KUNMING, China - Late last year, HIV-AIDS activist Thomas Cai was suddenly summoned to appear the next day at a mysterious meeting in Beijing.
Cai is the founder and director of the well-known nongovernmental organization AIDS Care China - one of the first civil society groups to provide support for AIDS sufferers and their families. But he had no idea whom he would be meeting in the Chinese capital. To his total surprise, he and 11 other scientists were ushered in to meet with President Hu Jintao.
"We were not instructed before what to say," Cai recalls, referring to the normal practice when meeting with top Chinese officials. Instead, the president told Cai "not to say good things, but to talk straight" about the HIV-AIDS problem. For three hours, Hu listened to frank details about grassroots health problems in China.
Yet even though this AIDS activist was invited to meet the highest leadership, Chinese officialdom has not let AIDS Care China register officially as an NGO. "We're getting lots of recognition, but we are still not recognized," says Cai.
This story perfectly illustrates one of the great paradoxes of today's China. Senior leaders realize they need to know what's happening at the grassroots, otherwise they will continue to be caught unawares by dangerous scandals caused by local corruption or bureaucratic fear of reporting bad news. A few examples: the SARS epidemic, the sale of toxic baby milk, and the spread of HIV-AIDS because of tainted blood.
Local leaders in provinces far from Beijing often feel they can act with impunity. As the Chinese proverb puts it: "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away." So the need for the center to know what is going on in this vast country is essential. But China's bureaucracy is reluctant (or too fearful) to make necessary information public.
The Chinese media, although more open than in the past, are still largely controlled and often muzzled when they try to report local health or environmental scandals. Some useful info bubbles up to the top from the blogosphere, or from exposés by a few daring newspapers, but it is far from systematic.
Which brings us to the subject of NGOs. These civil society organizations could play a vital role in bringing pressing social needs to the attention of local and national leaders: Many Chinese NGOs work on social issues such as health, environment, women's rights, or even earthquake relief, and are sources of vital information.
However, the Chinese establishment cannot seem to decide whether it wants to encourage such groups or shut them down. "In the government, there are two attitudes toward NGOs," Cai says. "One side says 'We need them' and the other side says 'They will cause us problems.' "
Part of the ambivalence stems from nervousness that NGOs could veer into political organizations, as happened during the "color revolutions" in some former communist countries. Official NGO registration is limited to those groups that have some form of government sponsor. This forces nonregistered NGOs to set up as for-profit enterprises and pay taxes. Most depend heavily on contributions from international or Western foundations and charities.
In March, Chinese tax authorities imposed new restrictions on groups receiving foreign donations that are so complex no one has figured out how to meet them. Chinese foundations and philanthropies are not yet sufficiently developed - and may be too timid - to fill the gap if foreign funds dry up.
And yet, NGOs provide information and services the system desperately needs. As if to prove this point, China's impressive Minister of Health Chen Zhu recently visited Red Ribbon treatment centers, which are funded by AIDS Care China and are inside hospitals to provide support services for patients with HIV-AIDS.
"NGOs have an indispensable role in health care," Chen told a group of U.S. journalists from the International Reporting Project, "in particular in the prevention of diseases, especially HIV-AIDS." The minister went further: "The participation of NGOs has played an active role in raising social awareness and ending stigma and in prevention measures," he said.
So how to reconcile this backing of senior leaders with the failure to register Cai's group and so many other nonprofits? Cai believes the people at the top may not know what their subordinates are doing. "We see a lot of good on the top level but at lower levels we are very frustrated," he says.
Cai says he asked the president to increase support for NGOs by making registration easier and encouraging new sources of funding. Some civil society activists suggest that, if the government is nervous about foreign support for NGOs, it should ease the way for the establishment of Chinese charitable foundations who could support them.
If China's top leadership fears social unrest, it should be encouraging NGOs that work with the grassroots. It should be looking to them to provide a realistic picture of social conditions that bureaucrats gloss over. Clamping down on NGO activists will only leave China's leadership in the dark.