02/24/2016, 15.20
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The "survival strategy" of religious NGOs in China

The meeting in Manila between leaders of Caritas Internationalis and Catholic members of non-governmental organizations of the mainland China bodes well for the future of the "third sector" in the Asian country. The Beijing government grants more space to social groups, and in some cases even allows for clear faith-based activities. This is because the spread of Christianity is now so broad that even the Party must take it into consideration. But behind these openings remains the authorities fear that NGOs can subvert the established order.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The Chinese government needs non-governmental organizations, particularly those of a Christian matrix, since this religion is rapidly expanding in the country and love of neighbor is among its founding principles.

However, the party fears the "peaceful transformation" that NGOs can cause and the subsequent overthrow of the existing power system, and, as a direct consequence of this, is tightening controls while opening up new fields of work for religious groups.

This is shown by a study presented by two researchers at Cambridge and Oxford, who analyzed the "third sector" of a religious character in the Chinese world.

These assessments are confirmed by the recently held meeting held in Manila, organized by Caritas Internationalis, which was also attended by representatives of some Catholic NGOs from mainland China. During the three days of meetings, possibilities for greater cooperation in the humanitarian level were discussed. The fact that the Chinese government has allowed the delegates to leave for the Philippines, said an AsiaNews source for, "is in itself a notable change".

However, when the situation at home for non-governmental groups seems to be the same of the last decade. A much-criticized draft law, submitted in July 2015, aims to revolutionize and worsen the NGOs working conditions and margins for maneuver and especially the religious ones. In addition, several articles appeared recently on state media denouncing that "too much power" had been granted by the executive to these realities.

At the moment, to be in accord with the law, NGOs must obtain a double permit: one from the Ministry of Civil Affairs or the Department of Civil Affairs (for the smaller bodies), and an official institution willing to act as "sponsor"(ie a guarantor) for the organization. The first is obtained if the body is in accordance with the Rules for the registration and administration, the latter only if the sponsor (literally "professional management unit" yewu zhuguan danwei 业务 主管 单位) is part of the government or the Party.

This figure is important, since according to current legislation it carries out annual inspections, approves the budget, projects, provides for the supply of staff and establishments in which to operate. So this is a dual management system: registration depends on both the department in charge of management and administration, and the government or the Party sponsor. This way only the organizations that actually operate in accordance with the policies and the needs of the government have the ability to legally register.

Another important requirement is linked to the principle of non-competition: it is forbidden for organizations that have a similar or identical project to place their bases in the same administrative region. This principle means that the State's monopoly in the sector is protected, while the possibility of establishing new individual NGOs is effectively prevented. To all this is added, for the religious groups, the need to obtain registration with the Religious Affairs Office (local) and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (National).

According to article 10 of the Rules, the criteria social organizations must adhere to also include: possession of a minimum of 100 thousand yuan nationwide and 30 thousand yuan at local-provincial level; having at least 50 members, a number that drops to 30 if it is existing staff is from state institutions; the drafting of an annual report on the work done by the social organization to be submitted to its official sponsor, so as to ensure the possibility of appropriate conduct of examinations with respect to the Government; a "proper" office, where employees operate with full-time and permanent contracts.

In their study Hasmath Reza and Jonathan Tam, say all of this is prohibitive for religious NGOs if it prevents them from having access to international donations. These are very negatively viewd by the authorities, who consider funding by foreign powers contrary to the regime in power. However, they add, the rapid growth of the Christian population and the higher average level of prosperity could soon change the situation by allowing Christian groups engaged in social work to rely solely on Chinese donors.

The authors write that it is still necessary to keep a low profile and a good relationship with the local authorities, at least, whose trust the religious NGOs must "earn". After spending about a year and a half in the Chinese social reality, Hasmath and Tam explain that they understand that "the key to survival" is accepting the Party’s control.

Once accepted, things can improve. To the point that some leaders of Christian NGOs say they have now permission to conduct theological seminars for young people and other clearly religiously motivated activities without fear of government reprisals. In the long run, however, they add, that they are ready "at any time be asked" to shift gears or even disrupt operations "until further notice."

Additionally, the same sources said the authorities insist on the use of Chinese staff, even better if from the local area that the NGO is operating in:  "Foreigners are viewed with great suspicion, and their use should be avoided".

The ambivalence of this behavior is theorized and explained in the article "How to evaluate foreign and religious NGOs in China", which appeared on August 23, 2006 in Xuexi Shibao, the official newspaper of the Communist Party School in Beijing penned by Zhao Liqing. The text has become the focus of official policies enacted over the past decade. Even President Xi Jinping repeatedly mentioned it during meetings with the leaders of the "third sector" of Zhejiang Province, where he was governor until March of 2007.

The state, writes the professor, "appreciates and little by little, harvests the fruits that have blossomed in China thanks to foreign NGOs." However, "great attention must be taken" to understand "the real effects of the role played by these organizations." The government is concerned that "foreign NGOs could undermine national security, destroy the political stability, further disseminate corruption and encourage foreign practices that are not beneficial to the conditions of China."

The most feared factor is infiltration: "The international and religious NGOs should not enter structures such as universities, government bodies, or the same party, with the intention of spying and then collecting information on China's military, political and economic areas, nor should they inculcate subversive ideas among Chinese young people. "

Finally, Professor Zhao warned the leaders of the Party: "NGOs supported by foreign countries risk leading to a subversion of the party through the so-called 'peaceful transformation'. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia the so-called 'color revolutions' occurred due to the direct or indirect involvement of local NGOs, which funded, or directly participated in the riots. We must avoid these groups becoming powers, capable of launching a 'color revolution' in China at all costs".

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