Life’s tough for civil organizations in a country where the government wants to control everything.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Beijing, China

China says it is ready to give NGOs more leeway, however. So far, that has yet to materialize.

Last July, authorities barged into the offices of Yi Ren Ping for the third time this year. Officers spent eight hours checking documents belonging to the volunteer organization. Each member present in the office was photographed and had their personal details documented.

“Apparently, we’re getting too close to the government,” says Wu Rong Rong of Yi Ren Ping. “Getting close means trouble.”

It seems it doesn’t take much to get the government to feel threatened. Yi Ren Ping doesn’t fight for democracy in China. It doesn’t advocate independence for Tibet or an end to capital punishment. The organization fights for the rights of people with hepatitis B.

In China, 120 million people carry hepatitis B, a much larger percentage of the population than in other countries. They suffer heavy discrimination, being barred from working in education, grocery stores, as waiting staff in bars and restaurants and even as lift attendant.

A recent law made this discrimination illegal, but change is slow. Yi Ren Ping uses the courts and modest street manifestations to promote its cause. Even though they have the law on their side, the NGO finds itself increasingly in the crosshairs of the authorities.

“When you’re a tiny organization the government doesn’t care,” says Wu. “Now that we’ve grown and volunteers from all over the country joined us, we see the authorities start to pay attention.” Not in a good way.

Civil organizations are relatively new in China. Not until 1995 were the first charities founded that weren’t linked directly to the government.

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed at least 68 thousand people and made millions homeless, caused a spontaneous uprising of citizens all over the country wanting to help.

It was a lesson for the government that society is capable of achieving great things in specific situations even without direct government control.

“We have to change our perspective”, Wu Hui says four months after the earthquake hit. Wu is a professor at the Central Party School of the Communist Party. “We have to see that civil organizations that don’t fall under the Party are not automatically a threat to us. They’re not always demons. Their rise is normal in countries with a growing middle class. And they are necessary, as it is impossible for the government to always take care of everything and everyone in society.”

Wu’s view means little in practice though. Most NGOs are still dependent on the government for their funding. Raising private money is illegal in China. Truly independent organizations are funded from abroad. It is exactly this group that has now come under increased government scrutiny.

Advocating the rights of people with hepatitis B is apparently already taking it too far. Another civil organization, Gong Meng, was forced to disband last July. Its founder was jailed for several weeks.

Ma Tianjie is an experienced campaigner with environmental NGO Greenpeace in China. Greenpeace has an office in Beijing since 2002 and is financed by donors from Hong Kong.

Ma: “We are pretty careful to avoid any problems. There are always restrictions on what we can do, but thus far we have never been told to stop anything. In China, we focus on researching environmental problems instead of the street protests we do in other countries.”

Even though the government is getting tougher on NGOs, Ma still sees an improvement over earlier years. “When we started out, the government ignored us completely. Now, we get responses on our research, even when the outcomes aren’t in line with their viewpoints. I think this back and forth is a sign that the authorities are simply still learning on how to deal with civil organizations.”