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China shuts down nonprofit newsletter

July 12, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The Chinese government shut down an influential publication that had helped promote the country's burgeoning nonprofit sector, the newsletter's founder said Wednesday.

The Beijing-based China Development Brief tracked politically sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS and the environment as well as serving as a crucial link between Chinese nonprofit groups and potential foreign funders.

Its closure, critics say, could deal a significant blow to the development of China's civil society.

"This is very bad news," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Hong Kong. "They are the go-to organization, the first port of call for foreign funders looking for projects to fund. It's a clear setback for the NGO movement."

The move to silence the newsletter comes as the government clamps down on the Chinese media and the increasing dissent on the Internet before the 17th Communist Party congress this fall and the Beijing Olympics next summer.

"When it comes to sensitive issues, it's becoming more difficult to write in different voices," said Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group.

The nonprofit sector is a particularly thorny issue for party officials because of its potential to undermine their authority. The Communists are acutely aware of the power of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to ignite the "color revolutions" that helped topple dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Hence the importance they place on curbing the activities of such groups, especially the foreign-funded ones.

Nick Young, founder and editor of the newsletter, said about a dozen officials from the Beijing Public Security Bureau and the Beijing Statistical Bureau came to his office last week and accused him of "conducting unauthorized surveys."

The wording of the law is so vague, Young said, it could cover just about any conversation a foreigner has with Chinese people.

"It could mean that any person getting off the plane asking 'Which way to the toilet?' is in breach of the law," he said. "That's literally the case."

Young says his work over the last 12 years involved promoting a more tolerant view of China. The tone of his writing was often cautious and sometimes critical of NGOs, including some AIDS groups working in the disease-ravaged Henan province, which he said "have done more harm than good."

The English version of the newsletter was founded in 1995 and has been popular with international development agencies and academics. He said his most recent subscribers also include multinational corporations such as Nike and Microsoft. A Chinese-language edition launched in 1999 reaches a smaller audience but targets key players in China's nascent NGO movement.

Young said he had begun lobbying international aid groups in hopes that they would be able to help him persuade the Chinese to lift the ban.

"We are facilitators, not critics," he said. "They have no need to fear. The Chinese civil society is very much part of the solution to China's problems."

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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