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February 5, 2018

NGOs at a Crossroads

A Q&A with Li Dan, Founder of the Crossroads Centre

In 2001, when Li Dan was a postgraduate student in solar physics at Beijing Normal University, he went to the central Chinese province of Henan to a volunteer in an “AIDS village.” The community was in an area where many people contracted HIV through a widespread illegal blood-selling scheme countenanced, and some cases abetted, by local officials in the ’90s. The experience radically transformed Li’s views on governance. “Our generation 100 percent believed the Communist Party was good and China was a blessed nation,” Li says. “When you think a thing is perfect and then you see the reality, the shock is quite powerful.”

That shock led Li to pursue a career in non-profit work. In the 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping had introduced reform and opening policies, the state was stepping back from areas of life it had administered under Mao, leaving space for civil society to grow. But the rules of play were still emerging, and by the early 2000s NGOs were just learning to feel out the terrain.

Li founded the NGO Dongzhen in 2003, while still in school, and later temporarily halted his studies to return to Henan and set up an orphanage and then a school through Dongzhen for the children of people with AIDS. Things were not easy: more than once, men Li suspected worked for local officials threatened and assaulted him and his colleagues. He found it ironic that they were working in the spirit of the Communist Party ideals they’d been taught since birth, yet it was those same values that brought them into conflict with authorities. “The old Communist Party education says that in society you should act with integrity, be courageous, and not fear threats,” Li says with a smile. “I think we all had those qualities.” He and his colleagues continued, determined to make a difference. “We felt that if you really wanted to, you could change a lot of things,” Li recalls.

The organization’s remit has changed dramatically in the 14 years since Li, now 40, founded it. Now called the Crossroads Centre, it organizes the annual China Women’s Film Festival, as well as regular film screenings, and discussions with artists, on a range of social issues. In Beijing’s progressive circles, the center is known as a place to meet fellow activists committed to improving the lot of marginalized groups in China.

The group’s journey—from an NGO focused on health and education service provision to a gathering space for civic discussion—follows the fluctuations in the space open to civil society in China since the turn of the century, and reveals how individual advocates navigate the changing landscape as official scrutiny grows more systematic. In 2012, Li changed the name of the organization from Dongzhen—a homage to a controversial heroine of Li’s own Manchu people—to the less contentious Crossroads Centre. Beginning around this time, he shifted the nature of his work as he realized that small groups like his were vulnerable to intimidation by local government officials, who saw the organizations’ work as undermining them. The organization started doing more work to raise awareness about social issues, and turned their focus towards increasing public participation in their projects by involving artists and filmmakers. The group has never been registered as an NGO. “In China, there is no use in registering an NGO, unless you want to use government resources,” Li explains. “It’s much more convenient if you are a commercial organization, which is what we’ve been right from the start.”

Recently, the Chinese government has instituted even stricter legal scrutiny of civil society organizations. This includes the Charity Law, which governs fundraising, volunteer management, and reporting requirements for domestic organizations, and the Foreign NGO Law, which requires international groups to partner with domestic organizations and brings them under the oversight of the Ministry of Public Security instead of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The successive promulgation of the two laws shows the extent to which China’s leaders have become more wary of civil society. According to Tim Pringle, Senior Lecturer in Labour, Social Movements, and Development at The School of Oriental and African Studies, three key changes in the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) view of civil society are manifest in these laws. The first is the bifurcation of domestic and foreign civil society actors. He cites civil society expert and practitioner Shawn Shieh, who has said that the Foreign NGO Law “emphasizes more control” than the Charity Law.

The second is the current administration’s “re-centering” of civil society around public service provision and away from advocacy. “When you provide a service you meet head on where the state fails,” explains Pringle. “When [civil society organizations] make that leap from service provision to organizing, campaigning, [and] lobbying, which there was space for under Hu Jintao [and] Wen Jiabao—with caveats—it seems to me that this government is far less happy about that and I think that is important. Jude Howell and I have called this a different shade of authoritarianism.” The C.C.P. is walking a narrow path—maneuvering public services into the hands of civil society organizations, while simultaneously attempting to ensure they are not politicized by the situations their work brings them into contact with. Pringle emphasizes that despite China’s distinct political system, the nation is still a part of “a global neoliberal [trend] which has seen a huge expansion in civil society organizations because of the rollback of the state.”

The third is the channels through which the government is willing to accept information and feedback. “I think under the previous shade of authoritarianism that we saw under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, [the government] was willing to listen to voices from tizhi wai, from outside of the system. Now [they] want innovation, ideas, excellence, reform, but that has to come from voices tizhi nei [inside the system].” However, Pringle points out, “it is important to understand that under Hu Jintao [and] Wen Jiabao, [there] wasn’t a continuous expansion. The question then is . . . under Xi Jinping is [there] a continuous narrowing?”

For Li Dan’s part, he still sees room to maneuver on the ground, despite the marked changes to the legal situation for NGOs in China. One way to circumvent the legislation entirely is to register as a commercial entity, as Crossroads has done, rather than as a charity or NGO.

In the edited and translated interview below, Li discusses his perspective on the changes in civil society and how his work fits into the larger non-profit sector in China.

In September 2016 and January 2017, new laws came into effect that regulate the operation of charities and foreign NGOs in China. Have they had a tangible effect on Crossroads?

Li Dan: Whether or not these two laws existed hasn’t had much effect on us because we had already felt the impact of the political environment. They just help the government to, as they say, “strengthen the rule of law.” But really the laws are just for the sake of appearances. The government would still be doing the same things without them.

Three or four years ago, the government started registering and controlling NGOs. If you had money in other currencies it became very difficult to exchange it into yuan, and if you were using funds from politically sensitive foreign organizations, then many of your events would be banned. It was then that we decided to make a change from doing very politically sensitive advocacy events to collaborative cultural events.

There are laws that do have an effect on us, though. For example, the Film Industry Promotion Law. But these laws are not strictly enforced.

Outside of China, we hear a lot about harsh crackdowns on civil society. What does your day-to-day relationship with authorities look like?

We are investigated by the police and have events called off, the same as other organizations, but the difference is that we know how to interact with them. The situation is not that black and white.

Xi Jinping’s judgement is not the same as Hu Jintao’s. Hu Jintao would try to crack down everywhere, but there are not enough regional resources for that, so you crack down a bit and then people come back again. Xi Jinping, however, is able to keep his composure.

No one knows how many NGOs China has now. Possibly hundreds of thousands, or as many as a million. These are all people who do not obey the government, or are outside of the system, all of them expressing political views that make the Party dislike them. But there aren’t enough resources to arrest even one percent of their staff. All they can do is use an old method—we call it “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” So they arrest the most influential people. These kinds of things show where the line is.

Why did you choose to focus so much of your working life on the promotion of women’s rights?

Women’s rights are very important because women are half the population, and right now in China their rights are slowly being eroded.

But we are not just looking to “help” women. We want women to have the capacity and the opportunities to get involved in, say, environmental protection, industry, anything. Our model is to integrate women’s rights into mainstream culture. There is no contradiction between pursuing women’s rights and changing the whole of society.

Women’s movements in China have historically been tied to state building projects. How do you see this playing out today?

We say that the biggest feminist in China was Mao Zedong. He did what a lot of feminists had not been able to—he raised women’s status in an instant. But he was not thinking about feminism; he blotted out gender. Problems like foot-binding and women not being allowed to work were solved almost instantly, but this tradition of women’s rights as a political by-product continues, and it presents two challenges now.

The first is political: Belief in communism has already been destroyed, so the government is looking for something new for people to believe in. The most likely candidate is a return to Chinese tradition, which inevitably includes certain requirements of women. For instance, to be a good wife. The government has been talking about “family values” and “domestic harmony.” It hasn’t really been pushed politically yet, but the direction alone is bad.

The second challenge is economic: The population is aging, industry is declining, and the government wants families to take up the burden of looking after the elderly. They are slowly pushing the idea that women should “take good care of the family.”

Then you have the decline of the coastal production industries. A lot of orders have moved to Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and African countries, which means there is no choice but to shut down factories. They need fewer workers, which inevitably leads to a portion being laid off. They are hoping that women will go back to the home, reducing the likelihood of a social crisis erupting.

Has your ethnic background informed your interest in social justice?

Ethnicity is a big part of it. As a Manchu, you are part of a marginal group—one of the least discriminated-against minority groups in China, of course, but you still feel a little different. Actually, it is primarily a feeling of being overlooked; you have a strong identification with your ethnic group, but in wider society your ethnicity is completely ignored. So you can understand the unfair treatment that other ethnic groups like Tibetan people and vulnerable and marginalized groups like disabled people or women experience.

Where do you see hope in terms of social change in China?

I think it is in culture, because at the moment there is an opportunity. If the government wants to establish its reputation on the world stage, it needs its own real Chinese culture, but China’s cultural products are all copies from the West.

This includes films: Box office figures were consistently rising over the last few years, but they have started to fall. No one wants to watch just special effects or boring films anymore, they want to see good stories. But the really good stories come from the lowest rungs of society, where the NGOs are.

Editor’s Note: Nuala Gathercole Lam volunteered for Crossroads from 2014 to 2015, and continues to assists Li Dan on a volunteer basis with translation and research for the China Women’s Film Festival.

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Nuala Gathercole Lam is a freelance journalist and M.Sc. candidate in Media, Communication and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has had articles published in...