Perfect Dictatorship? China‘s “controlocracy” stifles NGOs


The Economist

Authorities in China’s capital have cut off the utilities and destroyed the central heating system of a prominent non-government organization (NGO) set up to help migrant workers, as a new law came into effect placing foreign-funded NGOs effectively under police control, RFA reports:

Officials from Beijing’s Jinzhao township and Picun village led a 50-strong demolition team that included police and urban management officials to the headquarters of Migrant Workers Home on Dec. 29, the group’s leader said. The team destroyed the only working central heating boiler at the premises, leaving employees and volunteers with no way to continue their work, the group’s leader Wang Dezhi told RFA.

The law, which took effect last Sunday, places a raft of new requirements on foreign nonprofits operating in China, is another building block in President Xi Jinping’s fortification of one-party rule, which he sees as threatened by foreign influence and unfettered civil society, The New York Times adds:

Under the law, foreign nonprofits such as foundations, charities and many business associations must register with the police, persuade state agencies and organizations to act as their sponsors, and submit regular, detailed reports on their activities. ….Ambiguity about how the law will be enforced is likely to make foreign groups extra cautious, and the Ministry of Public Security, which administers the law, “has every incentive to maintain uncertainty,” said Jessica C. Teets, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont who studies nongovernmental organizations in China.

“This will mean that the government is able to more closely monitor the foreign NGOs, and, more importantly, the Chinese citizens working and interacting with them, while allowing them to continue the work that the government deems beneficial,” Ms. Teets told The Times. “The NGOs have every right to fear the closing off of space for advocacy and programs, but I think the impact will be really differentiated.”

The law combines elements of legislation introduced by Russia and India in recent years to curtail foreign NGO activities, said Mark Sidel, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But China’s legislation “is considerably broader because it uses almost all of the levers which can be used to constrain foreign NGOs”, he told The Financial Times. It is “an attempt to say to foreign NGOs: if you want to work in China, work with our agencies, work on our priorities and work less with Chinese civil society”, he added.

Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, told The Hong Kong Free Press: “I think it’s accurate to say – and not necessarily because they do work that they think is especially sensitive, but even groups who have worked in the country for decades and have very satisfactory relationships with the authorities – want to comply with the law but can’t.”

“The Chinese leadership wants to put a stop to the political and also, in some fields, societal influence of foreign NGOs,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. “China wants to prevent infiltration by ‘hostile Western forces.’ Beijing understands these to be institutionalized Western values, and concepts of political order that could promote political liberalization.”


“The law is pretty broad, so it’s not just charities and NGOs – or what we think of as NGOs – it also includes trade and business groups, chambers of commerce… technical institutes, people working on economic issues, technical assistance, artistic and educational groups – there’s a pretty wide range of groups here,” said Shawn Shieh, a Hong Kong-based expert on Chinese civil society. He also noted that there are two main points of uncertainty – whether NGOs can find an official sponsor, and the vague definition of what constitutes a “temporary activity” for groups trying to get approval for projects.

It has been a year since 36-year-old Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin became one of the first foreign victims of President Xi Jinping’s war on dissent (right), writes The Guardian’s Tom Phillips:

On 3 January 2016 Chinese security agents encircled the activist’s Beijing home and spirited him and his Chinese girlfriend, Pan Jinling, off to a covert interrogation centre he now calls “The Residence”. Months have now passed but the memories of that spell in custody have proved hard to shake. “These facilities are built to break you,” the campaigner says during a seven-hour interview at a home in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand where he and Pan have lived since he was deported from China amid one of the most severe crackdowns in decades.

The story of Peter Dahlin, told here in unprecedented detail, offers a rare and troubling snapshot of Xi Jinping’s China, where an unforgiving offensive against civil society is now unfolding.

“Whether it is Scottish people, the Catalan people, the Tibetan people or even just a village somewhere in China; that the people there should be the ones that have an influence, whether it is by forming an organisation, a labour union, their own media, whatever.”

Guided by those beliefs, Dahlin set about building China Action into a small but potent force for social change, Phillips adds:

With grants from institutions that included the European Union, the National Endowment For Democracy [the Washington-based democracy assistance group] and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund it ran training sessions for human rights lawyers and investigative journalists and offered support to young Chinese campaigners traumatised by run-ins with the security services…..Stein Ringen, a political scientist whose new book, The Perfect Dictatorship, examines the dramatic political tightening, said he believed that after a period of “steely and foresightful analysis”, China’s top leaders had concluded they must tighten their grip over the population now that the era of mega-economic growth was over.

“There is an absolute determination that the regime will persist and continue. That is number one for everything: the perpetuation of the regime.”

Ringen, an emeritus professor at Oxford University, said that in just a few years Xi had turned his country into a “controlocracy” where an ingenious mix of hard and soft measures were used to ensure the party’s rule went unchallenged.

China Change has a Q & A with Peter Dahlin, the Swedish NGO Worker Who ‘Endangered the National Security’ of China, “which focuses more on Dahlin’s work, the interrogations, and the legal features of his case,” the editors add. “Given that China’s “Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations” took effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective.” RTWT

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