When the government shut down the Chinese edition of the China Development Brief (CDB), a small and reputable publication aimed at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in July, speculation about the motivation spread quickly.
Officialy, CDB had broken the law by conducting surveys without permission. The relevant law, dating back to 1983, is broad in its definition of surveys and covers virtually every conversation between a foreigner and a Chinese person, according to Nick Young, the publication’s founding editor.
Whatever the problem – whether the surveys or wider government concern about NGOs ahead of the upcoming Party Congress in October – the publicity probably made it worse.
Had the situation been kept quiet, any difficulties may well have been resolved, Young noted on the CDB website. More than once, intrepid reporters have done more harm than good by drawing attention to well-known ills. For example, NGOs were running projects for several years in the “AIDS villages” of Henan province before the news broke out that they were doing so regardless of government approval. Beijing stepped in to block the organizations in the area. (That said, it is now generally accepted that the government is coordinating aid work in these areas reasonably well.)
NGOs often rely on the support of local officials who may be unsure about whether their own superiors would support them. Widespread belief notwithstanding, many of these officials have the best interests of their populations at heart but are savvy enough to know that the best publicity is no publicity.
Speaking to the New York Times, Young noted: “I have spent the last decade telling foreigners that China is not as repressive as Western media often portray it to be… I hoped that if we had an open, intelligent conversation, we would be accepted.”
Yet it doesn’t always work out like this in China. In the case of NGOs, it has long been suggested that, while the government appreciates their values, it is worried that so-called hostile forces might use NGOs to undermine its authority.
NGO people who have operated in the chaos of Africa or Latin America have grown to appreciate the order that a strong government can provide. Official approval of a project – difficult as it can be to obtain – is a virtual guarantee that it will go through. Of course, the opposite is often true as well.
CDB operated in a legal gray area often with the tacit support of officials but it was never legally endorsed. Its work was very useful and well respected but its existence was fragile. which means that perhaps closure was always a risk. Neverthless, the demise of a reliable and balanced publication is unfortunate.
The real reasons may not come to light anytime soon but the legal reasons cited are valid enough, at least within the context of China. Foreigners here often view regulations as something to be fixed and sidestepped rather than respected. No American would tolerate a Chinese person flagrantly disregarding the laws of the US, for example. And yet, foreigners in China often expect local laws to not apply to them.
Beijing cannot publicly tolerate this. A lot of things should and will change – but within the system, not in spite it.