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国际先驱论坛报:A flowering of activism poses problems and solutions for China

来源:国际先驱论坛报    作者:Dune Lawrence    2009-01-13

BEIJING: In one of Beijing’s oldest neighborhoods, a citizen-activist group with five full-time employees is challenging China’s powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs over its plans for a historic residence the government owns.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center says the ministry, which has more than 4,500 officials, may be violating national preservation regulations by renovating parts of the 19th century property – about a hectare, or 2.5 acres, of courtyards and classical gardens of bamboo groves, rock formations, ponds and pavilions.

The campaign demonstrates the increasing assertiveness of advocacy groups in pushing China’s government to follow its own rules and account to the public for its actions. Such confrontations may become more common as China seeks to expand its cooperation with nongovernmental organizations in alleviating poverty, stemming the spread of AIDS and halting environmental degradation.

“NGOs help the government solve a lot of problems,” said Kang Xiaoguang, 45, head of a research center at Renmin University in Beijing dedicated to the study of nonprofit groups in China. The groups also “have begun to challenge government policies and its administrative processes more and more.”

The shift is part of China’s transition from a socialist system centered on an all-powerful state to a market economy in which even the government must obey the law.

Thirty years ago, when the Communist Party provided everything from housing to entertainment, the concept of an independent organization was almost unthinkable. Now, citizens have far more personal freedom and choice, and the government no longer provides many social guarantees such as lifetime employment and universal health care, leaving gaps that private groups can help fill.

“More and more NGOs are getting involved and have more and more powerful tools,” including new public-participation clauses in urban-planning laws, says Matthew Hu Xinyu, 33, who runs the heritage-protection center. It has used online articles, e-mails to supporters and appeals to the media in its effort to save the Ke Yuan garden complex, which has the same protection under Chinese law as the Forbidden City imperial palace.

The residence, a couple of kilometers north of Tiananmen Square, was originally an official’s home and later the embassy of secretive North Korea. Nothing but the tops of trees is now visible from behind high gray walls that enclose the property. A plaque on one wall announces its heritage status.

“Demolition of this historically priceless, and legally protected, Qing Dynasty gem would be reprehensible,” the center says on its Web site, which encourages readers to call or write the responsible authorities – and provides their phone numbers and addresses.

In November, just days after the center posted its first notice about the danger to Ke Yuan, the Foreign Ministry said it would restore the property to remove “safety threats” and eventually open it for public visits. The ministry hasn’t submitted its plans to preservation authorities for approval yet, and the center has gotten conflicting responses from other government departments, so it has continued its campaign.

Still, Hu said, the government knows “there are NGOs watching,” and the public statement in response to the center’s concerns represents a victory.

The China Statistical Yearbook counted 386,916 nongovernmental organizations at the end of 2007, without defining what the category encompasses. Kang said most are small, underfunded or dependent on the government for money. So far, they are much more prominent in service roles that support official policy aims than as gadflies or checks on power.

“There’s huge potential” for citizen groups to help the government achieve goals like distributing aid to the poor more effectively, said Chris Spohr, an economist based in Beijing for the Asian Development Bank.

He helped pilot the first program in China that allowed the groups to bid competitively to run poverty-alleviation programs for the state. He says some people in government want to expand the initiative, because partnering with nonprofits produces better results and greater participation by the intended recipients – and also saves money.

Spohr, 37, says the role of activist groups is also key in combating AIDS and HIV, because the virus spreads in marginal populations involved in illegal activities, such as intravenous drug users and prostitutes, who may avoid state programs.

“If government relies on government alone, it’s not going to get the job done,” he says.

While this has encouraged officials to support the expansion of citizens’ organizations, they haven’t welcomed groups that delve into what they deem sensitive topics or that they feel are too critical or otherwise threaten their legitimacy.

“We know the government likes our services but not our advocacy, so it’s a contradiction,” said Wan Yanhai, 45, director of Aizhixing Institute, a nonprofit AIDS and human rights organization in Beijing.

He was detained for three days in 2006 and forced to cancel a forum on blood safety that touched on compensation for people infected with AIDS through transfusions. He said many citizen groups do not push the government, for fear of having their funding or projects shut down.

Aizhixing, which had a program budget of 6 million yuan, or $878,000, last year, provides health training and education and is introducing rapid testing of people at risk for AIDS. The institute also offers legal services that challenge the government, such as protesting abusive police treatment of drug users.

Its push for greater privacy of health information for job applicants was reflected in a labor-contract law that went into effect last year. It also issued requests for release of policy information from five agencies – and got responses from all of them. “That’s a big change,” Wan said.

He said activist groups like his are preparing the way for a different kind of government – based on law – that is more transparent and responsive.

“NGOs will eventually push democratic change,” he said. “Whatever the Chinese government thinks about that, it will happen eventually.”

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