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China studying Western groups promoting democracy

BEIJING—Recent revolts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have unsettled China's leaders and prompted them to scrutinize foreign groups that seek to strengthen civil society and the rule of law.

Economic growth for two decades has lifted hundreds of millions of China's 1.3 billion people from poverty. But discontent is rising in rural areas over illegal land grabs, corruption, a failed health-care system and a widening wealth gap.

Leaders in China, where the Communist Party has a monopoly on power, have watched social turmoil over the past nine months that's destabilized or overthrown entrenched regimes in Ukraine in Eastern Europe and China's Central Asian neighbors Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Chinese government sent social scientists to these countries and to Belarus and Georgia—like Ukraine, independent countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union—to study the political changes that are rocking them and assess the role of foreign organizations that promote democracy.

"The authorities in China have studied those situations rather diligently and concluded that those kinds of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are effective enough so that they should develop countermeasures," said Allan Choate, the director of program development in Hong Kong for the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that promotes accountable and transparent government.

Choate said in a telephone interview that he'd spoken with one of the social scientists who had been dispatched to the countries.

Entrenched regimes in several former Soviet republics have fallen in recent popular uprisings, beginning last winter in Ukraine with what became known as the Orange Revolution, which toppled a long-ruling authoritarian government. A popular revolt in Kyrgyzstan in March forced elections, and the main opposition leader won and came to power Sunday.

In Uzbekistan, strong-arm President Islam Karimov repressed a May 13 uprising against his rule, leaving at least 187 people dead. After the Bush administration pushed for an independent investigation, Karimov in late July gave Washington 180 days to pull U.S. military forces out of the country.

In some of these countries, U.S. and European groups have helped promote democratic currents.

In May, the China Economic Times, a newspaper linked to China's governing State Council's research branch, published an article that said "the United States and other Western countries generally use NGOs to intervene in the host countries' internal affairs, create chaos, and even engage in activities to overthrow the government. China should be cautious of this."

Chinese authorities are expected to enact regulations soon requiring foreign nonprofit groups to register, and a new unit at the Foreign Ministry is monitoring their work. Public security agents are interviewing employees of many of the groups.

A variety of U.S. and European civil society groups or foundations have activities in China, including the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, both funded by the U.S. Congress, and the nongovernmental Carter Center, headed by former President Jimmy Carter, which works to strengthen democracy and improve the quality of life in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Several German groups also promote legal and political reforms in China.

Other foreign nongovernmental groups in China focus on the environment, rule-of-law issues and public accountability.

"It's certainly not the intention of any NGO that I know of to foment dissatisfaction and unrest," Choate said.

In another sign of the sensitivities of leaders of the long-ruling Communist Party, at least three international academic conferences on issues related to labor and social rights or good governance have been canceled or postponed since May.

In addition, the government has tightened its already heavy control over news coverage. Earlier this month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported prohibitions on foreign investors "establishing or running news organizations, broadcasting stations (and) television stations." It said no new licenses would be issued for foreign satellite channels.

Some Chinese journalists are rebelling at new rules that require them to get official approval for "negative" stories or that prohibit coverage of often-violent land disputes.

On Aug. 5, authorities formally acknowledged that they'd arrested Ching Cheong of Singapore's Straits Times newspaper, who disappeared in April, and had charged him with spying for Taiwan. At the time of his disappearance, Ching reportedly was attempting to obtain a manuscript written by a purged former secretary general of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, who died earlier this year.

A Paris-based watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, condemned China on Aug. 8 for actions against two journalists who were working for the BBC World Service. The group said the two "were arrested, stripped naked and questioned by the police last month while investigating a massacre of peasants by thugs in the pay of land speculators just a few kilometers outside Beijing."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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