” Eve says. “When an organization becomes too organized or a group of people becomes organized, that’s what scares them. An individual criticizing the government could be lost in the wave of information that is out there, but once you become more organized, that’s more of a threat.”“It’s something you always see when you look at civil society,” Eve says.

A shadowy hacker group with suspected ties to the Chinese government has increased its attacks on dissidents and human rights groups, according to a report released this week, Christian Science Monitor reports:

The cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks noticed a recent upswing in activity in a four-year-old malware campaign dubbed “Scarlet Mimic,” a reference to the program attackers use to imitate legitimate software, designed to steal location data and sensitive communications from targeted computers.

While the attackers mostly target organizations that support the rights of Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, the unknown group behind the campaign appears to be targeting the Russian Federal Security Service and Indian government organizations with targeted phishing attacks.

Chinese government agencies are working towards establishing the first law on NGOs after events such as the Arab Spring and the emergence of the Ukraine conflict persuaded Beijing that the West is pursuing a strategy of “regime change” that will ultimately target the Chinese Communist Party, according to “China: Waging ‘Lawfare’ on NGOs”, a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations:

The NGO law will allow the Ministry of Public Security to prohibit foreign NGOs from operating on Chinese soil if these organisations endanger China’s national security. The law does fill a legal vacuum that has made operating in China uncertain and unclear but it will involve new bureaucratic obligations.

An unofficial labor group targeted in a recent crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the southern province of Guangdong is conducting its own form of lawfare by joining another workers advocacy group in suing a journalist with the state-run news agency Xinhua for libel after their reporting of the arrest of their founders, RFA reports:

The Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Center in Guangdong’s Foshan city said it, along with the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, has hired a libel lawyer and have sued Xinhua journalist Zou Weigong over a report accusing labor activists Zeng Feiyang and He Xiaobo of embezzlement and other misbehavior.

China’s latest crackdown on lawyers is unprecedented, with no analogues in modern Chinese history, says Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China and a law professor emerita at the City University of New York.

“This mass crackdown on lawyers is the broadest in terms of location, and clearly coordinated because of the timing of the initial crackdown,” says Hom, who is based in the group’s New York City office. “It included more than 23 provinces. It was a combination of detentions, disappearances and targeting family members, together with a very clear propaganda smear campaign in the People’s Daily. This is clearly a mass attack on lawyers that’s misusing legal process, using propaganda and then bringing back the collective punishment of China’s past by targeting the families.”

“It’s something you always see when you look at civil society,” Eve says.

At least one major foreign NGO, ActionAid, has wound down its operations, leaving behind only a token presence in China. Several other western NGOs are looking at plans to pull out of China as well, VOA reports.

“The government’s draft law indicates that dealing with foreign NGOs is linked to the question of “national security” and therefore a top priority. The recent case of the Swedish NGO activist Peter Dahlin has reinforced that message,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of Politics, Society and Media Research Area at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), told VOA:

According to the draft law, all NGOs must register with security authorities, who will then supervise their activities. The law has specific provisions addressing what it calls “endangerment of national security” by NGOs and possible violations by them against “national morals, values and customs”.

“Such categories offer huge spaces for political interpretation and therefore to ban activities of foreign NGOs or for further punishment,” Shi-Kupfer said.

The Chinese government has used his case to present the arrested lawyers as tools of foreign forces seeking to subvert the Communist Party. Mr. Dahlin worked in Beijing as a founder of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which supported lawyers and activists challenging violations of citizens’ legal rights, The New York Times adds.

“Western anti-China forces had planted Dahlin and some other people in China to gather negative information for anti-China purposes, such as smear campaigns,” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said last week.

Observers note that Dahlin’s case also represents an escalation of the ongoing crackdown on foreign non-governmental organizations ahead of new legislation that would require foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and find official sponsors in order to operate, notes China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy. Verna Yu at South China Morning Post looks at the effect that recent events have had on NGO workers in China, CDT notes:

The bleak situation has made workers at independent NGOs unaffiliated to the government feeling despondent about their future.

A worker at a domestic NGO who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said government control and harassment had always been around but the room for carrying out its birthright advocacy work has narrowed drastically in the past few years. And the situation hit rock bottom when they started detaining and arresting people in 2014.

[…] Another former worker for a foreign NGO said the “grey area” which existed before the Xi Jinping administration has been cracked down on and now “the space has markedly tightened and doing meaningful NGO work in China is getting more and more difficult .”

“Several years ago, they were mainly just harassing NGOs, but now, they want to completely pull them out from the roots,” said a veteran NGO worker, whose group has been closed down. [Source]

Last week, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hit out at “rampant human rights abuses” under the administration of President Xi Jinping, citing the crackdown on rights lawyers and labor groups as an example.

“President Xi’s shift toward a hard authoritarianism is disturbing and counterproductive and will have global implications,” Congressman Chris Smith said in a press release on the commission’s website on Friday.

“On his watch the courageous rights defense movement is under assault and brilliant lawyers are being cast as enemies of the state, [while] NGOs supporting all manner of causes to include labor rights, are hamstrung by a climate of fear,” he said.

Color revolution

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, author of two books on China’s leadership, said the party does not want to take chances and permit the spread of Western ideas at this time when the country is going through a major economic slowdown and social transformation, VOA adds.

“China’s Communist Party feels that western NGOs played an important role in the fall of Communist governments in Eastern Europe, though there were other reasons as well. The party wants to be capable of dealing with such NGOs at this time of social transition,” he said.

Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says “China’s leadership believes the color revolutions were in part caused by foreign NGOs, and they want to avoid the fate of other toppled authoritarian governments.”…..

Some Chinese officials have also expressed concerns that the task of supervision may lead to excesses, forcing foreign NGOs with good track record to leave the country, VOA adds.

“If the draft isn’t substantially altered, it will spell the end of many NGOs operating in China and have hugely negative consequences for Chinese society,” Kennedy said.



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