NGOs with Chinese characteristics
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - When China’s Ministry of Education suggested recently that the Hong Kong arm of Oxfam International is a subversive organization and warned university students against volunteering for its poverty-relief programs, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around world heard the message loud and clear: no matter how big or internationally recognized, when in China, play by Chinese rules.

It is a lesson that has also not been lost on Google. The Internet giant In January threatened to close its Chinese website if it continued to be subject to censorship. Beijing gave the threat a cold shoulder, and the hiring of 40 new staff - including engineers, sales managers and research scientists - in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou indicates the US company may have had a
The Oxfam controversy started with a notice posted last month on the student recruitment webpage for Minzu University in Beijing calling the NGO an "ill-intentioned" organization with "ulterior motives".

The notice, attributed to the Education Ministry, accused Oxfam of "trying hard to infiltrate China", adding: "All education departments and institutions of higher education must raise their guard and together recognize and take precautions against the unfriendly intentions of Oxfam Hong Kong's recruitment of college volunteers."

It also referred to the Hong Kong head of Oxfam, Lo Chi-kin, a member of the city’s Democratic Party, as "a key member of the opposition camp". The party, considered moderate in Hong Kong, nevertheless continues to push for greater democracy 12 years after the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

In response to the notice, Oxfam Hong Kong suspended a program aimed at helping impoverished migrant farmers on the mainland.

It's still not clear what offense Oxfam, which has operated in China for 24 years and which is active in 27 provinces, has committed to warrant central government disapproval. So far, there has been no official comment.

It could be that the notice, which Minzu has since removed and most other university websites ignored, was a mistake. In the absence of any official word, however, speculation is rife that Oxfam ran afoul when it arranged training programs for university volunteers with organizations that promote workers’ rights.

Oxfam may also have attracted negative attention simply because of its growing size and the popularity of its intern programs among university students. Chinese officials are wary of any large organization - especially a popular one - that is not under the direct control of the Communist Party.

The writing was perhaps on the wall for Oxfam and other NGOs last year when the Gong Meng Open Government Initiative, a legal-aid program intended to help families whose children were poisoned in China’s tainted milk scandal in 2008, was unceremoniously scuttled.

Generally, analysts say, NGOs are now more welcome than ever before - as long as they do nothing that might undermine the authority of the central government.

Traditionally, Oxfam, which was founded in the English town of Oxford in 1942 and which now operates in 100 countries, has tried to remain above politics. But any organization whose mission is to alleviate poverty and injustice is bound to run into trouble - in China and elsewhere.

Over the past several years, Oxfam has done battle with Starbucks, accusing the American coffee chain of trying to cheat its Ethiopian suppliers, and its Belgian branch waded into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it produced a poster of a blood-drenched orange that urged people to boycott fruits and vegetables grown in Israel as a way of expressing condemnation for the country’s treatment of Palestinians. The poster campaign incited a storm of protest, prompting a letter of apology from Oxfam International chairman Ian Anderson.

With that background in mind, it is easy to speculate about what went wrong for Oxfam in China. Absolute silence from the central government is possibly an indication of internal disagreement about the case among officials, and the removal of the notice from the Minzu website could be seen as correction of an error.

Then again, all this could be yet another example of bureaucratic incompetence within the Communist Party. Given the opacity of Chinese politics, is it difficult to know.

Whatever the case, uncertainty surrounding Oxfam’s China operations underscores the fine line that all NGOs - most technically illegal because of impossibly difficult registration requirements - must walk in the country.

While their legality is in question, there are nevertheless at least 2,000 unregistered NGOs in China. As their tentacles spread, authorities are growing increasingly wary of their influence on social stability. NGOs associated with human and civil rights are particularly suspect.

There has certainly been no shortage of recent examples that the Chinese leadership, emboldened by continuing economic success, is taking a harder line on civil disobedience. Predictions by Western pundits that China’s economic miracle would be accompanied by political reform have proved stunningly wrong.

Indeed, with the West still climbing out of its worst economic hole since the Great Depression, Beijing appears to be growing increasingly confident in its authoritarian one-party system.

In 2008, the last year for which government statistics are available, 1,700 people were arrested on charges related to "endangering state security" - the catch-all phrase for anyone who goes too far in challenging the central government. That compares to 742 arrests in 2007 and 296 in 2005. Those figures don't include the quashing of hundreds of so-called "mass incidents" - protests, often violent, that occur across China for reasons ranging from petty pay disputes to massive land grabs by corrupt local officials.

The trend continues with the recent rash of jailings of, among others, political dissident Liu Xiaobo, the chief author of the Charter 08 manifesto that called for democratic reform of China’s political system, and activist Tan Zuoren, an advocate for parents of children who died in shoddily built schools that collapsed like tofu in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Tan was sentenced last month to five years in prison for his perceived crime, and, in a Christmas day announcement, Liu was given an 11-year sentence.

Protests from Western governments over China’s hard line have received the same cold shoulder offered to Google. Clearly, the leadership is no mood to compromise over its human-rights record.

It is in this atmosphere that NGOs, generally advocates for the poor and downtrodden, operate. Inevitably, organizations such as Oxfam, Save the Children, the Carter Center and International Bridges to Justice - if they continue to work in line with their stated principles - are going to cross swords with Chinese authorities.

Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping introduced capitalist reforms to China as "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Today’s leadership may be offering a new formula: “NGOs with Chinese characteristics.”

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at