There are about 430,000 registered NGOs in China, and two or three times that number of unregistered groups. Often serving underprivileged populations, their numbers continue to grow despite hurdles put up by Beijing.
Many Uigurs in Beijing are addicted to drugs and HIV-positive
In the Daxing district in southern Beijing, children play among heaps of rubble and a young woman cleans vegetables in front of a small restaurant.
Some 200 Uighur families live in this southern part of China's sprawling capital, which in many ways resembles rural Turkey. The Uighurs, who are related to Turkish ethnic groups and are Muslim, came here from the Xinjiang province in Western China several years ago.
Their hopes for better lives have not come true. Few have found regular jobs and many are addicted to drugs like heroin; almost half are HIV-positive.
But bringing a little hope to a situation that often appears hopeless, workers from Aizhixing, a local NGO, come to Daxing once a week to distribute condoms and brochures on HIV prevention.
"Many women come to me, and they are worried. They have no idea how to protect themselves from contracting HIV," said one food stall owner in her mid-40s, who takes brochures and condoms from Aizhixing and gives them to her customers.
According to Jian Tanhyong, who works for the NGO, people with HIV are discriminated against in China, because people know too little about the virus.
Uigurs came to Beijing for a better life, but rarely found it
"When HIV-positive children go to kindergarten, other children don't talk to them because they are afraid they'll get infected. That's the same way people react at the university or at work," he said. "It's really terrible for those who are infected."
When HIV-positive people apply for jobs, they are often rejected because of their infection even though that is against current law in China. Aizhixing pursues legal action against government offices that reject applicants due to an HIV infection
Fighting for change
Yirenping, another Beijing-based NGO, also focuses on health discrimination. Its office in the capital is often busy, loud with the ringing of phones and the constant coming and going of lawyers and clients.
The group works with people with the Hepatitis B virus, who often face the same kind of discrimination as those with HIV in China. Yirenping sues ministries and government institutions that engage in discrimination and, through the legal system, tries to force the government to introduce new laws and change existing ones.
People with HIV/AIDS often face discrimination in China
"We do not sue the central government in Beijing, but local governments, somewhere in the provinces, because that will make it easier for the central government in Beijing to react to the court cases and to improve the laws," said Lu Yun, the founder of Yirenping. "We used to sue the central government directly, but it usually did not react to the rulings because it did not want to lose face."
It helps that staff at Yirenping know journalists who report on the cases, since the coverage increases the pressure on politicians. Even though Chinese media is state-controlled, newspapers need to meet economic targets and discrimination is a topic that sells well.
"People are interested in this topic because everybody is familiar with discrimination," said Lu. "That's a part of everyday reality in China today."
Evading government control
According to the law, all officially registered NGOs have to cooperate with a public authority or state agency, which helps the government retain an amount of control. To avoid this, most NGOs in China have registered themselves as companies, including Yirenping and Aizhixing. It is estimated that between two and three million organizations work in this legal grey area.
Yirenping, Aizhixing and similar groups are a thorn in the side of the government since they highlight injustice and encourage citizens to fight back when they feel they have been wronged. NGO workers are often monitored by the police, or their events are often prohibited by the authorities at the last minute.
A change in the law last year has made it almost impossible for NGOs like Aizhixing or Yirenping to get support from foreign donations.
Making it work
Environmental protection is an area where NGOs in China can work without difficulty
While many complain about the hurdles set up by the central government, Douglas Whitehead, an American who heads the Global Environment Institute in Beijing, says it is possible to work within the current legal framework.
His group supports environment projects in China and is officially registered as an NGO. According to him, city administrations, provincial governments and even the central government in Beijing are interested in the expertise his co-workers bring to the table.
"The Chinese government has learned that you have to take care of climate protection and save biodiversity. So we are also cooperating with the central government and trying to find ways to support projects on the local level and put them in practice," he said.
NGOs focusing on areas such as environmental protection or poverty alleviation have comparatively few problems in China. But groups working in fields around individual rights often get more scrutiny and harsher treatment from the government.
Author: Silke Ballweg (jam)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen