The outlook is bleak for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in China amid an ongoing government crackdown targeting civil society groups, former NGO workers and activists said on Friday.
As state-run CCTV paraded Swedish human rights worker Peter Dahlin in a televized "confession" last weekend, fellow NGO workers on the ground say there has been no let-up in government pressure amid a crackdown that began around a year ago.
Dahlin's China Urgent Action Working Group had provided legal advice to Chinese seeking to lodge complaints against the government, as well as helping to train rights lawyers and legal advocates.
But the crackdown on more than 300 rights lawyers since July 9, 2015 has come amid a concurrent operation targeting NGOs, especially those involved with grass-roots rights campaigns like the nascent independent labor movement.
Last month, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong detained seven labor activists, four of whom have since been formally arrested and two of whom have been released on bail. The status of the seventh remains unknown.
He Xiaobo faces charges of "embezzlement," while Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei and Meng Han were formally arrested earlier this month for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
State media has said Zeng and the others "seriously disrupted social order" and "trampled" workers rights by becoming involved in labor disputes.
Former labor activist Chen Mao said many unofficial labor advice centers have been forced to close as a result.
"There is now an ever-diminishing space in which NGOs can operate," Chen told RFA on Friday. "Now that the authorities have detained so many of the people that ran them, these [unofficial labor groups] have all shut down."
Chen, who left a similar organization a year ago, declined to say where he is now working, for fear of official reprisals.
"I am at another organization now, but I don't want there to be a misunderstanding," he said. "I have nothing to do with the labor advice center now."
According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Chinese NGOs are often foreign-funded, yet work on issues that affect millions of ordinary people daily, including domestic violence and discrimination, child welfare, labor disputes and environmental pollution.
NGOs that work on human rights or civil liberties issues and rely on foreign funding are being targeted for police supervision under a draft Foreign NGOs Administration Law currently in the pipeline, HRW said in a report last year.
"As Beijing becomes increasingly paranoid, claiming that civil society has helped topple governments in 'color revolutions' around the world, it has opted for a management model that maximizes state control," the group said.
'A huge impact'
U.S.-based rights activist Yang Jianli said the ongoing crackdown on Chinese NGOs will likely have a big impact on all aspects of Chinese people's lives.
"This will have a huge impact, because in bringing the law to bear in dealing with NGOs, the Chinese government will be harassing and supervising them constantly," Yang said.
"I think we are seeing very hard times ahead for foreign-funded NGOs in China, and I think that people will be more restricted in what they can do," he said.
Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, said the government had initially realized the value of the sector in the wake of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
"The Chinese government realized then that it needed these civil society groups, and we can see how the government supported the charities offering services," Liu said.
"But it didn't encourage, and even harassed and persecuted those groups engaged in rights work," he said.
Freedom of association
Chongqing-based independent scholar Zhang Qi said the right to form civil society groups is a basic human right linked to the freedom of association enshrined in China's constitution.
"Freedom of association is a natural and basic human right, but the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party has always regarded social and political work as its own private domain," Zhang said.
"It doesn't want ordinary people or civil society groups getting involved."
He said one of the key drivers of civil society has been a lack of protection for workers' rights, which workers say aren't protected or defended by the government-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
"As a result, the social status of workers has fallen overall, and there is no protection of their rights," Zhang said.
"The various pressures that this has created is seen by the Chinese Communist Party as a threat to its hold on power."
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by He Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.