Let me start this blog post with an apology for the two-year hiatus in this blog. It’s been a busy period during which I left China Development Brief and Beijing in June of 2014 and moved to Hong Kong in August to join China Labour Bulletin, an internationally-recognized NGO that works on labor rights and organizing in China. The work at CLB requires me to keep abreast of developments in China’s civil society, though with more of a focus on the south of China, and I continue to update the China NGO Monitor for the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
I realize it’s very possible that many old readers of this blog gave it up for dead and are no longer reading this. But I thought it was important to revive it because of the harsh and sustained clampdown on civil society activities under the Xi Jinping regime since early 2013. That clampdown has led to less analysis and information about the civil society sector getting out, particularly in the mainland. CDB, to take one example, has become more careful about what it publishes. As a result, alternative sources like this blog have become important for getting different views out about ongoing developments in China’s civil society.
Given that my last post was in 2013, I thought I’d try for some continuity by providing updates on the two-year gap from 2013 to 2015 to bring us up to the present. The next few posts will thus be a review of developments over the past two years, a period that has been one of the most difficult in recent memory for Chinese civil society.
Spring and Summer 2013: life under the Xi Jinping administration
At the March’s 12th National People’s Congress session, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have been formally anointed the president and premier of China. If everything goes as planned, they should serve our two five-year terms and then step down in 2023 to make way for the next generation of leaders.
In the spring, several high level officials from the State Council and Ministry of Civil Affairs signaled that revisions to the registration and management regulations for the three types of social organizations (Social Organizations, Civil Non-Enterprise Units and Foundations) will be ready by the end of this year after the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee. We had seen similar signals every year for the past 4-5 years from lower-level officials, so it remains to be seen whether the government will deliver, but this is the first time we have heard from the Minister of Civil Affairs and officials in the State Council. It also remains unclear how many of the three regulations under revision will actually be issued.
These developments have been the culmination of a flurry of activity among local governments across China to “innovate” by lowering barriers to CSO registration, contracting social services to CSOs, building programs and platforms to coordinate, support and incubate CSOs, and creating more detailed regulations and standards to guide the development of the CSO sector. Increasingly, however, it is becoming evident that these “innovations” are targeted at certain categories of CSOs such as social service provision and economic and trade associations, while excluding CSOs engaged in advocacy, ethnic minority affairs, religion and other sensitive areas.
The spring and summer months reinforced this perception of the Chinese government’s bifurcated approach to regulating the nonprofit sector. This period saw a major round of crackdowns on lawyers, journalists, bloggers and a few NGOs and think tanks and greater restrictions on social media. It began with detention and arrests of individuals in central China and Beijing demanding that government officials publicly disclose their personal assets. Xu Zhiyong, a prominent activist and founder of the NGO, Gongmeng, which was investigated for tax problems in 2009, was arrested. An independent think-tank, the Transition Socio-Economic Research Institute (Chuanzhixing), was also closed down. In addition, some high profile bloggers, including a billionaire businessman who had previously supported Xu Zhiyong, has been arrested.
There have been periodic crackdowns on civil society activists in the past, so it was difficult at the time to know how long this latest campaign would last. With the benefit of hindsight (writing this in October of 2015), it turned out to be a sustained campaign that would continue well into late 2015, and may not be over as of the time of this writing.