By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; A09
BEIJING -- The Chinese government in the past several weeks has intensified a subtle but steady tightening over the country's freewheeling civil society sector, with some nonprofit groups saying they are feeling increasingly harassed, targeted by tax investigations and subjected to new restrictions on receiving donations from abroad.
China's Communist rulers have long had an ambivalent attitude toward non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, seeing them as necessary, and often helpful -- as in helping in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Qinghai province -- but also viewing them with profound suspicion. The government is particularly wary of groups that receive foreign funding.
Despite the long-running tensions between NGOs and the government, activists, lawyers and others said the latest moves against the civil society sector appear more sustained and serious than earlier cyclical crackdowns.
On Monday, a prominent Chinese AIDS activist fled to the United States with his family in the face of what he described as government persecution. Wan Yanhai, head of the Beijing Aizhixing Institute of Health Education, told news services that he and his organization were being harassed by government officials. In March, tax authorities opened an investigation into the group, and Wan said he feared it was only a matter of time before his organization was declared illegal and shut down.
"I had concerns about my personal safety and was under a lot of stress," Wan told the Associated Press.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which is primarily responsible for regulating NGOs, did not respond to a series of written questions about the government's policy.
Activists pointed to a series of recent cases they called worrying:
-- In February, the Education Ministry told universities to cut ties with the Hong Kong branch of the British-based charity Oxfam, which for four years had run an internship program through Chinese campuses to train young people in social work. A ministry notice that appeared at universities accused Oxfam and foreign NGOs of trying to "infiltrate the Mainland."
-- In March, tax authorities imposed new restrictions on groups receiving foreign donations, requiring them to present a notarized copy of a donation agreement, a step that local groups describe as burdensome. In some cases, notaries have refused to provide needed stamps. Religious groups -- including Buddhist temples, mosques and churches -- must get government permission before receiving foreign donations of $150,000 or more.
-- Also in March, the Women's Law Studies and Legal Aid Center -- a group that has won accolades for its work over 15 years fighting against domestic violence and workplace discrimination -- was informed that Peking University was canceling its longtime sponsorship of the organization. The decision left the Women's Center without a home and facing an uncertain future.
Guo Jianmei, founder of the center, said she thinks the sponsorship was canceled because the group receives the bulk of its funding from overseas donors such as the Ford Foundation and because it took on sensitive cases, such as the one involving the rape of a woman held in an illegal "black jail." Guo also was trying to organize other public interest law groups into a nationwide network, a move discouraged by the government.
Analysts said such cases clearly indicate that the government is trying to restrict groups it considers troublesome, while intimidating the rest.
"I think they want a civil society with Chinese characteristics," said Nicholas Young, a Briton who once ran the online NGO newsletter China Development Brief but was forced to leave China in 2007. "And they want it to be 'civil' in the Chinese sense -- light, not antagonistic and not pushing the envelope too far."
In the 1990s, at the time of the country's economic opening, Chinese leaders actively encouraged the formation of grass-roots groups that could assist the government in areas where it was weak. And thousands of NGOs sprang forth, mostly tiny mom-and-pop, kitchen-table operations, largely unregulated and often receiving funds from overseas donors eager to assist in the growth of Chinese civil society.
Strict Chinese government rules make it extremely difficult for groups to register officially as NGOs; most register instead as "companies." The government has largely turned a blind eye.
And there has long been a kind of tacit understanding that NGOs would be tolerated as long as they didn't stray too far into political activism or criticizing the government. But as Young said, "You never know where the line is, and it does shift."
Added Wan Yanhai: "I think there's no clear boundary between a political and a non-political organization. And there's no clear boundary between action-oriented and advocacy."
NGO leaders said they feared the new funding rules could end up cutting off their outside funding sources. Lu Jun, founder of the Beijing Yirenping Center, which fights discrimination against hepatitis and AIDS carriers, said his group gets 90 percent of its funding from overseas. But because other groups have had difficulty getting a notarization, he said, he asked his foreign donors to hold up any new transfers.
"We haven't received any donations since March," Lu said. "We can't wait too long." He said the new rules "put NGOs in a dangerous position" and said groups such as his cannot survive long if access to foreign funds becomes more difficult. Yirenping was targeted twice last year -- in July, when police hauled away copies of its newsletter, claiming it was an illegal publication, and in August, when tax authorities opened a probe of the center's finances.
For now, the Women's Center continues to operate under a private law firm it founded last year. But that is a short-term solution because the private firm would not be allowed to accept the foreign donations the center needs and would be subject to stricter tax rules.
"Right now, we're in a gray area," Guo said.
Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.