Saturday, January 30, 2016

The End of the Road for Guo Jianmei's Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center?

The New York Times (see the text below) has reported that Guo Jianmei's Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center (formerly the Beijing University Women's Law Studies and Legal Aid Center), has been ordered to close. It's not clear whether the law firm she established in 2009, Qianqian, will also close.

In March 2010, the center lost its Beijing University affiliation that it had enjoyed for more than 10 years. At that time, many people thought that her center was being closed down, but Jianmei just moved her office to a new location and re-registered the center under its current name, taking out any reference to Beijing University. It's unclear whether the center will have a life beyond Zhongze, and where Jianmei and her staff will go from here.

Here's the blog post I wrote back in 2010 that includes a long public statement by Jianmei and her staff about the center's work and accomplishments. They are worth reading again to understand why the closing of this center will be a loss for advocates of women's rights in China.

China Is Said to Force Closing of Women’s Legal Aid Center

BEIJING — The Chinese authorities have ordered a leading women’s legal aid center in Beijing to shut down operations, the center’s founder said on Friday, another sign of a continuing crackdown on civil society.

As word spread of the closing of the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, many women’s rights advocates expressed shock. The center was highly symbolic for having been born of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, a moment when China, struggling to be accepted internationally after the 1989 military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations around Tiananmen Square, loosened controls on civil society activities.

Employees at the center, which is led by Guo Jianmei, a charismatic lawyer, were huddled on Friday afternoon to discuss the order. “We have a lot of things to deal with,” Ms. Guo said.

No reason was given for the order. A notice on the center’s website read: “Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (formerly the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University) will take a rest from Feb. 1, 2016. Thank you everyone for your attention and constant support for the center in the past!”

Ms. Guo’s center was first set up in late 1995 at Peking University, her alma mater. Its name changed after the university shut it down in 2010 and Ms. Guo moved it to an apartment in north Beijing.

“It looks like they are trying to crush all people with any influence,” said a longtime women’s rights campaigner who requested anonymity while discussing a politically sensitive matter. “As far as well-known people go today, it’s ‘kill one and scare 100’ to make sure no one else tries to do anything. Controls on thought and speech are intensifying. The repression of lawyers and NGOs is growing.”

The move comes just four months after China showcased its achievements on women’s rights at festivities at the United Nations in New York honoring the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference that were opened by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. His wife, Peng Liyuan, also attended the event, delivering a speech in English on women’s rights that attracted considerable attention.

Gender equality is official Chinese government policy. In September, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a white paper titled “Gender Equality and Women’s Development in China,” which highlighted the importance of “effectively mobilizing social resources” as part of “China’s national mechanism for promoting the status of women.”

The closing of the center signifies a tightening of the restrictions on civil society because its work helping women in domestic violence, child custody, land rights and employment disputes had long been tolerated by the government, said Maya Wang, a researcher on China with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

“That it is possible for her to be a target for closure is a significant indication of the government’s crackdown on civil society,” Ms. Wang said.

“She’s not a lawyer in a law firm that was taking very sensitive cases,” Ms. Wang said, referring to a crackdown on the legal profession that has led to the detention of about 250 lawyers, legal workers and activists since last summer.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Latest Updates on Civil Society-Related NPC Legislation

Last month, the 18th Session of the NPC Standing Committee met and approved two laws that are particularly relevant to civil society. One is the Counterterrorism Law (反恐怖主义法, sometimes translated as the Anti-Terrorism or Counterespionage Law) which will go into effect on January 1, 2016, and the other is the Anti-Domestic Violence Law (反家庭暴力法, also translated as the Domestic Violence Law) which will go into effect on March 1, 2016.

The Counterterrorism Law

The Counterterrorism Law is part of a slew of security-related legislation (see Table 1) that appeared in 2014-15 and reflects the Xi Jinping administration’s effort to take a comprehensive approach to tackling terrorism and other perceived national security threats.  These laws have been criticized by foreign media, business and civil society groups and governments for giving Chinese authorities greater powers to restrict and control the activities of non-state actors.

The Counterterrorism Law was controversial when the first draft was issued for public comment in November of 2014 because it defined terrorism in vague and open-ended terms, and required foreign telecommunications and technology companies to provide their encryption keys to Chinese authorities, install security “backdoors” that would give those authorities surveillance access, and keep their servers and user data in China.  Due to pushback by foreign technology and internet companies and foreign leaders such as U.S. President Obama, the third reading was delayed and further revisions made to the draft law. The final draft removed language defining terrorism as “thought”, and took out the requirement for companies to provide encryption keys and keep their servers and user data in China, although it still requires companies to provide assistance with encryption information upon the request of law enforcement authorities.

The Counterterrorism Law’s legislative journey may provide some insights into the prospects for the Overseas NGO Management Draft Law (境外非政府组织管理法,also translated as the Foreign NGO Management Law) which had a similar rocky reception among foreign civil society and business groups and governments and has also been held up.  The Counterterrorism Law’s passage in somewhat revised form showed that public comments and concerns were taken into account but that demands for more significant revisions were trumped by national security considerations.  If that is any indication, then the more likely scenario for the Overseas NGO Law is that it will pass in early 2016 with some of the more controversial provisions removed, but with the basic regulatory structure intact. The less likely scenario, although the one preferred by this author, is that more significant revisions are made, such as: 1) removing the requirement for the NGO to get approval from a professional supervisory agency (PSA) before registering; 2) or failing that, to expand qualified PSAs to include organizations other than government bodies; 3) removing the requirement for Overseas NGOs that want to work in China but not set up a representative office to obtain a one-year temporary permit; and of course 4) changing the registration body from Public Security back to Civil Affairs.

Table 1: Timetable of security-related NPC legislation

1st reading
2nd reading
3rd reading
Counterterrorism Law
November 3, 2014
(public comments)
March, 2015
Dec 24, 2015
National Security Law
December 2014 (internal)
May 7, 2015 (public comments)
July 1, 2015
July 1, 2015
Overseas NGO Management Law
December 22, 2014
May 5, 2015 (public comments)
Cybersecurity Law
July 6, 2015 (public comment)

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law has been years in the making and its passage on December 27, 2015 now makes an issue that was long viewed as a private matter a responsibility of the state.  The Law is also one of the few pieces of legislation where we can see the imprint of civil society groups whose input led to improvements in the final draft which expanded the definition of domestic violence to include both physical and psychological violence, and violence between “people living together”, and not just married couples. Critics though point out that the law does not include sexual violence and is unclear on whether “people living together” include people in homosexual relationships. Civil society groups will of course also play an important part in ensuring that the Law is implemented, enforced and improved upon.

What’s Been Going On with the Charity Law?

One final legislative update is that the Charity Law (慈善法)had its second reading at the December session of the NPC Standing Committee, after the first draft was released for public comments at the end of October (see Table 2). As my November 29 post discussed, this draft law should be viewed favorably for creating a more enabling environment for charity organizations.  The second draft appears to have made further beneficial revisions, in particular by removing the geographical restrictions on online fundraising, and being more specific about tax benefits for charitable organizations.

Table 2: Timetable of other civil society-related NPC legislation

1st reading
2nd reading
3rd reading
Anti-Domestic Violence Law
November 25, 2014 (State Council, public comments)
August 2015 (NPC, public comments)

October 2015
December 27, 2015
Charity Law
October 2015 (public comments)
December 2015

Monday, January 4, 2016

A 2016 New Year's Message from China's Labor Rights Defenders

Below I repost the Chinese original and the English translation of an important and eloquent New Year's Message from some of China's labor rights defenders at a time when those defenders are coming under a fierce, high-level attack that has resulted in dozens of labor activists monitored, interrogated and detained. To date, the seven activists mentioned below are still in detention and have not been allowed to see their lawyers. An earlier draft of this translation was posted on China Change. Here I post the final version of that translation.

In a Vast and Frozen Land, Spring Arrives in All Its Glorious Color: A 2016 New Year's Message from China's Labor Rights Defenders

Dear Fellow Workers and Compatriots: Happy New Year!

Towards the end of 2015, China’s labor rights defenders experienced an unprecedented attack. A group of activists who have dedicated years to defending the rights and interests of workers were detained, monitored and interrogated by the police. It could have been a moment for fear and paranoia to set in. But labor activists and people from other walks of life responded quickly by drafting a petition to the Communist Party Central Committee, National People's Congress and State Council. The petition described in no uncertain terms the severe and widespread violations of workers' rights and interests over the last few decades, and the inevitable emergence of independent labor NGOs and worker centers and their valuable contribution to the protection of labor rights and social justice, and demanded the release of the detained activists. In less than two weeks, over 490 people added their names to this petition, and over 60 Chinese lawyers joined a legal aid team. This response was followed by petitions, appeals and demonstrations by over 200 organizations and thousands of individuals from the international labor and academic community in over 40 countries condemning the crackdown and expressing support for the arrested labor activists. Their calls however fell on the deaf ears of Chinese authorities. The detained activists have to this date still not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. In addition, the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus - the New China News Agency, People's Daily and China Central Television (CCTV) - launched a smear campaign against these activists, in particular Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), essentially sentencing them without a trial in the court of public opinion. Feiyang's wife and child have been intimidated, and Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅) has been separated from her baby daughter who was breastfeeding when she was detained. The families of the other detained activists - He Xiaobo (何晓波), Meng Han (孟晗), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), Deng Xiaoming (邓小明) - are all sick with fear, and the whereabouts of another former worker-turned-collective bargaining specialist, Chen Huihai (陈辉海), is still unclear. Their treatment reflects a callous approach to the rule of law and legal and procedural fairness in criminal proceedings.

Fellow Workers and Compatriots, if the rights and interests of workers who make up the large majority of China's population cannot be protected, if workers are increasingly deprived of their economic, political, cultural and social rights, if the contradictions between officials and citizens, workers and capital, rich and poor, continue to worsen, then what is the  prospect of everyone living in a free, equal, fair, democratic, law-based society where "socialism is the core value"? It is doubtful that even our most basic survival and security can be assured in such a society! It follows then that defending and fighting for workers' rights and interests is not only essential for workers, but also to the stability, security, fairness and well-being of society as a whole. Labor rights activism is not a crime! Labor rights organizations have not committed any crime! Labor rights activists have not committed any crime! Not only are they are not guilty of any crime, they have also made great contributions to our society, state and nation. They are the underlying force behind a labor movement that has emerged in waves since 2010. They are why people from all walks of society are increasingly paying attention to, and supporting, the labor movement.

China’s 30 years of rapid economic growth is coming to an end, and its demographic and environmental dividend have been exhausted. At the same time, the social and historical contradictions hidden by economic growth are now becoming apparent. Government, businesses and workers face the dual burden of an economic recession and social instability, with workers bearing the greatest share: they gain the least in times of economic growth, and inevitably lose the most in the downturns. Not only are they the first to lose their jobs and become destitute, but as soon as they protest they are suppressed by the “stability maintenance” authorities.

How is it that the working class is destined to continually bear the costs of economic growth and recession? Why should the powerful classes reap the profits when the economy grows and let others take the hit while they do nothing in times of recession? In early 2015, some of China’s labor activists proposed a “New Deal for Workers” to the government, suggesting a reform of the system of wealth distribution, and the establishment of universal social insurance. Another option would be to boost domestic demand, but this would require government and businesses to give a bigger piece of the pie to workers and society. This type of policy helped the United States make it through the economic crisis of the 1930s, but do Chinese leaders have that kind of heart and will?

Fellow Workers and Compatriots, it is true that we wait on the government to appraise the situation and put forward the correct policy, but we also know that freedom, equality, justice, security and happiness are things that we cannot wait for; they can only be obtained by fighting for them. If we fight we may lose, but if we do not fight we gain nothing. In this new year, labor activism may face an even more severe threat. But we are convinced that the labor movement will follow its inherent tendency to progress from its infancy to a more mature form. The rights to organize, to engage in collective bargaining, and to strike, and workers’ economic, political, cultural and social rights, will all be achieved step by step.

"Strong grows the grass on plains rich with blood, across a vast and frozen land, spring arrives in all its glorious color." We labor rights defenders offer these lines of poetry as our New Year message and our outlook for 2016.