CHINA VS. CIVIL SOCIETY

July 23, 2009

China's leaders have studied the role civil society played in the collapse of the Soviet Union and don't want to make the same mistakes.  But as the recent closure of a Beijing-based independent think tank shows, when the Communist Party wins, the people lose, say observers.

The Gongmeng group, or Open Constitution Initiative, was shuttered last week for allegedly violating laws that govern nonprofits.  The organization was founded in 2003 and brought together human-rights lawyers and academics to research legal topics and take on politically sensitive pro bono cases.

Gongmeng's work was a rarity in a country where authorities brook little public dissent:

  • Its lawyers represented victims of the Sanlu toxic milk powder scandal -- which made nearly 300,000 babies ill -- and investigated institutions like "black prisons," which are illegal detention centers.
  • Gongmeng researchers studied the Tibet riots last year and concluded the Tibetans were protesting because of failed government policies that threatened their way of life.
  • Gongmeng bravely published its findings in Chinese.

Like other nongovernmental organizations, Gongmeng always operated in a legal grey zone of China's own making, say observers.  It's impossible to register an NGO without government sponsorship.  So most NGOs --including Gongmeng -- register as a business instead.

That gives Beijing wide latitude to shutter NGOs when they start to expose real problems.  Government officials removed computers and files containing sensitive client data from Gongmeng's offices Friday.  Last week the firm was slapped with a hefty $200,000 fine for tardy payment of taxes.

The Gongmeng crackdown is one of a larger series of recent blows to Chinese human-rights lawyers:

  • Last month around 20 human-rights lawyers were effectively disbarred, in a clear warning to other lawyers not to accept politically sensitive cases.
  • It is also a warning to foreign donors who support Chinese NGOs (Yale's China Law Center provided grants to Gongmeng).
  • Gongmeng was a small think tank, but the fact that the Chinese authorities went out of their way to shut it down shows the value of its work, observers say.

Source: Editorial, "China vs. Civil Society," Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2009.

For text:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203946904574299913158787226.html

 

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