China’s Color-Coded Crackdown

In response to the recent democratic "color" revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese government is taking action to prevent similar uprisings in its own country. Under new "counterrevolution" measures approved by President Hu Jintao, censorship of web sites, books, and blogs has increased. But non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have borne the brunt of the crackdown. The Chinese government views many of these organizations as fronts for a US effort to push global democratization, and has stepped up raids on particularly active NGOs. The new restrictions have inspired little response from the world at large. Yet the crackdown, if successful, could be a serious step backwards for Chinese civil society. If the world wants a free and democratic China, writes Foreign Policy, it should pay more attention to the survival and growth of Chinese liberal institutions. – YaleGlobal

China's Color-Coded Crackdown

The recent democratic revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan sent small tremors through China's leadership. To avoid its own "color revolution" Beijing is now quietly cracking down on those who would dare to show dissent. Its primary target? China's civil society. The recent democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe have Beijing worried.
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

China quietly observed the 2003 "Rose Revolution" in Georgia and the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine. But for Beijing, the anti-authoritarian wave that swept Kyrgyzstan in this year's "Lemon Revolution" was one too many. In recent months, the Chinese government has begun to take firm action to make sure it doesn't have a color revolution of its own.

In China's halls of power, the fall of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes has raised the uncomfortable specter of a Chinese popular uprising. According to the Hong Kong-based Open magazine, a report by Chinese President Hu Jintao, titled Fighting the People's War Without Gunsmoke, is guiding the Chinese Communist Party's "counterrevolution" offensive. The report, disseminated inside the party, outlines a series of measures aimed at nipping a potential Chinese "color revolution" in the bud. In response to the report, government censorship was ratcheted up. Officials closed or restricted many popular online public bulletin boards and ordered all Web sites and blogs to register with the government. Books that delve too deeply into the country's economic disparities, such as the recent An Investigation of China's Peasantry, were removed from bookshelves. Party insiders described the heightened controls as neijin waisong, meaning "tight inside while appearing lax from the outside."

Perhaps the most telling sign of China's concern has been its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Beijing believes that international organizations, especially advocacy NGOs, have acted as Washington's "black hands" behind the recent regime changes in Central Asia. A recent issue of a biweekly journal run by the Communist Party Propaganda Department referred to Washington's "$1 billion annual budget for global democratization" and identified NGOs such as the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US Institute of Peace, and the Open Society Institute as organizations that "brainwash" local people and train political oppositions. In late August, ahead of a visit by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Chinese police raided the office of the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a human rights group supported by the NED.

A new regulation offering more freedom to NGOs was initially expected later this year. No longer. The Ministry of Civil Affairs has now stopped processing registration applications, effectively freezing many groups' operations. Instead, the only government offices taking an interest in NGOs are the national security agency (China's secret police) and public security forces. Both have launched investigations into local NGOs. Some senior Chinese managers working for international NGOs have been called in for "private talks" with authorities, though no related arrests or detentions have been reported. Some NGO offices have had plainclothes security officers show up in an effort to clandestinely ferret out information on foreign staff and organizations. Environmental groups have been singled out for a massive government survey, most likely because they have angered powerful agencies by successfully initiating public debates on controversial issues, such as genetically modified foods and huge dam projects, and because only around 10 percent of green groups are currently registered with the state.

Meanwhile, Beijing has commissioned researchers from several provincial academies of social science to study the activities of NGOs in China. NGO publications such as directories experienced unexpectedly strong sales in recent months, as they no doubt became convenient study tools. Likewise, experts have been dispatched to Central Asia to study how those color revolutions first sprung roots. In a May 19 Politburo meeting, senior administrators from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where foreign research funds are usually well received, were reminded of the "acute and complicated struggle in the ideological realm in the new millennium." In other words, be careful about the political implications of your research.

According to sources in Beijing, final decisions on the government's approach to NGOs will be made in a November meeting of the State Council, China's highest executive body. As long as the clouds of color revolution are hovering over Central Asia some, for example, expect storms in Belarus the Chinese government will stay on high alert. Nevertheless, ongoing investigations and uncertainty have NGO workers worried that their organizations may face further reprisals. The least the government would do, they feel, is set up a tighter control system over NGOs. Any move in this direction would be a serious step backward for Chinese society. Yet, unfortunately, Beijing's moves against the country's NGO community remain largely unnoticed outside China. If the international community wants an open and democratic China, it should pay more attention to the survival and growth of Chinese liberal institutions. Otherwise, the country will be destined to remain the same shade of red.

Yongding, the author’s pseudonym, is a graduate student at the University of Southern California.

© 2005