HONG KONG—As large numbers of volunteers and donations pour into the far western province of Qinghai following a deadly earthquake, Chinese nongovernment and civic groups say the political climate for their work is getting tougher.
“Our work is ... hampered by a deficient legal environment, flawed enforcement systems, administrative interference, local protectionist policies, industry protectionism, even corruptive practices within the judicial system,” top legal scholar and women’s law center founder Guo Jianmei said in a statement this month.
The statement was released after Guo’s Women’s Legal Research & Services Center, a legal aid group representing China’s poorest women, had its official ties to prestigious Beijing University cut, denying it the political protection and official approval implicit in its link to the institution.
A Beijing university official said that the move had come as part of the “metabolic processes” of an academic institution.
But a professor at the university who asked to remain anonymous said the women’s law center had fallen foul of political requirements from the university leadership, which wanted to stop the lawyers from representing “external cases.”
Staffed by law department faculty, staff, graduate students, and lawyers, the Women’s Legal Research & Services Center provides free legal advice to thousands of women every year through its telephone hotline, advises legal research groups on women’s rights, and has been increasingly active in bringing public interest lawsuits related to discrimination and domestic violence.
The center’s most recent case to grab headlines was that of Hubei waitress Deng Yujiao, who fatally stabbed a Communist Party official who demanded sex with her last May.
Deng was freed after a national outcry surrounding her murder trial.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the March 25 order to terminate the center’s association with Beijing University effectively ended its existence as a government-registered body.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, warned that the government’s general hostility towards civil society is starting to affect mainstream organizations.
Human Rights Watch cited police surveillance and individual questioning of NGO staff, administrative harassment, pressures to cancel conferences and workshops, warnings about bringing public interest lawsuits, and the introduction of stifling regulatory requirements regarding funding and operations of nonprofit groups.
“The Chinese government should recognize that civil society groups play an essential role in remedying social problems and easing social tensions,” Richardson said in a Human Rights Watch statement April 12.
“Instead, it is treating these groups as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, making China’s most vulnerable populations pay the price.”
The cutting off of the women’s law center comes hard on the heels of new rules making it much harder for Chinese NGOs to accept funds from overseas donors.
From March 1, new requirements have been imposed on groups receiving donations from foreign charities, philanthropies, and nonprofit groups—including producing notarized agreements and detailed application forms.
According to Chinese legal experts, the new restrictions apply only to independent NGOs, leaving government-backed nonprofit organizations free to operate as before.
Affected groups include the AIDS NGO Beijing Loving Source Information Center, whose partners include UNICEF, Oxfam, the China AIDS Fund, and the Global Fund for Children.
According to Human Rights Watch, several other NGOs have “privately reported similar difficulties but are unwilling to voice their concerns publicly” for fear of alienating officials.
Last year, the Chinese government closed down another leading legal aid center, Gongmeng, over alleged tax irregularities, briefly detaining civil rights lawyers connected with the center.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong said the women’s law center had done much to help the most powerless people in Chinese society.
“Guo Jianmei … keeps a very low profile, and in public she is always full of praise for government policies,” Jiang said.
“But now it’s very clear that the space in which she operates has been drastically compressed.”
Guangdong-based civil rights lawyer Tang Jingling said NGOs still had some way to go in today’s China.
“I see [this] as a serious backward step,” Tang said.
“It doesn’t matter whether Guo Jianmei supported government policies or didn’t support government policies. The work she was carrying out was socially useful and constructive.”
“It is in the interests of the whole of society for a worthy person like this to try to bridge that gap by helping people with no money or power,” he said.
“Using a technicality to cause the death of an NGO is a terrible thing to do.”
Zhang Weiwei, a lawyer with the center, said she was unable to accept interviews with the foreign media.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan and in Cantonese by Bok Zimuk. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.