Global Policy Forum

Chinese Turn to Civic Power as New Tool


By Howard W. French

New York Times
April 11, 2006

This winter, Liu Xianhong's life was changed for the second time by her infection with AIDS. The first time was seven years ago, when she discovered that she, along with her newborn son, had contracted the disease through an infusion of contaminated blood given to her during childbirth. Then late last year, her story was publicized by a leading Chinese journalist, turning one woman's quest for compensation into a national cause célí¨bre for a new class of advocates who are using the country's legal system to fight for social justice.

Ms. Liu's experience, all but unimaginable as recently as two or three years ago, is increasingly common in China, where a once totalitarian system is facing growing pressure from a population that is awakening to the power of independent organization. Uncounted millions of Chinese, from the rich cities of the east to the impoverished countryside, are pushing an inflexible political system for redress over issues from shoddy health care and illegal land seizures to dire pollution and rampant official corruption.

Ms. Liu first sought help in November, after hearing rumors that she was about to be arrested here in her hometown in this dismal region of northern China for protesting her infection at the local Communist Party headquarters. She was brought to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the country's most famous site, by the politically aware employee of the blood bank in Xingtai who first publicly accused it of distributing contaminated blood to her and more than a thousand others.

There, amid the crowds of people who show up from all over China each morning to watch the flag-raising ceremony — and provide a measure of anonymity — Ms. Liu met Hu Jia, one of China's leading advocates for people with AIDS. It was the 32-year-old woman's introduction to the world of nongovernmental organizations, or NGO's, which are fighting for better treatment of people with the disease.

In the space of a few weeks, she returned to Beijing twice more for meetings that were scheduled and rescheduled in different locations, to avoid detection by the police. It was through those meetings that she met one of the country's most aggressive investigative reporters, Wang Keqin, who brought her case to the attention of China's rising advocate class, who began championing her cause.

China's leaders seem to be of two minds in confronting the trend. Predictably enough, many warn of the dangers an independent civil society poses to the authority of the state. But there are others who now recognize, however tentatively, that the government cannot deal effectively with every issue without contributions from advocates, civic organizations and intellectuals.

That ambivalence was illustrated clearly this past winter. In February, Mr. Hu, the advocate, was detained and held without explanation for six weeks. But on March 1, Beijing introduced stricter nationwide regulations governing the collection and distribution of blood products by the banks, a development that advocates attribute at least partly to their work. "Two years ago, if you raised issues, the government basically ignored you," said Wan Yanhai, the director of Aizhixing, a nongovernmental organization based in Beijing, which petitioned the Justice Ministry on the blood contamination issue. "Nowadays, there will be feedback."

How the state will resolve the ambiguities is uncertain. In the opinion of some experts, however, it is already too late to turn back the clock. "This is the way things happened in Taiwan, too," said Merle Goldman, emerita professor of Chinese history at Boston University and the author of the recently published book, "From Comrade to Citizen: the Struggle for Political Rights in China." "In the early 50's they started to have village elections, which went from the village level and kept moving up. Then they started having NGO's, and then other independent groups and finally independent parties. The government would periodically crack down on them, but they kept coming back."

A similar pattern is clearly evident in the scandal surrounding the blood bank. When Mr. Wang wrote the articles that gave it renewed nationwide attention in late November, censors barred major online news services from mentioning them. But the information made its way around China anyway, as Mr. Wang and countless others e-mailed copies of the stories to people with interests in social issues, including the lawyers who eventually took up the matter.

When Ms. Liu first began protesting last fall, the police in Xingtai beat her, her husband and several other relatives in an effort to quiet them, she said. Later, when she formed her own organization, known simply as the Care Group, the local government declared it illegal and threatened to seize its assets, the Chinese media reported. But she persevered, and she was not thrown in jail, as might have happened only a few years ago. In the capital, where she traveled for the last time in early January to attend a meeting with advocates, NGO members and lawyers involved in seeking compensation for the Xingtai AIDS patients, the gathering had to be repeatedly rescheduled.

In some cases, the rescheduling was because hotels and conference halls were warned by the police not to permit the group to use their facilities. In one instance, the police insisted that the group provide in advance a written agenda of the meeting, along with the names of all the participants. In addition, the Beijing Judicial Department, which accredits and disbars lawyers, warned those attorneys who had pledged to help the Xingtai AIDS patients to stay away from the meeting. But other lawyers took their places. In the end, to evade the police, the meeting was held with only an hour's notice.

"The idea is not to have a couple of figures leading the way to change," said Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing lawyer who has been involved in the AIDS case. "The idea is to have many, many people playing different roles, each taking his own responsibility. What's different from the past is that once, if you cracked down on someone, there would be a time of quietness. Nowadays, if they knock someone out, another person or several others step forward."

This resilience is as much in evidence among nongovernmental organizations as it is among lawyers. Those organizations have become critical players in driving social change and reform. Officially, there are about 280,000 of them registered in China, an extraordinary number considering there were virtually none as recently as the early 1990's. Some experts estimate there are now two million to eight million such groups, many of them very small and most of them simply ignoring government registration requirements.

"There are many NGO's, and most tend to be nonconfrontational," said Mr. Wan, the the director of Aizhixing in Beijing. "We prefer to be critical and nonconfrontational, but sometimes you become confrontational if you have to."

Armed with a wealth of new contacts and information, Ms. Liu returned home from Beijing with a more advanced treatment regimen for her disease and a lawyer who quickly filed suit seeking compensation. Yet, there are few, if any, outright victories in this arena, and the success of her court action is far from assured.

More often, the advocates calculate their progress by inference. While Ms. Liu is still fighting in the courts, at least four other Xingtai AIDS patients have received compensation, either in court awards or negotiated settlements. Recently, the government made a major concession in another case of blood contamination, allowing hemophiliacs to pursue compensation claims in court, and a senior health official stated publicly that nongovernmental organizations are making a significant contribution to the AIDS issue.

Meanwhile, Ms. Liu has decided that the role of simple victim no longer suits her, so she has begun assisting others through her Care Group, which she started this year with two men whose wives were killed by contaminated blood from the Xingtai bank. "I saw people from a dozen different places in China with these kinds of difficulties," said Ms. Liu, sitting in her barely furnished and freezing cold living room here, her son, Zhu Mengchang, by her side. "I realized that the people in these other places were far better organized than we were. They'd been in contact with the outside world, and had received a lot of assistance."

For Mr. Hu, the small victories that Ms. Liu and others are winning represent the first stirrings of an irresistible tide of change. "I live in Beijing, and three weeks ago there was almost no green," he said in an interview after his release from detention. "Now it is green every day. You wouldn't notice it if you were living it day to day, but the greenness is blooming everywhere now. It is the same with civil society, or with NGO's. Now there is a citizens' consciousness to participate, a willingness to defend their rights. Call it civic power."

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