Tuesday, January 13, 2009

NGOs in China Are Becoming More Assertive and Pushing China's Government to Follow Its Own Laws

The International Herald-Tribune reports on the increasing assertiveness of advocacy groups in pushing China's government to follow its own rules and account to the public for its actions. Such confrontations may become more common as China seeks to expand its cooperation with NGOs in alleviating poverty, stemming the spread of AIDS and halting environmental degradation.

One citizen-activist group is challenging China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs over its plans for a historic residence the government owns in one of Beijing's oldest neighborhoods. The residence, a couple of kilometers north of Tiananmen Square, was originally an official's home and later the embassy of secretive North Korea. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center says the ministry may be violating national preservation regulations by renovating parts of the 19th century property - about 2.5 acres, of courtyards and classical gardens of bamboo groves, rock formations, ponds and pavilions. In November, the Foreign Ministry said it would restore the property to remove "safety threats" and eventually open it for public visits. The Ministry has not submitted its plans to preservation authorities for approval yet, and the center has received conflicting responses from other government departments, so it has continued its campaign.

"NGOs help the government solve a lot of problems," said Kang Xiaoguang, head of a research center at Renmin University in Beijing dedicated to the study of nonprofit groups in China. The groups also "have begun to challenge government policies and its administrative processes more and more."

The shift is part of China's transition from a socialist system centered on an all-powerful state to a market economy in which even the government must obey the law. Now, citizens have far more personal freedom and choice, and the government no longer provides many social guarantees such as lifetime employment and universal health care, leaving gaps that private groups can help fill.

The China Statistical Yearbook counted 386,916 NGOs at the end of 2007, without defining what the category encompasses. Kang said most are small, underfunded or dependent on the government for money. So far, they are much more prominent in service roles that support official policy aims than as gadflies or checks on power.

Chris Spohr, an economist based in Beijing for the Asian Development Bank, helped pilot the first program in China that allowed NGOs to bid competitively to run poverty-alleviation programs for the state. He says some people in government want to expand the initiative, because partnering with nonprofits produces better results and greater participation by the intended recipients - and also saves money.

While this has encouraged officials to support the expansion of citizens' organizations, they have not welcomed groups that delve into what they deem sensitive topics or that they feel are too critical or otherwise threaten their legitimacy. "We know the government likes our services but not our advocacy, so it's a contradiction," said Wan Yanhai, director of Aizhixing Institute, a nonprofit AIDS and human rights organization in Beijing. He was detained for three days in 2006 and forced to cancel a forum on blood safety that touched on compensation for people infected with AIDS through transfusions. He said many citizen groups do not push the government, for fear of having their funding or projects shut down.

Aizhixing, which had a program budget of 6 million yuan, or $878,000, last year, provides health training and education and is introducing rapid testing of people at risk for AIDS. The institute also offers legal services that challenge the government, such as protesting abusive police treatment of drug users. Its push for greater privacy of health information for job applicants was reflected in a labor-contract law that went into effect last year. It also issued requests for release of policy information from five agencies - and got responses from all of them. "That's a big change," Wan said. He said activist groups like his are preparing the way for a different kind of government - based on law - that is more transparent and responsive. "NGOs will eventually push democratic change," he said. "Whatever the Chinese government thinks about that, it will happen eventually."



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