Massive military parades, marches, and firework displays were staged across China on October 1, 2009, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of China’s Communist leadership. Displaying pride in their country’s progress and development, government officials and citizens organized parades and events to contribute to the biggest celebration in Chinese history. However, in addition to the festivities, the event included attempts to silence dissenting voices. A few days before the celebration, Amnesty International reported that Chinese authorities increased surveillance, harassment, and imprisonment of activists to prevent them from raising human rights concerns challenging the image of social harmony.

Among the advocates targeted were Xu Zhiyong, founder of the Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), and Zhuang Lu, OCI’s financial manager. Known as Gongmeng in Chinese, OCI was founded in 2002 to provide representation for victims in cases that are unwelcomed by the Chinese government. The lawyers at OCI are at the forefront of providing free legal services to disadvantaged groups in China, including farmers, the homeless, victims of torture, and parents of children who died or fell ill after drinking tainted milk.

On July 14, 2009, OCI received notification from the national and Beijing tax bureaus of a fine for 1.42 million yuan (U.S. $208,000). Shortly thereafter, Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu were seized on suspicion of tax evasion. Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau officials confiscated files, computers, and other equipment from the OCI office and ordered the center to shut down.

Officially, Xu Zhiyong was charged with criminal tax evasion. The Chinese government claimed OCI was shut down because it was operating as a business, and had not registered as a non-profit as required by law. However, civil rights activists and human rights organizations allege that it was part of a larger effort to stifle dissent in the countdown to the celebration by targeting civil rights advocates. Xu Zhiyong, who was released by the Public Security Bureau on August 23, 2009, admits that “there might be oversight in our management.” He claimed that although OCI had not registered as an NGO, it “has always been a non-profit organization.” He also added that OCI made “no profits whatsoever, but . . . got penalties for income tax.”

The arrests of Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu and the closure of OCI illustrate only a small fraction of what civil rights activists experience in China. Lawyers who take politically sensitive cases face possible arrest, kidnapping, and physical attacks. Recently, the licenses of the Beijing lawyers who represented Tibetan participants in the 2008 uprising were revoked. Amnesty International, which continues to receive reports of intimidation of activists in Beijing, estimates that several hundred dissidents are under various kinds of surveillance or house arrest throughout China.

Moreover, China has implemented highly restrictive registration and operational regulations that few NGOs can meet. Since only organizations with government approval prior to their formation can register as non-profits, many take the same route as OCI, registering initially as commercial entities and later trying to register as NGOs. Thus, the forcible shutdown of OCI has alarmed the country’s non-profit community.

Xu Zhiyong and Zhuang Lu were released on bail on August 23 and 22, respectively, without explanation, but public advocacy on their behalf in China and Hong Kong likely played an important role. Although their release may demonstrate responsiveness to domestic activism on the part of the Chinese government, Human Rights Watch contends that restrictions on NGOs in China continue to leave civil society organizations vulnerable to political interference.

In a statement on his blog (English translation available, here) Xu Zhiyoung describes OCI’s closure as a “penalty to the baby victims of the poisonous milk powders; a penalty to the young students at migrant workers’ children schools . . . [and] a penalty to tens of thousands of the poor and powerless, those who need the society’s help the most.”  By sanctioning lawyers for human rights activities in an effort to remedy social tensions and foster a harmonious society, the Chinese government is preventing Chinese citizens from seeking legal redress for their grievances. The most affected, therefore, are not the civil rights lawyers, but the innocent individuals left with no remedy for their injuries.