NGO activists set sights at Peoples Congresses
Civil Society | Governance and Social Policy | Law and Rights
NGOs in China have long strived to improve their relationship with government and influence policy-making in various ways, writes Chang Tianle (常天乐) . Now, as elections for local People’s Congresses are being held, a few NGO leaders have seen this as an opportunity to mainstream themselves.
Li Dan (李丹), 28-year-old leader of the China Orchid AIDS Project (东珍纳兰文化传播中心), which focuses on welfare of AIDS orphans and affected families in Henan Province, is one of them.
He says that grassroots NGOs have now become a force (力量) in China. However, they find limited channels to communicate with the government, and this stunts their development. “A major obstacle is that the government does not understand what we are doing or what our values are,” he says. “I wish to find a proper way to communicate.”
Li, a Beijing native and Communist Party Member, decided to stand as an independent candidate for the Xicheng District People’s Congress in Beijing.
He believes that if NGO leaders like him can be part of the People’s Congress, they will be able to integrate their thinking into government policy. “NGOs are like messengers between the public and the government. If they don’t understand each other, it will become a lose-lose situation,” he adds. In 2004, his AIDS orphanage in Henan Province was shut by the local government.
Li’s task is to win enough votes from some 3,000 voters in the neighbourhood his office is located. Three delegates will be elected in his area.
Since he announced his plan at the end of September, he has sent emails to friends, asking them to find eligible voters in his district and introduce him. Under People’s Congress election procedures, independent candidates can be nominated but the decision whether to put their name on the printed ballot papers lies with an election committee, depending in part on how many signatories support the nomination. One of Li Dan’s campaign emails therefore says “Please write down the name of Li Dan on the ballot paper,” even if his name does not appear printed there.
But Li is not at all optimistic about the result, citing the large size of the community and disperse of the voters. Besides, he and his organisation have little exposure among the electorate, most of whom are conservative local residents. He spends most of his time on projects in Henan, with Orcchid’s Beijing office serving mainly as a liaison point.
Li argues that some NGOs place too much emphasis on big issues, while neglecting the real needs of the general public. So he sees the election campaign as an opportunity to listen to their opinion and better understand the community he lives in.
“NGOs should not only focus on their own projects. It is also important to win support from the public, which is the foundation of the society and our work,” he says.
Election procedures also present problems. Li and his colleagues have visited the community election committee several times, but received blurred or even contradictory information and instructions about the election process, particularly on what independent candidates can and cannot do.
“This time is more like an experiment to test the election procedure and gain experience for next election,” he says.
A similar experiment ended abruptly for Wan Yanhai (万延海), another prominent AIDS activist and the first NGO leader to announce that he would stand in this year’s election. After Wan had held several meetings with voters and handed out hundreds of flyers, several US foundations that support his Beijing Aizhixing Institute (北京知爱行信息咨询中心) approached him and expressed their concern on his “political involvement,” he says. A few days later, he decided to withdraw from the election, even though his candidacy was totally independent and did not use the resources of the Institute. “I don’t want to risk the future of the Institute,” he says.
Li’s organisation also receives funding from overseas, but his donors have not yet raised any concerns.
This is not the first time that NGO leaders have stood as candidates in the local assembly. In 2003, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative（公盟研究室）, an organisation engaging in legal research and assistance, won a seat in People’s Congress of Beijing Haidian District. He was elected by students and faculty of Beijing University of Posts and Communications, where he teaches law.
In the following three years, he and 17 other elected independent delegates formed a group to supervise the Standing Committee of the Congress, oversee the government, scrutinise policies and push for changes. He finds the situation in Haidian People’s Congress is more optimistic than he expected.
Although he has not decided whether to stand again this year, he wrote letters to many prospective candidates and voters, encouraging them to join the election.
“Of course, what we (current Congress delegates) have done is still limited, but it’s mainly because many delegates are too busy with their own jobs and are not passionate about their role as delegates,” he wrote in the letter dated October 6. “We hope to have more people who are passionate about public interest and welfare win seats in the Congress, so that the Congress can better represent the interest of the people.”
October 9, 2006