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Jun
08

For NGOs in China, a Sense of Party Creep

By Didi Kirsten Tatlow

The New York Times

In 1995, hundreds of members of nongovernmental organizations descended on Beijing, including Kazakhs calling for an end to nuclear testing, New Yorkers seeking equal pay for women and Europeans advocating sex workers’ rights, during the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. They dazzled Chinese hungry for change, and the concept of civil society took off. Within months, it seemed as if everyone was setting up an NGO.

As the state sought to control the phenomenon, the Gongo, or government-organized NGO, was born. Yet as China’s economy grew and society grew in complexity along with it, NGOs multiplied. Often they were unregistered or registered as businesses because of the financial and legal difficulties of operating independently of the state. Two decades later, there are many thousands of NGOs in China.

Last Friday, the Communist Party announced that a Politburo meeting headed by President Xi Jinping had decided that party groups should be set up in social, cultural and economic organizations, thus potentially creating a host of Pongos, or party-organized NGOs. The announcement has stirred unease among some.

‘‘Did you see the Politburo order?’’ an editor at a party newspaper asked, sotto voce, at a reception. ‘‘They’re going to set up party groups in all NGOs.’’

I asked whether this would apply to foreign NGOs. Would the Gates Foundation soon have a party cell in its midst?

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