An Uncivil Action


Senior Member
Oct 5, 2009
An Uncivil Action

The crackdown on Chinese NGOs and activists continues.

When the tax department, commerce and industry department and fire department all suddenly want to inspect your office, it's a safe bet that the government is looking for a reason to close you down. When it happens in China, it's also a sign that the next callers could be the police, coming to take you away to detention or worse.

So it's no surprise that Dr. Wan Yanhai, the country's leading AIDS activist, saw a threat to himself and his family's safety and decided to flee to the United States last week. "We were actually facing huge pressure," said Dr. Wan, speaking from a friend's house in Philadelphia. "It was no fun waiting to be attacked by government agencies all the time." He vows to carry on running his AIDS advocacy group, the Aizhixing Institute, despite his self-imposed exile.

Dr. Wan's fears are hardly exaggerated. Xu Zhiyong, the director of the Open Constitution Initiative, was arrested last year on charges of tax evasion, and the human-rights lawyers' group was fined 1.4 million yuan ($205,000). Pro-democracy and human-rights activist Hu Jia, one of Dr. Wan's former associates, is serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for "inciting subversion."

The harassment of Dr. Wan is just one small part of an ongoing government campaign against civil society groups. This past weekend, pastor Wang Dao was detained in Guangzhou. Lawyers Tang Jitan and Liu Wei were stripped of their licenses to practice last Friday, apparently in retaliation for representing a Falun Gong practitioner. And in March the Beijing-based Women's Law Studies and Legal Aid Center—which fights workplace discrimination and domestic violence—had its Peking University sponsorship cancelled.

In March the Foreign Exchange Administration also created new restrictions for aid groups receiving foreign money, like Dr. Wan's, which has made funding increasingly difficult. Other activists have also fled to the U.S. in the past year, including Dr. Wan's fellow high-profile campaigner Gao Yaojie, a former doctor who helped him blow the whistle on the 1990s HIV-infected blood scandal in Henan province—which got Dr. Wan detained for four weeks.

Fears over social instability seem to be motivating the crackdown. "I think this time the Chinese government's crackdown is targeting NGOs as independent social forces," says Dr. Wan, speaking about the government's fear of influential social groups and networks. "It does not relate to your work, or to whether you are radical or not radical." But silencing those who are working to improve the lives of the most vulnerable can only make society more unstable.

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