Bleak outlook for Chinese civil society in 2017
The passing of two new draconian laws in 2016 has created a bleak outlook for Chinese civil society at the start 2017. The Foreign NGO Management law and the Cybersecurity law both present serious obstacles to the emergence of politically independent civic activism in China. Activists view the new laws as the latest attempt to sanitise free speech and eradicate critical dissent, under the guise of ensuring national security. A recent report from Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) underlined the severity of the threats against civil society by documenting human rights abuses during 2016. Their work evidences a situation where human rights work is criminalised, censorship is widespread and dissidents face the real threat of torture or imprisonment.
A new law on the operation of international CSOs, announced in April 2016, came into effect on 1st January. The law has been widely condemned as a thinly veiled attempt to impede the emergence of an independent civil society in China. The new law provides two options for foreign NGOs wanting to carry out activities in China, namely registering a representative office, or cooperating with a Chinese partner after filing records. A guideline to the new law, published on 28th November, states that to open a representative office, foreign NGOs are required to submit details, including identification documents and the curriculum vitae of the person in charge of the proposed office along with a statement certifying that they have no criminal record, as well as evidence of the source of funds. Upon registering a representative office, the NGO must provide its scope of operations and area of activities. Many claim the provisions give the Chinese government too much power to interfere with the work of independently critical international CSOs. The video below from international news outlet 'Al Jazeera' documents the concerns of Amnesty International:
The new rules also mean that China-based offices of charities and foundations have to find an official sponsor and file regular and detailed activity plans to the police. Confusion around what constitutes an activity has led many to criticise the unjustified bureaucratisation of civil society. The requirement for a governmental sponsor illustrates the desire of the Chinese authorities' to interfere directly in the operation of civil society. Most worryingly, Chinese authorities have stated that they will make no concessions after the law is enacted, meaning that the consequences of non-compliance with the new legislation could lead to asset confiscation or deportation. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), noted in a recent statement:
'China is a country with the rule of law - no law has a 'transition period' or 'grace period' after it takes effect.'
While international human rights groups have criticised the law as smothering and sanitising civil society, Chinese authorities have shown no willingness to reverse this unnecessarily cumbersome legislation.
On 7th November, Chinese authorities passed a controversial new cybersecurity law. The law, which comes into effect in June 2017, tightens the authorities' grip on freedom of expression on the net. While the ruling party has said the provisions are needed to protect personal information and combat online fraud, critics claim it is a guise to force service providers to hand over vast amounts of personal information to Chinese authorities. Many freedom of speech advocates allege that safeguards in the law are not strong enough to protect the right to privacy and as a result will lead to self-censorship and prosecution of online dissidents. Companies will be subjected to substantial penalties if they fail to meet the requirements. In a recent press statement, Amnesty International commented on the new law by saying:
'The new law codifies existing abusive practices and seeks to turn tech companies operating in China into de-facto state surveillance agents.'
While the new law has drawn swift criticism from international business and human rights groups, it forms part of a broader attempt by the Chinese authorities to close off avenues for free expressison and dissent. The passage of these new measures illustrate that Chinese authorities have no intention of reversing this very deliberate policy.
As the CIVICUS Monitor has previously reported, people's concern about environmental damage around pollution have been a recurring flashpoint for mobilisations in China. On 14th February, 200 local residents held a protest outside the Daqing government headquarters in Heilongjiang province against proposals to build an aluminium production plant. In a protest symbolic of broadening environmental concerns and the health risks associated with high pollution levels, local residents took to the streets, despite promises of the creation of 30,000 jobs. In light of the unrest, local authorities were left with no option but to backtrack on their agreement to build the plant and quickly released a statement stating that development of the facility had been suspended. Reports note that a local government official addressed the protesters by saying:
'We take your wishes and your concerns about the environment very seriously.'
While local activists have welcomed the decision to halt development of the facility, concerns remain over whether citizens' voices will continue to be heard over environmental issues in China. Some fear that authorities may try to quietly reverse their decision after the unrest has passed and continue to build the plant.
In a separate incident, on 11th October, over 1,000 Chinese military veterans gathered in Beijing in a demonstration demanding better government benefits. From time to time, grievances over military pensions have flared into mass protests in China, but large shows of public dissent in front of major government offices in the Chinese capital are unusual. Armed police vehicles and dozens of buses assembled around the ministry's entrance, possibly to obscure the demonstration from the view of passers-by, while police patrolled the area. Reports from the ground note that the protest movement is ongoing, and while organisers have received sharp warnings from Chinese authorities, there is no evidence that mobilisations have turned violent.