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China's Nascent Civil Society

19 years after the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre, the citizens of the People’s Republic have found ways of organising themselves to promote common interests. It is still dangerous to take to the streets for democracy and political reforms but there are more and more targeted protests at a local level. The authorities do not like them but they sometimes tolerate them and at times even bow down to the demands.

Children attending lessons in a makeshift refugee camp for victims of the earthquake

Children attending lessons in a makeshift refugee camp for victims of the earthquake

The roads to the camps for those made homeless by the earthquake are overcrowded. Amid all the chaos, Mr Luo parks his small lorry, which is packed to the brim. He set up a spontaneous aid operation with three friends and is now looking for somewhere to give the donations and clothes he has collected.

“We have to do something for the victims,” Mr Luo says. “They are homeless and some of them have lost their families. Simple people like us have to make sure that the refugees are cared for.”

The authorities are tolerating these manifestations of commitment on the part of Chinese citizens but they are not promoting them; jealously guarding the Communist Party’s principal role in the aid operations and ensuring no doubt is cast upon it.

State-sponsored NGOs

If somebody in China wants to set up a non-governmental organisation, they have to find a state institution willing to sponsor their project. Li Dan has not been able to find an official partner.

“Without official support, you can’t register yourself as an NGO. We are an AIDS organisation and every time we ask the health authorities for support, they think they’re going to people in the health administration for support, they always think they’re going to have problems because of us.”

So even though there are not supposed to be any organisations working outside of government control, they do exist. They either exist in a grey zone like Li Dan’s AIDS organisation or short-term alliances with a particular purpose are formed.

Sweet successes

That is how, last year, a grassroots movement was able to prevent the building of a controversial chemicals factory in the eastern port of Xiamen. Wu Xian, the 25-year-old owner of a massage salon, organised the whole operation from his computer. What had begun as a small protest culminated in a massive demonstration.

“The Chinese media were not allowed to report about the construction of the chemicals factory. So there was only the Internet left. Can the Internet also be banned? The Internet is far too big. Forbidden websites can be accessed through proxies. The Internet cannot be blocked. That’s why it’s an ideal platform.”

The chemicals factory will now be built elsewhere -- somewhere where the inhabitants are less vocal in their resistance.

Confidence to rile the authorities

Recently, a well-organised protest movement also managed to bring Shanghai city council to its knees. A group of citizens, from China’s emerging middle class, gathered to resist the extension of the Transrapid line near their homes. Fearing the wrath of these confident protesters, the authorities postponed the decision on the line extension.

In the central province of Henan, a group of AIDS activists also displayed a great deal of self-confidence but its source lay not in wealth and influence but, quite on the contrary, in the fact that they felt they had nothing to lose.

Speaking out against shame

They have always been poor peasants and contracted AIDS from contaminated blood and dirty needles, when they gave blood. The 46-year-old Sung Ailing found out six years ago that she had AIDS. Her family was dependent on the money that the blood bank paid her for her blood.

“I said to myself at the time that I had a choice to go before the court or to hide for the rest of my life. Everyone says that you get AIDS from sex or drugs. Nobody talks about contaminated blood banks. I would rather die than let my family face the shame. I want justice.”

Mrs Sun decided to fight. For years she has received minimal damages from the court, which at least pay for her treatment. Officially, the AIDS problem in Henan is under control. Mrs Sun and her fellow campaigners say, however, that in reality, many victims do not even know they have been affected. The AIDS activists provide a voice for a segment of the population which, according to the authorities, does not even exist.

  • Date 04.06.2008
  • Author DW Staff (act) 04/05/08
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsM5
  • Date 04.06.2008
  • Author DW Staff (act) 04/05/08
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsM5