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June 4, 2019

New Report on Youth Activists in China

The China Youth Activists Development Concern Group (中国青年行动者发展关注组) recently released a report detailing the obstacles facing young Chinese who are involved in socially progressive, non-governmental organizations. The report, titled “Report on Current Situation Facing Chinese Youth Activists,” relies on in-person interviews with 36 youth activists conducted in March 2018, and it focuses on “activists who had already experienced some form of suppression.”

The authors identify youth activists as motivated by their “concern for social justice and social progress.” They find that most youth activists are involved in organizations with progressive agendas focusing on issues of social inequality, including labor rights, environmental justice, gender equality, and disabilities. They also find that young activists typically become involved with social organizations through personal experience with inequality, such as mistreatment or illness of friends or family members, or through school-related activities.

According to the report, youth activism has been on the rise as China continues to develop economically, but it has seen increasing government suppression since 2013—and particularly since 2015. This has resulted in significant challenges for the youth activist community. This includes government political intimidation of activists, either directly or through family members. Further, increasingly strict regulations on both domestic and foreign NGOs in China has meant that youth activists have lost access to certain financial and social resources.

In the current climate, fewer young people are willing to get involved with social activism. The report notes that though the majority of activists interviewed for the study did not support political or controversial causes, such as “challenging the legitimacy of the Communist Party or the political regime, ethnic separatism, or Taiwan independence,” 94 percent of interviewees still “encountered varying degrees of political suppression.”

One section of the report directly addresses the challenges facing activists due to the Charity Law and the Foreign NGO Law:

The deterioration of the political environment has lead directly to a resource shortage for activist groups most notably a lack of funds and manpower.

The promulgation of the Charity Law and the Law on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (Foreign NGO Law) on September 1, 2016 and January 1, 2017, respectively, have had a direct impact on the funding opportunities available to civil action groups, turning the screw even tighter on grassroots rights advocacy organizations. Charitable foundations have flourished in China over the past decade. However, youth activists involved in civic action, especially of a more progressive and confrontational nature, have not benefited much from this charitable expansion. In this restrictive environment, domestic funders have increased self-censorship and keep a “respectful distance” from rights-based organizations and groups. At the same time, some international funders that were previously more active in supporting rights-based groups in China have significantly reduced their investment in order to gain legal status for activities in mainland China. Crowdfunding, which has grown in popularity in recent years, is not much help to youth activists, since the broader public has a limited understanding of the work they do. These pressures are sapping the energy of youth activists.

The dearth of funding sources has financially cut off some activist and rights-based organizations, and many activists have labored without compensation or do not have a stable income. The funding problems of individual organizations continue to be unresolved, leading to a reduction in personnel and projects. If they are cracked down on again, they will often choose to close their doors. Although some organizations or groups with more resources use all means available to them to maintain capital flow, it is still difficult for them to develop and grow, impossible to give anyone a raise the salary, and thus also impossible to attract new talent. Other rights-based institutions have tried to adjust the nature of their work and launch projects that will be acceptable to the government and domestic foundations.

Over the past 4 years, the shortage of funds, lack of manpower, and intermittent political interference have slowed the growth of the entire nonprofit sector. At this time, many youth activists are solely responsible for managing a project as soon as they enter the sector. While such experience can quickly bring them a sense of excitement and accomplishment, the lack of resources often means that their organization or team cannot continue to supply them with work opportunities or support, funds for education, or opportunities for advancement.

In the current low tide of the movement, many activists still hold on tightly to their ideals and their hope to stay in the nonprofit sector. However, the long stretch of time without professional growth or increased income, as well as the lack of effective and systematic professional support from outside of the field, can erode the enthusiasm and confidence of those just starting in activism.

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