Thursday, 25 February 2010

Oxfam calls halt after ‘warning’

Hong Kong charity suspends training of mainland students until ‘ministry notice’ clarified

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Guanyu 道 said...

Oxfam calls halt after ‘warning’

Hong Kong charity suspends training of mainland students until ‘ministry notice’ clarified

Ng Tze-wei and Gary Cheung
24 February 2010

Oxfam Hong Kong is suspending a programme to train volunteers from mainland universities until it receives clarification about a notice, apparently issued by the Ministry of Education, which calls the charity “ill-intentioned” and warns students to avoid dealings with it.

The notice, posted on some university websites but apparently directed at all mainland students, says Oxfam Hong Kong is “an organisation that has been trying hard to infiltrate mainland China, with its head being a key member of the opposition camp”. (The reference may also be to its heads being key members of the camp). The notice came to public attention in mainland internet chat rooms on Monday.

Oxfam Hong Kong said at a news conference yesterday that it became aware of the notice on Saturday and had since written to the Ministry of Education - apparently the source of the notice - but was still awaiting clarification.

The notice was posted in full on the website of Minzu University in Beijing. By yesterday it had been removed from the site. Summaries of the notice seen previously on the websites of two other universities have also been removed.

Because of the Lunar New Year holiday, none of the universities could be reached for comment. The Ministry of Education has yet to respond to questions about the notice or to confirm it issued it.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular briefing yesterday that he was not aware of the notice. He said that, while international non-governmental organisations were welcome on the mainland, “[We] ask them to follow the law and regulations of China”.

Howard Liu Hung-to, China unit director of Oxfam Hong Kong, said the charity would like to know whether the notice was really issued by the ministry and if so, why.

The notice appears to be an internal warning sent by the ministry’s Communist Party secretariat to party offices of all tertiary institutions, warning students against internships offered by Oxfam Hong Kong since they were offered jointly with “rights organisations” on the mainland. The notice gave no further details, but said the latest recruitment exercise would run from March to June.

Liu said Oxfam Hong Kong had been operating a volunteer-training programme for mainland university students since 2006, under which 10 to 15 social work graduates were assigned every year as interns or volunteers at mainland NGOs serving migrant workers.

“We believe the programme is in line with the goal of fostering a harmonious society promoted by mainland authorities,” he said. “We don’t think the programme has any political or legal problems.”

Oxfam Hong Kong had not previously received any criticism from the authorities regarding the programme, but “as education authorities have expressed their grave concern, we have decided to suspend the volunteer-training programme”, he said.

The Hong Kong charity has been carrying out work in China since 1987 and runs projects in 27 provinces, covering development issues such as rural poverty relief and women’s rights, as well as fields that could be seen as more sensitive, such as migrant workers’ rights, preventing HIV/Aids and policies for ethnic minorities.

The size of its operations suggests a good relationship with the central government; 80 per cent of its project partners are local government organs and universities. It was the first non-mainland NGO to join hands with the State Council’s poverty alleviation arm to provide relief projects in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake which devastated parts of the southwestern province.

Liu said he was not worried that the notice would affect the operations of foreign NGOs on the mainland. Still, people in NGO circles there were shocked by the news - for several reasons.

Guanyu 道 said...

Some high-profile mainland rights activists said they were shocked because Oxfam Hong Kong was not known to be radical at all, and in fact was regarded as overly cautious in its selection of mainland partners for co-operation.

Others said they were worried the incident might make it harder for NGOs to operate on the mainland.

Most NGOs on the mainland are technically illegal. They should all register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, but the rules are very stringent. And foreign NGOs are still looked on with suspicion by the authorities since they often act as agents of change in areas overlooked by the government.

“The issue of migrant workers is now possibly an even more sensitive area than Aids,” Tsinghua University NGO researcher Deng Guosheng said, since it was bigger and harboured more discontent. “Working at raising rights awareness requires political savvy. One must help the workers assert their rights on one hand, but also maintain social stability on the other.”

Liang Ma of Beijing Tongxing, an NGO specialising in Aids prevention work and a partner of Oxfam Hong Kong, said if the notice was real it would not only affect the Hong Kong charity’s future work in China, but the fate of other NGOs too.

“In order to carry out grass-roots work one must have very good relationships with the local governments and government-backed NGOs,” Liang said. “If Oxfam Hong Kong is branded undesirable by one government department [even if it’s allowed to continue operating on the mainland], it will face a lot of difficulties in its work. And we will also lose a very professional partner.”

Oxfam Hong Kong’s new chairman, Lo Chi-kin, is a member of the Democratic Party, but is apparently viewed as a moderate since he was invited to Beijing for National Day celebrations in October. Ho Chi-kwan, a member of Oxfam Hong Kong’s council and a Polytechnic University associate professor, is spokeswoman for the Anti-Express Rail Link Alliance, but the charity has denied it supports the alliance.

Liu would not hazard a guess as to who was the “key member of the opposition camp” the notice alludes to.