09/01/2006, 00.00
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Chinese government still suspicious of domestic NGOs

NGO expert tells AsiaNews that the real revolution is trying to explain that 'non-governmental' does not mean 'anti-governmental'.

Guangzhou (AsiaNews) – Foreign NGOs have greater leeway that Chinese NGOs. The Chinese government is less concerned about them because their work in the country is temporary and in situations of crisis they can always be kicked out. Domestic NGOs though do cause headaches because by their very existence they are evidence of the holes in China's social system. This is why they are viewed as "potential factors of social disharmony" and destabilisation.

One of AsiaNews's sources in China, who works with disabled people, explains why foreign and domestic NGOs are treated differently, why greater controls are exerted on the latter than on the former.

"The article that appeared in Study Times that praised the work of NGOs in the country refers to foreign organisations operating in China," he said. "For them, there has been a virtual Copernican revolution in their relations with the government. Just ten years ago six or seven foreign NGOs were operating with one foot underground and another above ground. Now there are tens of thousands and they even have an annual meeting in Beijing at a state university."

"For Chinese NGOs operating in China the situation is different. Foreign NGOs are branches of organisations based abroad. They come, spend their money and then leave. Of course, they require government permits but this is increasingly easy to do with fewer restrictions. If you try to register a Chinese NGO, you must have a bank account, a building, legal representation and so many other things that are common in every country in the world. But what is uniquely Chinese is the obligation to find a governmental sponsor who will act as an intermediary and guarantor for you."

"It is very hard to find anyone like that," the source noted. "Party members are afraid of taking on the task of monitoring an organisation that could spell trouble for them and the government. In becoming a sponsor they might lose their job and be thrown."

"In towns it is easier to find a guarantor because there are many retired Communist officials, party members made redundant by China's economic modernisation and restructuring. They no longer are active and don't risk losing their job. For this reason, they are more than happy to sponsor an NGO."

"Take Huiling, an NGO registered in seven cities in China. In each one of them its offices are registered separately even though they all belong to the same organisation. The government is concerned that should it be one, it might become too powerful and cause instability."

"The real problem," he explained, "is that there are elements within the government who see NGOs as a destabilising factor. The government preaches non-stop "stability and prosperity for all" and no one dare think otherwise. But NGOs highlight society's weaknesses; they are show the holes in the social system, and force the government to plug them. They probably rub some people the wrong way, but they do so constructively."

"Early on, when we sat down with Communist leaders, we were asked why not have 'governmental' NGOs. That's utter nonsense but it does illustrate the mindset of the Chinese for whom it is inconceivable that something might exist beyond the control of the emperor or the party.

"Governmental NGOs would have no problem," he noted, but "the problem is the inability to conceive that something functionally useful can exist outside of the state. This is so clear if you consider that the demand for stability is not a government monopoly, but a popularly held view."

"Local authorities should open up to our work because human-oriented needs—in terms of psychology, health care, philosophy, research, art—have been neglected. The focus has been too much on China's economy and its extraordinary growth that turned the country into the workshop of the world, on science as humanity's saviour in lieu of God."

"Now everyone is realising that the environment must be protected, that the weakest in our society need help. In this sense, NGOs play a key role in raising social awareness."

Finally, he said "I am sometimes invited to speak in schools and universities about what we do. On these occasions, I try to explain to my audiences that 'Non Governmental Organisation' does not mean 'Anti-Governmental Organisation'. Instead I tell them that our work is to help the government and complete what it does."

"We must get rid of this confrontational viewpoint. There is still a lot of work to do in terms of helping and informing people. We must work at research, studying and disseminating knowledge and information so that the government understands that those working in the social field are not a danger to domestic stability".

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