Tense Times in China

With the major political meetings this fall and next spring, it looks to be a long winter for NGOs in China.

The run-up to the fall national party congress meeting can be a tense time in China, as China's leadership actively debate who will retire and who will "ascend the platform" and join the powerful central committee and politburo. These major political decisions create unease throughout the bureaucracy due to the delicate nature of political alliances and balances struck throughout the government. All government departments are kept informed of developments in the lead-up to the congress, both through formal and informal channels. Senior leaders are very concerned about potential disruptions that might affect the meetings. Three days ago, authorities in Beijing issued directives to local governments to control "mass incidents" and unrest, threatening officials that they would be passed over for promotion if they could not ensure social stability in their jurisdictions.

This strategy was employed during the last major party congress and national people's congress from fall 2002 to spring 2003. Just as media were forbidden to report on "negative" stories, what later became known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, was spreading from Guangzhou to Hong Kong and Beijing and the rest of the world. As China enters this political season, it is increasingly apparent that these traditional strategies for controlling information and suppressing dissent will be employed as they were previously.

One apparent casualty of the government's shifting attitude is the China Development Brief, a Beijing based NGO that has reported on the development of civil society in China for 13 years. The China Development Brief, known as CDB by its many supporters and subscribers has earned a solid reputation by producing regular newsletters, carefully researched reports on rural economic development, and directories of civil society and development organizations. The editor of the CDB, Nick Young, is politically astute and has always been careful to assure authorities that he understands the political realities and limits on what is appropriate. Based on the organization's work, it is clear that their objective is to support social and economic development through information sharing about organizations and individuals dedicated to improving the lives of under-served Chinese citizens.

According to press accounts, the CDB's computers have been seized and they have received orders to stop publishing their Chinese edition-which authorities have claimed is "illegal"-and they have also charged the organization with conducting "illegal surveys."

China's concerns about growing civil society have been manifested by increasing supervision and scrutiny, including an audit and registration drive of all NGOs which began in 2005 and ran through 2006. More recently, there have been reports of NGO offices being closed, missionaries being deported and community organizers being arrested, pointing to a reduced tolerance for non-governmental organizations active in local communities.

Unfortunately for the China Development Brief, founding editor Nick Young's longstanding plans were to hand over daily management of the organization to his local staff and leave China with his family. His aspiration to "localize" the organization is an objective shared by other civil society organizations that are currently building their capacity with international funding and management expertise. CDB's experience will hopefully not deter other NGOs, but provide a cautionary tale. In the wake of this event, other NGOs will have to strategize carefully, consider their government relations and develop plans for long-term transitions from international to local management and support.

While the timing for CDB might be exceedingly bad for its long-term success, all hope for other NGOs should not be lost. Central government officials have repeatedly and consistently voiced their support for civil-society participation in tackling pressing social issues such as health and the environment, sectors where the government faces particular challenges. However, until the government-at all levels-recognizes civil society's potential as a provider of community-based social services and a partner for defusing social disorder, rather than an organized opposition, the prospect for civil society is decidedly mixed. With the major political meetings this fall and next spring, it looks to be a long winter for NGOs in China.

Drew Thompson is the Director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.