Friday, July 24, 2009
The Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), also known by the Chinese abreviation Gongmeng, is an independent legal research group that, until last week, brought together human-rights lawyers and academics to research legal topics and take on politically sensitive pro bono cases.
Recent articles in the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) have reported the organization was shuttered last week by the Chinese Government for allegedly violating laws that govern nonprofits.
Since 2003, Gongmeng has operated in a legal grey zone. Due to a requirement that NGOs have government sponsorship to register, many groups, such as Gongmeng, are founded as businesses. The OCI’s name in Chinese translates as the Public Alliance Information Consultancy Company. Consequently, it has to pay business taxes, which the group says it paid. The Chinese Government says otherwise.
On July 17, in addition to levying a bill for little over $200,000, the authorities confiscated almost everything in the Gongmeng office: from files, computers and desks to the water cooler. They have also declared the research group within the organization illegal because, they say, it is unregistered.
The NCPA calls the Gongmeng crackdown one of the larger incidents in a 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. The group has been so prominent in civil-rights cases that the government seems wary of confronting it directly. Instead, it has decided to just make its continued operation practically impossible.