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China: Advocates Freed, Restrictions on Civil Society Remain

August 25, 2009

Human Rights Watch Welcomes Activists’ Release

For Immediate Release
August 24, 2009

New York, August 24 -- The release of three
leading Chinese civil society advocates shows
that the Chinese government can be responsive to
domestic and international human rights concerns,
Human Rights Watch said today. The advocates – Xu
Zhiyong, Zhuang Lu, and Ilham Tohti – had been
arrested in recent weeks in Beijing.

While welcoming their release, Human Rights Watch
stressed that the government’s restrictions on
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to
leave tens of thousands of civil society
organizations across the country vulnerable to
arbitrary political and administrative interference.

"These releases are a step in the right
direction, but we remain deeply concerned about
the government’s tight grip on civil society,”
said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at
Human Rights Watch. “The arrests all appear to
have taken place as a result of peaceful
activities, and these releases should not be
confused with an overall improvement in the
government’s attitude toward civil society.”

Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the legal advocacy
group Open Constitution Initiative (also known by
its Chinese name, Gongmeng), and Zhuang Lu, its
financial manager, were released by the Public
Security Bureau on August 23 and 22, 2009,
respectively. They had been arrested on July 29,
for allegedly evading tax payments on a grant
from Yale University, while Gongmeng itself was
fined 1.4 million yuan (US$206,000). Although Xu
was released on bail and can technically still be
prosecuted, his lawyer has indicated that the
authorities were most likely to drop the criminal charges against him.

Under China’s highly restrictive NGO regulations,
only organizations that have gained approval by
the government prior to their establishment can
register as non-profit entities; many who were
set up without prior government approval opt to
register as commercial enterprises to try to
comply with the law. The Beijing authorities’
decision to suspend Gongmeng on the grounds that
it had “falsely registered as a commercial
enterprise in view of carrying out civic
non-commercial activities” has sent waves of
concern through China’s non-profit community.
While Xu and Zhuang have now been released, it is
not clear whether Gongmeng will be able to resume
its operations and to continue representing
clients in court given that it has no
registration as an NGO and that all its work
files, computers, and archives remain in the hands of the police.

In a separate development, the police also
released Ilham Tohti, a Uighur professor at
Beijing’s Nationalities University, on July 23.
Tohti was arrested on July 8, shortly after the
governor of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
had blamed Uighur Online, a website run by Tohti,
for helping spark the July 5 riots in Urumqi,
Xinjiang’s capital. Tohti had written on the
website about the central government’s
discriminatory policies in Xinjiang and warned
about the risks of ethnic unrest. Tohti’s website
was shut down shortly after his arrest, in the
same way that Gongmeng’s websites were shut down after Xu’s arrest.

Both cases had caused considerable alarm over a
possible hardening of the government’s attitude
toward NGOs that had previously managed to
operate and create space within the confines of
the Chinese government’s restrictions.

In recent years, China has witnessed an explosion
of grassroots civic organizations working on
social and legal issues, ranging from
environmental protection to women’s rights,
HIV/AIDS and public health, consumer rights,
rural poverty, and marginalized social groups.
The government has publicly recognized the
positive contribution that nongovernmental groups make to Chinese society.

Yet despite that rhetorical recognition, the
government insists on registration and
operational requirements that few organizations
can meet, and that are incompatible with China’s
obligations to the right to freedom of
association under international human rights law,
such as being affiliated with a designated government entity.

As a result of these restrictions, the majority
of China’s civic organizations are either
registered as commercial entities or simply
operate without legal status, which leaves them
open to potential prosecution for operating an “illegal organization.”

"Civic organizations play an essential role in
remedying social tensions and bringing about
better governance,"  said Richardson. “The
government claims to want to foster a ‘harmonious
society;’ it should foster an autonomous civil
society rather than try to control and constrain it.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on China, please visit:

For more information, please contact:
In Hong Kong, Nicholas Bequelin (English, French,
Mandarin): +852-8198-1040 (mobile)
In Washington, DC, Sophie Richardson (English,
Mandarin): +1-202-612-4341; or +1-917-721-7473 (mobile)
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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