Thursday, December 6, 2007

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So much for China's Olympian vulnerability

I've blogged a few times about whether China's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics has increased the government's vulnerability to domestic and external political pressure.

The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reports that in advance of the Games, China's government is devising new ways to handcuff indigenous NGOs:

Last Thursday morning, five law-enforcement agents marched into Zhai Minglei's Shanghai apartment, seized his computer hard disk and copies of the small magazine he used to publish, and ordered him to report for questioning the next day.

It was the latest blow in what one leader of a nongovernmental organization here calls a "systematic crackdown on the voices of civil society" in China, as the government manufactures the unruffled image it hopes to project to the world during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Civil society groups formed by activists in fields such as environment, social welfare, health, and education "have really suffered setbacks and tougher controls since earlier this year," adds Wen Bo, China program director for the US NGO Pacific Environment.

Mr. Zhai published an open letter online late last month revealing that his magazine, Minjian, an apparently innocuous publication chronicling NGOs' development projects, had been forcibly closed by the authorities in July. His quiet efforts to win a reprieve had failed, he says....

Other groups have also been closed, while organizers of some have been placed under house arrest. Police surveillance has been stepped up, a number of activists report. "Visits by the police are quite normal," says one environmentalist who asked not to be identified.

"It is a difficult period. It has affected all the organizations we work with and anyone else they work with," says one representative of a foreign agency that is funding Chinese NGOs.

Such moves appear to run counter to President Hu Jintao's pledge at the recent 17th Communist Party Congress to "step up education about citizenship" and the hope he expressed that "social organizations [will] help expand participation by the public" in "self-governance."

They also cast doubt on International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge's claim after Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics that "the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record in China." Many NGO activists attribute the current crackdown specifically to government preparations for the games....

The government ensures control over the sector by a restrictive registration process. An NGO needs an official sponsor agency that will take legal responsibility for it. Such agencies are hard to find, most NGOs discover. At the same time, the government allows only one NGO to work in a particular sector in each region. Independent groups often find a GONGO [government-owned NGO--DD] has registered before them.....

NGOs, which as conduits for people's participation in civic affairs often act as the building blocks of civil society, have proved most effective elsewhere when they have created networks among themselves.

That is a lesson Chinese officials appear to have learned: China Development Brief, Minjian, and Gandan Xiangzhao all acted as hubs, encouraging the exchange of information and the creation of networks.

"They initiated activity, made citizens more active," says Professor Jia. "I suppose the government may think it is better for citizens to be quieter."

The imminence of the Olympics, and the world attention they will focus on China, is one reason, say some activists. "Ordinary people's voices disturb the unilateral pursuit of a stable and united political environment and a happy and peaceful atmosphere before the Olympics," says Lu Jun, head of Gandan Xiangzhao.

At the same time, Chinese national-security officials appear afraid that NGOs could develop into a political threat, having seen how NGO leaders played prominent roles in the "color revolutions" that swept former Soviet republics.

"For them, NGOs are new, color revolutions are new; they know NGOs through color revolutions and they fear what might happen next," says Jia.

It should be noted that this reaction to the color revolutions is not unique to China -- it mirrors what governments in Russia, Iran, and Central Asia have done as well.

posted by Dan on 12.06.07 at 08:09 PM


This isn't surprising at all. Dictatorships routinely do this kind of thing, unleash a wave of repression before a major event to present a happy smily face to the world. Russia did this for the Olympics in 1980. Argentina did it for the World Cup in 1978. Only in the latter case the one dissident they couldn't silence for obvious reasons was the manager of their World Cup-winning national team. Cesar Menotti masterminded, chain-smoked and junta-lambasted his way to one of the more impressive World Cup wins of recent times. Unfortunately, China does not yet have a sport that ordinary people would unleash a revolution over.

The Menotti example is also instructive for Beijing; China might let a few big fish go for symbolic reasons but they will ruthlessly "weed" the grassroots.

posted by: DB on 12.06.07 at 08:09 PM [permalink]

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