Probe International in the News

Guo Yushan and the predicament of NGOs in China

Chinese writer and activist, Zeng Jinyan, discusses here in this extraordinarily nuanced piece, first published on Chinese social media, the shifting ground affecting domestic “pragmatic” NGOs and the implications for foreign NGOs with partners in China.

Zeng Jinyan, blogger and activist, and the wife of high-profile Chinese AIDS campaigner Hu Jia.

Zeng Jinyan, blogger and activist

Chinese writer and activist, Zeng Jinyan, discusses here in this extraordinarily nuanced piece, first published on Chinese social media, the shifting ground affecting domestic “pragmatic” NGOs like the Beijing-based independent think tank, Transition Institute, shut down by the authorities last year. Such NGOs once occupied a certain space in China’s political landscape, their members acting as scholarly, independent advisors to the government on matters of policy, and according to Jinyan, helping to facilitate dialogue between the state and those at the very bottom of Chinese society. Beijing’s recent crackdown on civil society, combined with the commercialization of “maintaining stability” within the police system indicates that in the eyes of the authorities, the distinction between various civic groups and activists has collapsed, and that all non-governmental groups risk being accused of causing social instability. In particular, the arrest of TI’s founder, Guo Yushan, and administrative director, He Zhengjun, is a symptom of this malady. Meanwhile, the traditional position of maintaining a non-confrontational public profile and ideology strongly rooted in Chinese social history now presents a dilemma for scholars and rights advocates, who may find themselves punished for speaking out against abuse or attempting to help those at risk. For international bodies who work with Chinese scholars and NGOs, a failure to speak out against the current abuse of power by Chinese authorities will have only a negative impact in the long term, bringing Chinese NGOs even greater insecurity.

By Zeng Jinyan

For the Chinese version of this article, please see here and here.

In spring 2015, two months after being released on bail from Beijing’s Haidian District Detention Center, veteran NGO activist and writer “A” confessed to a close friend in an online chat that she had been held in solitary confinement for more than four months.[1] During that time, her only contact had been with police guards and interrogators. Upon release, she was immediately sent to hospital for an urgent operation. The effects of solitary confinement and torture are all too clear. Now alone at home, “A” said that she still needed time to come to terms with what she had been through. In the early stages of her interrogation, a police officer said to her: “I want to save you, your type of people.” Later, when she was granted bail, the officer told her, sincerely, “China needs you,” he paused a second, “and needs people like you.” The officer’s words, while not spoken on behalf of the police, were nonetheless deeply significant.

On April 15, 2015, Guo Yushan—who was arrested in the same month as “A”—was transferred to Haidian District Detention Center pending trial. His family and lawyer still have no idea where he was held or what he had experienced before January 3, 2015.[2] The organization that he established, the Transition Institute (TI), is now closed. Guo and his colleague He Zhengjun, who was detained on November 26, now stand accused of “operating an illegal business” and 19,000 copies of TI’s research reports and other printed materials are the only evidence amassed against them. Guo and “A” belong to the same category of indigenous NGO practitioners that takes a thoughtfully pragmatic (as opposed to radically confrontational) approach to speech and activism, or for the purposes of this article, members of “pragmatic NGOs.” Why were their experiences so different?[3] In both cases, randomness and arbitrariness may have played an important role. However, this article offers an explanation based on the internal conceptual and cultural conflicts within TI and the police apparatus, and demonstrates how these conflicts present a new dilemma for both Chinese and international NGOs operating in China.

The Indigenousness of the Transition Institute

Under the management of Guo Yushan, TI may be described as “indigenous”: its thinking was shaped by the Chinese cultural ideals of the traditional scholar and the heroic knight; its research and activism were focused on local issues; and, furthermore, some of its responses to police interference can also be described as “indigenous.”

The Scholar and the Knight-Errant

When forbidden to leave his house or compelled by the political situation to leave Beijing for extended periods at a time, Guo produced many classical poems. The quatrains and metered verses that he composed while visiting the Donglin Grand Canyon in Lushan and the Tanzhe Temple in the outskirts of Beijing, or during a modern form of exile to Jiuzhaigou and Huizhou, express his concerns for his imprisoned friends and the political situation that caused him so much anguish. His use of imagery and classical allusions reveals his erudition and familiarity with classical Chinese texts. Guo wrote a seven-character quatrain to congratulate the late British economist Ronald Coase on his 101st birthday; he also wrote a poem for Mao Zedong’s secretary Li Rui, expressing his gratitude for Li’s encouragement and support. Huang Kaiping, who succeeded Guo as director of TI and is a skilled calligrapher, helped paint the poems for Coase and Li Rui onto vertical scrolls, which were then delivered to the two men as gifts. Provided sufficient resources, TI staff members who know a guqin zither master in Nanjing, would have arranged a live performance of the Guangling Melody to express their regards.[4] Guo’s TI colleague and well-loved “big brother” Yang Zili attributes his Go[5] prowess to the eight years that he spent in prison for “state subversion” – he is known among his colleagues for his exceptional skill at the game.[6] This is the organizational culture of the Transition Institute that outsiders do not see.

Intellectually influenced by the modern Western ideas of civil society, the Chicago University school of economics, and new institutional economics, the soul of Guo Yushan—who claims that his greatest desire is to concentrate on scholarly work—is in fact that of an old-fashioned Chinese literatus. When the opportunity arises, he goes out and works to benefit society; when politics dictate, he withdraws and cultivates his own spirit. Being a traditional man of letters implies that that he has come to terms with political compromise; that on some level, he admits the powerlessness of the literati and the omnipotence of the authorities. On the other hand, he is not resigned to the idea that his learning lacks practical application, and actively serves society as a counselor, staying close to the lowest rung of society and the oppressed masses, and speaking on their behalf. In terms of strategy, he invokes the ideas of morality and justice to avoid direct confrontation and engages in dialogue with those open-minded and reform-oriented individuals within the establishment. Of course, this brings risk and tremendous uncertainty. But on the whole, he believes that the authorities can tolerate his existence. When it comes to the work of TI, these ideas are manifested in its commitment to humanitarian aid and social participation, whether carried out in the name of the organization or the individual. This is in contrast to the Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), which despite its tagline of “great love” for the New Citizen’s Movement, operated more like a political party, taking imprisonment as a necessity or even as a form of political capital.[7] TI, on the other hand, has been actively adopting modern business management practices and striving to minimize the risk of being perceived by the authorities and public as politically antagonistic.

Guo proudly refers to the Transition Institute as a “band of brothers.” Almost all of the organization’s core members are male and relationships between them are close. Members’ sense of belonging—their identification with the organization and with their colleagues—is far stronger than among the staff of other NGOs. The staff’s salary and benefits, as well as the emotional connections between members, give the organization a utopian quality – the result of valuing equality. Colleagues support each other in their professional and personal lives, just like the heroic vigilante brotherhoods of China’s classical history and literature. This quality of righteous chivalry is also manifested in the organization’s social action campaigns, which included providing low-key help to the families of infants made ill by contaminated milk powder, raising money for prisoners of conscience who had lost their sources of income through the “Meal-Delivering Party” despite the controversy it provoked,[8] and helping Chen Guangcheng escape from Shandong to the U.S. embassy. Much of this work was carried out anonymously.

Indigenous Research

Under the current regulatory framework, despite the presence of SEE (Social Entrepreneur Ecology), the One Foundation, and foundations set up by businesses and media, the likelihood that a grassroots NGO can maintain independent operations by relying solely on funding from domestic foundations and public donations is very low. As in the past, foreign foundations remain an important source of funding for grassroots NGOs. This relationship has accelerated the introduction of western ideas and international standards into China’s civil society. The conflict between international concepts and the need for localization has never abated. In public discourse, Chinese NGO workers must first clarify: who are they talking to, and what are the speaker’s and listener’s central concerns and anxieties?

Transition Institute defines itself as an independent think-tank focusing on research into social and economic transition. Its research topics included the informal taxi market, tax reform, the Three Gorges Dam and related environmental issues, rural health care reform, and educational equality. Its research has two intended audiences: the first consists of economic theorists, both domestic and overseas; the second, Chinese policy-makers. TI’s internationalism is manifested in two ways: firstly, the organization promotes the modern concept of the rule of law, including advocating for market forces and equal rights for citizens; secondly, TI strives to enter into a dialogue with the modern academic field of economics, which has included academic and personal interactions with economist Ronald Coase, who passed away in 2013.

Despite this, TI remains indigenous. Paradigms and theoretical frameworks from the West are not based on research into Chinese history, society, and culture. When it comes to academic research in today’s globalized world, it is certainly essential to engage with and draw lessons from these theories, but what TI has attempted is to put forward their own ideas on the basis of their local experience, even though they have yet to make a theoretical breakthrough. Still, such indigenousness is precisely what TI should be most commended for. The reason why Western theories are lost in translation lies in the myriad of social, cultural and psychological factors built into individual languages that cannot be directly translated. Conducting research in Chinese and foreign languages entail very different processes, even if similar results are obtained. TI attempts to explain their research findings in a language that makes sense to Chinese policy-makers. To some extent, both their interviewees and the Chinese government should be thankful to TI, because they have built a platform for dialogue between the government and those at the very bottom of society, without taking a penny from the state’s coffer.

Indigenous NGOs vs. Police Control

Guo’s upbringing—he was born and raised in the household of a local government cadre—gave him a profound understanding of police control as a fact of life. This partly explains his own internal conflicts. On the one hand, ever since he was a student, he has been independent and rebellious in his pursuit of social activism. On the other hand, he set limits on how far he would go by consciously drawing an invisible circle for himself and keeping his actions firmly within that circle. Sometimes he lamented his “cowardice” for his powerlessness to help his old friends in prison; pushed to a certain point, he would come forward quickly and then withdraw from action immediately and completely.

When the police came to his house, he would opt for withdrawal and negotiation, sometimes accepting house arrest and transportation by police car. He even agreed to the arrangements made by the police for him to take trips far away from Beijing in order to avoid more violent conflicts with the authorities. Gradually, he became a “hostage” between TI and the police: a pattern emerged whereby Guo would accept curtailments to his freedom in return for TI to be allowed to continue operating. At the same time, he became a tool that the police used to demonstrate their performance and gain promotion. Of course, Guo was well aware of the role of media reporting, the mechanisms of international law, and diplomatic mediation in improving the overall situation of human rights and the rule of law in China, but he chose to wrestle with the authorities without public exposure, trying to win living space for himself and TI. Here, the conflict of overall interests and individual interests is obvious.

Guo disagreed with fellow activist Teng Biao’s assertion that human rights lawyers take either a “politicized” (that is, expressing political ideals and identifying the case as part of a broader movement) or “depoliticized” approach to their defense cases, and Teng’s implication that the cause of human rights in China can only be advanced through the former. In response, Guo argued that a lawyer should always prioritize the client’s interests, irrespective of his or her—or the client’s—political intention.[9]

Guo’s method informed the strategies employed by the families and lawyers of Pu Zhiqiang, Qu Zhenhong, Xia Lin, and other TI staff members who were arrested. They attempted to understand and engage with the Chinese authorities’ way of thinking, in an effort to minimize damages to the individuals who were arrested. International pressure generated by social movements may have helped secure the release on bail of five feminist activists (and promoted their cause of gender equality), but it could also provoke the authorities to punish those still in custody more severely.

But China’s political structure and police apparatus is rapidly changing. No matter what the families and lawyers do, Guo and other arrestees face far greater risks than before.

A Divided Authority[10]

In recent years, the crime of “picking quarrels and making trouble” has gradually replaced that of “inciting the subversion of state power” as the main criminal charge against those considered to be causing “social instability.” This echoes a trend which began in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics: with the rise of a younger generation of state security police, the task of “maintaining stability” is increasingly devoid of ideological meanings. That task has now become depoliticized, operationalized, routinized and commercialized. The officers who handled the high-profile cases of Gao Zhisheng, Hu Jia, and Liu Xiaobo were all rewarded with promotions. Since “maintaining stability” became a business, the authorities have spent considerable sums to ensure that activists are not “creating disturbances” or “making trouble.” However, with their pursuit of temporary and superficial stability through ever-increasing spending, Chinese authorities have strayed far from the means and ends of social governance: instead of seeking solutions to real social problems, this product-oriented bureaucracy is geared only towards the perceived “quick fix” of suppression.

Guided by this new methodology, the state security apparatus has no real interest in distinguishing the content and nature of different activists’ work, their individual characteristics, the threat they pose to the regime or their level of cooperation with the state, nor are the police keen to weigh the impact of their arrest on the government’s performance and public image. This new methodology has turned rights activists into standardized objects of business.

The true interests of the authorities lie in how to improve their business and increase output. Consequently, norms which originally played an important role in constraining the conduct of the police, such as humanity, morality, ideological values, the government’s image and public opinion have been severely weakened in the current police system.

The government’s adjustment of its overall attitude and policies towards NGOs represents another change. Decades-old independent film festivals have been cancelled, workers’ rights groups have been repressed, sometimes violently, the Liren Library has been disbanded,[11] and the Transition Institute has been forcibly closed. The authorities also ordered the arrest of women’s rights activists and placed restrictions on—and attempted to close—the Beijing Yirenping Center.[12] Groups with positive and moderate agendas that originally had a certain survival space have lost almost all possibility of existence. The closure of TI illustrates that in dealing with police control, pragmatic NGOs no longer have space to negotiate. This is a sign that the Chinese government is not simply strengthening its anti-foreign philosophy, but moreover, ultimately trying to control pragmatic NGOs by upgrading them to the category of political opposition groups. In other words, Chinese rulers cannot tolerate indigenous civil groups that—in the style of traditional Chinese literati—offer advice on how to govern society.

The Predicament of International NGOs

Since entering China, international NGOs and foundations have been careful to avoid crossing the “political red line” in an effort not to become sensitive. Without this caution, these institutions would have been unable to gain a foothold in China. In their recommendation for the indictment of Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun for “operating illegal business,” the Beijing Public Security Bureau named the partners which provided funds to TI, such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, CIPE (Center for International Private Enterprise Development Institute), PI (Probe International) and the U.S. Embassy. On May 4, 2015, Guo met with his lawyer Pan Haixia (who is also Guo’s wife) and asked her to send his apologies to TI’s partners and tell them that he sincerely hopes that the case will not impact their operations.

Guo has conveyed a core message from behind bars, signaling that he has tried his best to protect TI’s international partners. But now those partners face a dilemma: if they remain silent, they would give the impression that they acknowledge the unfair treatment of TI and the trials of Guo and He. Only comments made in public can become actions to support Guo and TI. A failure on the part of TI’s partners to speak out and criticize the police’s abuse of power—whether for moral or practical reasons—will have a long-term negative impact on pragmatic Chinese NGOs, bringing them even greater insecurity. On the other hand, if they speak out, they risk provoking disproportionate political punishment in their other China projects and damaging their own interests, as well as the interests of other foreign NGOs in China. The forced closures of Liren Library and Transition Institute, as well as the detention then release of five feminists, have reminded us that at this stage the strategies employed by indigenous NGOs to deal with the police are ineffective. International institutions should rethink their own strategies for responding to police control. It is time to cast off past experience and start innovating.

For the Chinese version of this article, please see here and here.


Update: The Transition Institute case returned to police for further investigation

Published on June 2, 2015

Monday, June 1: Li Jin, one of two lawyers representing detained Transition Institute (TI) founder, Guo Yushan, said the People’s Procuratorate of Haidian District (which took over the TI case from the First Branch of Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate on April 15) returned the case against Guo Yushan, and TI administrative director He Zhengjung, to the police authorities for further investigation on May 30.

According to China’s criminal procedure laws, the time limit for further police investigation is one month. Upon completion, the police are likely to recommend to the Procuratorate that the suspect be indicted but the decision by the Procuratorate could take another 1.5 months. The case can also be returned to the police for further investigation again if the Procuratorate considers existing evidence insufficient. The maximum number of times a case can be returned to the police for further investigation is two times.

Therefore, the decision whether or not to indict Guo Yushan and He Zhengjung could take five more months in total if the Procuratorate deems the maximum number of reviews permitted by law are necessary.


Editor’s Notes

[1]  “A” did not receive any official documentation relating to her detention, which categorizes her detention as an act of forced disappearance. She is currently on bail and is required by police not to discuss her detention experience with anyone.

[2]  Guo Yushan was taken from his home at approximately 2AM on the morning of October 9, 2014. The police entered with a warrant and removed electronic devices. Within several days, Guo’s wife, Pan Haixia, received a detention notice saying that her husband had been detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and making trouble.” Neither Pan, nor his lawyers knew where Guo was being detained. Then, on January 3, 2015, Guo was transferred from an undisclosed location to Beijing No. 1 Detention Center.  On April 15, when the Beijing Public Security Bureau released its “Recommendation to Indict” Guo and his colleague and TI’s administrative director, He Zhengjun, for “operating an illegal business” Guo was once again transferred, this time to the Haidian District Detention Center.

[3] Guo Yushan’s detention was conducted officially by the police and was known to his family, although they did not always know where he was located. “A’s” detention was not conducted “officially.” Her family and lawyer searched for her in every related police station in Beijing and her hometown, but the authorities denied any knowledge of her whereabouts.  “A’s” case, therefore is considered a “forced disappearance.” On October 10, 2014, a day after Guo was detained, police also took his colleague, Huang Kaiping, from his home in Beijing. His disappearance was identical to “A’s” in that his family was not provided with any formal notification of his detention and the authorities denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. He was released on January 28, 2015, on bail.

[4] The Guangling Melody (guangling san) is considered a masterpiece of the guqin zither. The song originated in the Qin and Han eras, but is most closely associated with third-century Daoist thinker Ji Kang, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove who withdrew from political life and devoted themselves to art and leisure. Ji Kang was sentenced to death after he offended high-ranking officials of the Wei regime and, according to traditional sources, played this melody on his lute before his execution.

[5] Go (weiqi) is a board game involving two players that originated in ancient China and is now popular across East Asia.

[6] Yang Zili served eight years in prison for “subverting state authority.” Following his release in 2009, he joined the Transition Institute as a researcher.

[7] The Open Constitution Initiative (OCI) is an organization of Chinese lawyers and activists that advocated the rule of law and greater constitutional protections. It was established in 2003 by Xu Zhiyong (currently serving a four-year prison sentence for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”), Teng Biao (currently a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School), Yu Jiang, and Zhang Xingshui – all graduates of the Peking University Law School. Guo Yushan served as a member of its Regular Decision-Making Committee alongside Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, Li Fangping, Zhang Lihui and Yang Ziyun.

[8] The “Delivering Meals Party” (送饭党songfan dang, a homophonic pun on the Chinese for “Chinese Communist Party,” 共产党 gongchan dang) was a campaign, organized by Guo Yushan and the influential Chinese blogger known as the “Meaty Monk” (肉唐僧), to provide support for families of jailed human rights activists through online auctions.

[9] Guo has been critical of “ambitious” lawyers who seek to accomplish political goals in their defenses of activist clients, and has urged members of the rights movement to withhold moral judgment of lawyers who choose not to focus on political factors in their defenses of activist clients. Guo explained his pragmatic view of legal defense, and his objections to Teng Biao’s distinction, in a December 2012 interview in iSun Affairs magazine (in Chinese):陽光時務-專訪北京「傳知行」創辦人郭玉閃-抱着/

[10] China’s police system consists of both “public” and “secret” organs that operate separately, but in parallel networks, which often collaborate and share resources at the local level. The Ministry of Public Security operates the network of public security bureaus (gong’an ju 公安局) responsible for “ordinary” (or non-state security-related) police work and related administrative matters. The Ministry of State Security (Guo’an 国安) and the Internal Security Bureau (Guobao 国保) deal respectively with matters of national security and internal state security. Guobao police are responsible for the surveillance and suppression of political dissidents. In recent years, “to be invited for tea” has become a euphemism among Chinese netizens for interrogation by the Guobao police. With this subtitle, the author implies that between the various parallel hierarchies and local branches of the police system and state bureaucracy, there exists conflict over how to “maintain stability.”

[11] The Liren (literally: “cultivating talents”) Rural Libraries was an educational public service organization that provided rural children with access to reading materials and other learning opportunities. The organization announced its official closure in September 2014, after the majority of their libraries were forced to close by authorities.

[12] The Beijing Yirenping Centre is an organization that focuses on eliminating discrimination against disadvantaged groups such as women, carriers of hepatitis B and HIV, and people with disabilities. See for more information.


About the author

Jinyan Zeng is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Her research area is the feminist cultural practice of social activism in China. Jinyan co-directed the documentary “Prisoners in Freedom City” in 2007 and her writings include “The Politics of Emotion in Grassroots Feminist Protests: A case study of Xiaoming Ai’s nude breasts photography protest” online (2014), and have appeared in The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 15(1), 41–52; and La boîte, Books (Paris).

I am indebted to economist Patricia Adams, Xibai Xu, Mu Lan, Lisa Peryman, and Jude Blanchette for translating and editing this English version.

Further Reading

Friends gone to jail – Chinese activists Kou Yanding and Guo Yushan

This family nightmare is the price of political expression in China

Pan Haixia’s first letter to Guo Yushan, dated October 14

Pan Haixia’s second letter to Guo Yushan, dated November 7

Pan Haixia’s third letter to Guo Yushan, dated December 3

Pan Haixia’s fourth letter to Guo Yushan, dated January 31

An Open Letter to Procuratorate of Haidian District from senior researchers of the Transition Institute

The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Recommendation for the Indictment of Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun

Beijing police recommend charges against civil society advocates

Foreign NGOs under increasing pressure in China

China’s strike against NGOs: “into the pan and deep-fry”

Beijing social think-tank shut down amid crackdown

Silencing Guo Yushan

A letter to my husband Guo Yushan

Yang Zili and the paranoid regime

China crushes intellectual freedom even after decades of successful market reforms

The plight of China’s rights lawyers

In China, to destroy lives is legal, but to save them is not

Just man Guo Yushan

Lawyer Xi Xiangdong: Record of a meeting with He Zhengjun of the Transition Institute, detained on suspicion of “operating an illegal business”

In China, Civic Groups’ Freedom, and Followers, Are Vanishing

Exile in My Own Country – A Letter to Domestic Security Officer Li in Beijing

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