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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based
teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.