Activist arrest puts foreign NGOs in China on edge

Foreign NGO employees in China watched in horror last week as a Swedish rights activist went on state television to deliver what colleagues described as a “forced confession”.

With the Chinese government already preparing legislation expected to severely curtail NGO activities, it isn’t just human rights lawyers and activists who are running scared.

Chinese state media said the detention of Peter Dahlin was part of a police operation to “smash [an] illegal organisation jeopardising China's national security”.

Dahlin was reportedly expelled from China today. 

The 35-year-old co-founder of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which provides legal assistance to local activists, had been detained since 4 January. 

“I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Dahlin said in his televised statement, which, on the surface at least, was full of contrition. "I apologise sincerely for this and I am very sorry that this has happened.”

His arrest shocked foreign NGO workers who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity. A friend of Dahlin’s said she was “horrified to see him paraded on TV”. Many said they now wonder if they will be the next targets in a sweeping crackdown on civil society.

One charity director pointed out that Dahlin’s work supporting local activists and communicating information about China’s human rights situation to the world was similar to what many groups do in China and elsewhere.

“These are not crimes,” he said. “They are basic cornerstones of many organisations’ activities in China, and his arrest is a warning to all of us.”

The consensus among those who spoke to IRIN was that China is gearing up to use the full force of its laws to stop foreigners from supporting Chinese activists. The situation is likely to get worse, they say, because China is expected to pass a law this year that would tightly restrict foreign NGO activities and give police virtually unlimited powers to detain non-profit staff based in China.

“Draconian” law

About 1,000 foreign NGOs operate in the country, but that number is likely to dwindle if China passes the Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations Management Law, which would impose sweeping restrictions on non-profits.

These could include requiring all foreign NGOs to secure an official sponsor as well as approval from the Ministry of Public Security, in addition to submitting lengthy annual work plans. The ability of foreign NGOs to fund domestic organisations would also be greatly restricted.

Authorities would be able to detain foreign NGO staff without formal charge for up to 15 days, and seize equipment and materials for inspection.

“It is an absolutely draconian law. At least in draft form, it is so wide and encompassing and gives police so much power that it can threaten any form of cooperation between foreign and domestic organisations in China,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International.

The draft law does not define what constitutes a “foreign NGO,” which could make the legislation “vulnerable to corrupt or politicised implementation,” said Human Rights in China, a New York-based group, in a September statement.

However, government officials say the law would give foreign groups formal recognition in China for the first time, which would afford benefits such as local bank accounts.

A timeline has not been announced, but analysts predict that the law will be passed at the annual National People's Congress meeting in March, or at a meeting of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which gathers every two months.

“The additional paperwork burden alone could force many organisations out of the country,” a foreign charity worker told IRIN.

Reason for fear

For now, the government’s intentions are unclear. Dahlin’s arrest could simply be a warning. Instead of allowing him to leave the country as intended and then close down his group’s operations, they chose to make a very public example out of the case.

One charity worker said the government has shown support for the work of NGOs in certain fields, including domestic violence. On the other hand, there has been an “undoubtedly ugly crackdown on lawyers and dissidents”.

The growing pressure on foreign NGOs comes after three years of intimidation of civil society groups. Hundreds of Chinese activists have been sent to prison since Xi Jinping became president in late 2012. The government has also been contending with growing labour unrest and has been criticised for human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities such as Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists.

After Dahlin’s arrest, supporters of progressive reform in China have more reason to be alarmed and intimidated, said Jerome Cohen, a director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University.

“Chinese criminal procedure as practised in (Dahlin’s) case is grossly unfair, as illustrated by the incommunicado detention, the so-called public ‘confession’ that detainees are coerced to make, and difficulties of (accessing) adequate legal counsel,” Cohen told IRIN.

The case also highlights a bitter irony, said Cohen: “These are the very malpractices that Mr. Dahlin was seeking to correct.”