the ‘chilling’ effect on Chinese civil society groups — Radio Free Asia


The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is meeting in Beijing on October 16, is expected to grant an unprecedented third five-year term to Xi Jinping, the CCP’s general secretary and state president. Ahead of the congress, RFA Cantonese and Mandarin examined 69-year-old Xi’s decade at the helm of the world’s most populous nation in a series of reports on Hong Kong, foreign policy, Chinese intellectuals , civil society and rural poverty. .

A decade after ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping came to power, China’s once-nascent civil society appears to have died in infancy, human rights activists and lawyers have told FRG, as Xi prepares to seek a third, possibly indefinite, term. in office at the next party congress.

China was described in 2008, after the Sichuan earthquake, as being “on the threshold” of having a functioning civil society.

A decade later, a research paper written by civil society researchers at Peking University describing the development of civil society as one of China’s greatest achievements looks like a moldy historical document from a bygone era.

Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang said the Xi administration had largely nipped this development in the bud, as civil society is seen by authorities as a thorn in the side.

Wang said the government got it wrong because civil society groups eased social tensions and offered aid where the government did not, contributing to social stability.

“If civil society cannot develop, then the rest of society will be less and less balanced, giving rise to continuous and extreme cases of social conflict,” said Wang, who was released in 2020 after serving a sentence. four and a half years in prison. term of subversion in connection with matters of public interest in which he was involved.

“The Chinese people have been oppressed by various organizations for a long time, throughout their history, without any independent civil entity to support them,” he said. “The stress on the individual can be enormous.”

China started the 21st century on a hopeful note, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) already in the bag, and seemingly presaging an era of unprecedented liberalism.

But rapid economic development has begun to expose growing social inequalities and the resulting social problems.

Fireworks explode above the National Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing August 8, 2008. Credit: Associated Press

In a hurry to turn off

A number of non-governmental groups have taken advantage of what was once a relaxed regulatory environment to offer assistance and services to those in need, including a group called the Beijing Transition Research Institute, or Chuanzhixing, who said he was “committed to investigating issues and phenomena related to freedom and justice in the process of social transformation.”

The group’s founder, Guo Yushan, once aided human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng in his daring escape from house arrest at his home in eastern Shandong Province, allowing him to take refuge in the United States Embassy in Beijing.

Guo also helped families of sick children during the 2008 melamine-tainted infant formula scandal and became one of the best-known advocacy groups.

American activist Yang Zili, who worked for Chuanzhixing, dates the beginning of the group’s end when Xi Jinping came to power at the party’s 18th congress in 2012.

“Civil society was suppressed very soon after Xi Jinping came to power,” Yang told RFA. “It started with an increasing number of restrictions on the organization’s activities, before it was banned altogether.”

“We used to have a weekly conference, and it started when the authorities didn’t want us to have a politically sensitive guest speaker who was going to talk about a politically sensitive topic,” he said.

“They finally interfered to the point of not letting us hold on [the lectures] at all,” Yang said.

The Beijing municipal government outright banned Chuanzhixing in July 2013, saying he had registered with the authorities in the wrong category.

Other civil society groups were soon to meet the same fate.

The Liren Rural Library Basic Education Project, which built libraries in rural schools, the Beijing Yirenping Center health rights group, and the Unirule Institute of Economics have all gradually disappeared from the seen.

“Organizations like Liren and Chuanzhixing, where I used to work, have all been wiped out now,” rights activist Chen Kun told RFA.

“Their employees have gone overseas, been imprisoned or have no way to speak out on these issues,” he said.

Newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Xi Jinping welcomes his departure after meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China November 15, 2012. Credit: Reuters
Newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Xi Jinping welcomes his departure after meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China November 15, 2012. Credit: Reuters

Hostile environment

Josef Benedict, a researcher in the Asia-Pacific Department of the Global Civil Society Engagement Coalition (CIVICUS), an international non-profit organization headquartered in South Africa, said China is now one of the most closed to the world.

Activists have to work in extremely difficult environments, with the recent crackdown meaning NGOs have basically lost all autonomy, and with most of the better-known groups shut down by the government, Benedict said in emailed comments to RFA.

Elizabeth Plantan, an assistant professor of political science at Stetson University who studies Chinese civil society, said the government appears to be encouraging environmental groups, however.

Activists and NGOs working on environmental issues at local, regional and national levels are still able to operate relatively freely, particularly in the area of ​​environmental public interest litigation, Plantan told RFA.

Groups promoting government transparency around pollution data and cooperating with state actors through official think tanks are also tolerated, she said.

But she said Chinese leaders’ antipathy toward civil society is well documented and unlikely to diminish.

Civil society is clearly listed as one of the “seven taboos” in CCP Document No. 9, a leaked secret policy document from 2013 that also prohibits public debate on judicial independence, universal values, freedom of the press, the rights of citizens, the historical errors of the CCP and the country’s financial and political elite.

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the banning of civil society groups has weakened social cohesion rather than threatening it.

“Currently, it can be said that Chinese society is atomized, which means that under a totalitarian regime, people are isolated and can only rely on their families for any kind of assistance,” Wang told RFA.

“It’s hard for people to connect with each other or do anything together,” she said.

Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang speaks via video link from his home in Jinan, eastern China's Shandong province, April 23, 2020. Credit: AFP
Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang speaks via video link from his home in Jinan, eastern China’s Shandong province, April 23, 2020. Credit: AFP

Changed forever

Wang Quanzhang, who was one of dozens of prominent human rights lawyers detained, jailed or otherwise targeted in a nationwide operation targeting the profession in 2015, said the crackdown had changed to never the situation of human rights lawyers.

While they had been targeted in the past, authorities began to pursue them at a much higher rate during the last five years of Xi Jinping’s tenure as head of the party and state.

In the 18 years from 1998 to 2015, 29 Chinese lawyers were disenfranchised for representing human rights cases.

Between 2016 and 2021, that number had risen to 42.

“The July 2015 arrests were another small spike in the authorities’ crackdown on citizens’ rights protection and human rights lawyers,” Wang told RFA.

“Since then, the activities of civil society groups such as human rights law firms have been further restricted and compressed,” he said.

Rights lawyer Wang Yu told a recent online conference hosted by US-based groups that her license to practice was revoked in 2020 and she has had little success so far. to offer legal assistance to clients who did not have it.

Wang was suddenly placed in solitary confinement in 2021, after being named by the US State Department as an international woman of courage.

Sources told RFA at the time that authorities prevented her from attending the awards ceremony online and speaking to the media.

Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer Sui Muqing, also targeted in the 2015 crackdown, said his license was revoked in 2018.

“I think the civil society environment has obviously become very bad,” Sui told RFA. “It’s not just about lawyers and human rights activists.”

“The intellectuals and the people inside the system [of government] are also affected by the stun effect,” he said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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