By Qian Gang — A winter, bleak and gloomy, seems to be upon us. On July 14, Beijing Gongmeng Information LLC (hereafter referred to as “Gongmeng”), a non-governmental organization formed by a group of prominent Chinese lawyers, and registered as a private company, was fined 1.42 million yuan by tax authorities. Soon after, the Ministry of Civil Affairs banned the activities of Gongmeng’s research center.
I wrote in my last piece about how Chinese officials are rashly resorting to the use of the political catchphrase “stability is the overriding priority.” But there are other more palpable signs, like the troubles facing Gongmeng, suggesting the political environment in China is growing more tense.
Chinese media have been unable to speak at all on the Gongmeng affair, and this is an icy silence indeed. Aside from a brief report in Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, we had only two blog entries on the issue. These were re-run by the Rural Issues Online site (三农在线). One of the bloggers was Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), an expert researching contemporary social conflict in China. He hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “The difficulties facing Gongmeng are a tragedy for our entire society.”
[ABOVE: Chinese lawyer Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Gongmeng’s legal representative. Xu has tried numerous rights defense cases. This picture was taken on June 9, 2004, in a petitioner’s village in Beijing. Xu’s blog may be found HERE.]
Gongmeng’s fate is rooted in the nature of its emergence and identity. It is a corporation in name, but in fact works as a non-governmental organization (NGO) that does legal assistance work. The organization represented the plaintiffs in China’s poisoned milk scandal, and was involved in the case of Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇), the waitress who stabbed a local official, as well as the Yang Jia (杨佳) case. Why did it not register as a social organization? Because registering as a social organization is much more difficult than setting up a private enterprise.
China’s constitution states that citizens enjoy freedom of association [Chapter II, Article 35], but has this freedom ever been realized? Registering social organizations requires association with a “sponsoring unit” approved by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and there is a further requirement that “there is no social organization with the same or similar scope of operation within the same jurisdiction.” If you don’t wish to be “yamen-ized” (衙门化), or co-opted into the bureaucracy, then your only alternative is to commercialize. But once you have taken this route, you fall into the snare of taxation authorities, opening yourself up to fraud charges.
There have been many guesses as to the precise reasons for Gongmeng’s troubles. I don’t wish to add my own speculation here. But we should pay close attention as this situation unfolds, observing the potentially serious political signs emerging from the Gongmeng story.
It is no secret that China’s political reform process has long been hamstrung. Still, it is not entirely accurate to say that the Chinese Communist Party is utterly indifferent to political reform. CCP political theorists have long expended effort to carve out what they see as the safest and most reliable proposals for Chinese political reform. More recently, they have publicized a “60 year schedule,” counting from 1980, that has China establishing democratic politics (民主政治) by 2040. [See Gongjian (攻坚), pg. 45, by Zhou Tianyong (周天勇)、Wang Changjiang (王长江) and Wang Anling (王安岭)].
This “democratic politics” would of course come with the precondition that the CCP’s leadership position be preserved, that the party would maintain control over official appointments (党管干部), over the military (党管军队) and the media (党管新闻). This means that even according to the most progressive political reform plan party theorists can muster, China will still not have general elections, a private-sector military or freedom of speech in 30 year’s time.
But the CCP has planned to “test the waters” (试水) in two areas in particular — the first is “civil society,” or minjian (民间), the second is religion. The party has talked about “bringing into play the active role of civil society organizations and religion” (发挥民间组织和宗教的积极作用), creating a “modern civil society” by 2020 (形成现代的公民社会). It was a positive sign for NGOs like Gongmeng that the party should venture language like this.
In fact, mainland China had quite a lively civil society during the Republican Era. But in the half century since the CCP came to power in 1949, the nation has been under the party’s comprehensive control, and socialism has made space only for the “ism” and has left “society” out in the cold. Since the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, the term “civil society” (公民社会) has appeared more regularly in China’s media.
An active civil society is an indispensable median zone between the government and the public. It plays a positive role in promoting information sharing, reducing conflict and encouraging people to be good citizens. Whether in Taiwan or Hong Kong, a civil society is an absolutely necessary factor in the process of social development. After the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, the government recognized the tremendous potential of NGOs and volunteers.
I accept the argument for gradual political reform. The CCP bears substantial historical burdens, and citizens must become more mature and engaged, and if political reform leapt straight to core changes to the system, this might be too hasty. Working toward the development of civil society, and protecting the basic rights of citizens, might be an effective way to move forward in a steady manner. But senior leaders in the CCP remain coy about civil society development. The term “civil society” is not a sensitive one in China, and party theorists have generally treated it as a positive factor, and sometimes even actively advocated it. Strangely, though, party leaders have never used the term in speeches or official documents.
If NGOs are cravenly obedient, they might continue in China without incident. But if, like Gongmeng, they work determinedly toward democracy, rule of law and social justice, making their presence felt in major legal cases, they will find opposition from the authorities.
Steadily through the years news has emerged from the mainland about NGOs being harassed and shut down. They have pressed ahead through a political minefield, one terrible explosion following another. In this sense, actions against NGOs have been unexceptional occurrences. But the Gongmeng affair has andcome at time when we are again hearing language from the leadership about stability being the overriding priority, and we must therefore pay close attention.
It is chilling indeed to see an NGO to be targeted in such a way. The party now seems to regard even the most moderate forces of change as a scourge on its leadership. And the only explanation for this can be that hardline, extreme elements within the party are making their influence felt. These are dangerous signs!
[Translated by David Bandurski]