Report: Secret detentions used to extract confessions in China

Beijing (dpa) – The Chinese government still uses a secretive detention system called “shuanggui” to extract confessions from Communist Party members suspected of corruption, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday.

In recent years, dozens of former officials have been deprived of sleep, food and water and subject to severe beatings, according to the report, which cites 11 cases of individuals who died while in shuanggui custody.

The shuanggui system “functions beyond the reach of China’s criminal justice system” and gives a commission within the Chinese Communist Party “the authority to summon any of the Communist Party’s 88 million members to account for allegedly ill-gotten gains,” the report said.

“Those summoned are deprived of liberty for days, weeks, or months, during which time they are repeatedly interrogated and often tortured.”

The practice dates back to 1990, according to the report.

Former detainees said they were held in modified hostels with no windows and which had features such as padded walls. They were guarded by teams of officials, and interrogated frequently.

“If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well,” one former detainee said.

“My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus.”
The non-profit group’s report was based in part on interviews with four former shuanggui detainees as well as analysis of court verdicts and 35 detailed cases culled from Chinese media reports.

All of the suspects featured in the report were found guilty of corruption.

In some cases, non-party members such as family members were also detained, the report found. In these cases, authorities often don’t give a justification for the detention.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

“Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system,” she said.

The Chinese government is yet to comment on the report.

A January statement from the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which oversees the shuanggui system, said the aim of the method is to “request staff to explain relevant issues during a specified time and in a specified place.”

“Torture, inducement to a confession, physical punishment and maltreatment … are strictly prohibited” during the process, the statement said.

The campaign ostensibly aims to take on corrupt officials in both high and low positions, and has lasted longer and struck at a more senior level than many analysts expected.

Bo Xilai, former party chief of the southern Chongqing municipality, was reportedly held under shuanggui, where he said he confessed under “improper pressure.”

He was later sentenced to life in prison in September 2013, after having been found guilty of corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power.


China’s ecommerce giants have figured out ingenious ways of reaching even rural shoppers

BEIJING (Mashable) — When Cheng Yuan Yuan left her job as an accountant in the sprawling southern metropolis of Shenzhen to go home and start a family, the 27-year-old thought she was leaving better economic opportunities behind.

She opened a convenience store in her rural neighbourhood on the outskirts of Ruzhou in central Henan province, where she stocked household items such as cooking oil and detergent.

But limited distribution networks and resources means that prices of acquiring goods in China’s rural areas are often much higher than in cities. Cheng wasn’t seeing much profit.

She was used to online shopping in Shenzhen, and soon realized that it was still possible to order almost the same variety of products online at cheaper prices than she could find locally, in Ruzhou.

If she orders in the morning, men on motorbikes usually arrive at her shop with her deliveries by the evening.

Later, Cheng spotted an opportunity to earn commission as a “village promoter” for online retailer JD.com — second in China to giant Alibaba, which runs the popular Taobao and Tmall stores. The job sees Cheng acting as an agent in the village, helping people learn how to shop online, and having her store act as a drop-off point for parcels.

A year on, her small shop is a hub of activity. Her windows are still mostly bare, but inside there are stacks of cardboard packages of various shapes and sizes, waiting for villagers to come pick them up.

Cheng is one of some 300,000 village promoters across the country for JD.com.

As online shopping becomes a part of everyday life for more people in China, Alibaba and JD.com are battling for dominance in rural areas.

Alibaba, too, has a similar strategy as JD.com for far-flung areas. As of end-October, there were 1,311 Taobao “villages” in China, compared with 780 a year ago. These Taobao villages are clusters of rural retailers with an online presence on Alibaba’s platform.

But where JD.com is more similar to Alibaba’s Tmall, in that it only carries goods from established businesses, Taobao has a marketplace open to individuals, allowing people to open stores and sell goods at fixed prices or by auction

He pays her in cash, so he doesn't have to figure out getting an online wallet.

Cheng notes that her role as a promoter appears to be effective in helping with the resistance to online shopping for a lot of elderly people.

“Older people do not understand online shopping. They don’t have computers. But when I show them the cheaper prices for goods they are buying already, they admit they are intrigued,” said Cheng.

“So to get them more comfortable, I order the items first and let them inspect the items in person. Now, dozens of older people regularly ask me to order things for them, then they pay me back in cash.”

Cheng is experiencing far less barriers with the younger crowd, naturally. She counts a customer base of over two hundred millennials. They often order beauty products and food items, she said.

China’s government enthusiastically supports the growth of ecommerce in rural areas. Last year, China announced it would invest over $22 billion to provide 50,000 more villages with internet access by 2020. Premier Li Keqiang said in a speech that online retail didn’t necessarily pose a threat to brick-and-mortar stores, since the latter could expand online.

And for a country that has become well-known for producing counterfeit and shoddy products, a national consumer protection law passed in 2014 introduced new penalties for fraud and false advertising. It’s now mandatory for retailers to refund goods returned within seven days of purchase, helping with customer confidence.

Chinese workers sort piles of parcels, most of which are from online shopping on Alibaba's Tmall International site.

As of June 2015, internet penetration reached 64.2 percent in urban areas and 30.1 percent in rural areas. But the number of rural internet users grew at double the rate of urban internet users that year. The government is hoping that e-commerce could raise living standards and create more jobs for China’s 600 to 800 million rural residents.

Last Friday, more rural shoppers than ever before took part in “Singles’ Day“, China’s 24-hour online shopping binge. Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba pulled in a record-breaking $17.8 billion in sales from its collection of online marketplaces, while JD.com received 60 percent more orders than it had last year, it said.

The $17.8 billion figure crushed Black Friday’s $4.45 billion in ecommerce sales last year and Alibaba’s own $14.3 billion record from 2015.

Chinese workers sort piles of parcels, most of which are from Singles Day online shopping.

Throughout rural China, the best-selling international brands on Singles’ Day included Pampers, Mead Johnson and Wyeth in the maternity and baby product category, Nike in the sports and outdoor equipment category, and Apple for mobile phones, Alibaba reported.

This Singles’ Day, JD.com launched a drone delivery program to speed deliveries to consumers in some of China’s most remote areas.

A drone of Chinese online retailer JD.com hovers to deliver a parcel during a trial run at a residential quarter in Xi'an city, northwest China's Shaanxi province, 10 November 2016. From Amazon.com Inc. to Domino's Pizza, technology giants and retailers have dreamed of drone deliveries for years. One Chinese e-commerce giant intends to make it a full-fledged reality by 2017. JD.com Inc. has drawn up plans for drones to ply 100 regular routes by the end of 2017. Taking advantage of less-restrictive regulations, it's spent months testing its drones and from Friday (11 Novmeber 2016), the same day as China's annual 24-hour online shopathon, it intends to start operating four routes delivering packages to rural residents on a trial basis.

Drones set off from bases on pre-determined routes to land at drop-off points in villages, where village promoters complete deliveries.

The test fleet of 30 drones can transport and deliver packages weighing between 5 kg and 15 kg and cover distances as far as 31 miles. JD plans to have drones service 100 regular routes by the end of next year.

A drone of Chinese online retailer JD.com hovers to deliver a parcel during a trial run at a residential quarter in Xi'an city, northwest China's Shaanxi province, 10 November 2016. From Amazon.com Inc. to Domino's Pizza, technology giants and retailers have dreamed of drone deliveries for years. One Chinese e-commerce giant intends to make it a full-fledged reality by 2017. JD.com Inc. has drawn up plans for drones to ply 100 regular routes by the end of 2017. Taking advantage of less-restrictive regulations, it's spent months testing its drones and from Friday (11 Novmeber 2016), the same day as China's annual 24-hour online shopathon, it intends to start operating four routes delivering packages to rural residents on a trial basis.

“Online shopping has made my life much easier. More and more, living in the countryside is not so different from living in the city,” Cheng says.

A Peoples Liberation Army soldier stands guard on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 11 September 2012. EPA/ADRIAN BRADSHAW

Chinese citizens warn of China-style Cultural Revolution in US

After Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, people in China warn that the United States may experience similar social chaos and violence that was seen in China 50 years ago under the Cultural Revolution. 

Beijing (dpa) – Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton, a veteran politician, is a sign that many underestimated the amount of anger there was directed towards the elite in the United States, China’s state media and citizens are saying.

Some warn of similarities between what is happening in the US and the conditions before China’s Cultural Revolution, which started 50 years ago when Chairman Mao Zedong mobilized young people to stamp out “bourgeois” elements he claimed had infiltrated government and society.

China was plunged into chaos and anarchy until Mao’s death 10 years later. Some 1.5 million to 1.8 million people, including many intellectuals, were killed and at least 36 million people were victims of political persecution.

“Hillary did not lose as an individual. She lost on behalf of traditional US elite political philosophy,” the state-run Global Times said in an editorial late Wednesday.

“Some people say that this is a ‘political rebellion,’ a US Cultural Revolution. Although these claims are exaggerated, they do depict the current political state of the US,” the editorial said.

“The election resulted in an unprecedented split in US society. Many of those who did not vote for Trump were ‘hated’ from the depths of people’s hearts. This kind of ‘hate’ was rare in US election history until now,” the Global Times said.

The newspaper’s sombre tone was a departure from its previous commentaries, which appeared to delight in using Trump as an example to point out the failings of Western democratic societies.

On Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, posts were split between Trump fans and people who were devastated.

“It does feel a bit like the Cultural Revolution. Now the internet is full of words of hatred that are tearing society apart,” one commentator said.

“I couldn’t believe it. Brexit, Trump winning, the world is changing,” another said.

“Has the Democratic Party’s [failure] ushered in the beginning of the US version of the Cultural Revolution? The extreme patriotism does remind me of the Cultural Revolution,” said someone with the username Scholar.

The Chinese who were happy about Trump’s victory, on the other hand, seemed to focus on his personality.

“Congratulations to Trump, his counterattack succeeded! I like this funny guy!” said a man from the city of Ningbo in China’s eastern Zhejiang province.

Some Chinese said that the results of the US election make China’s system, where there is no meaningful political opposition to Communist Party rule, seem not too bad in comparison.

“At least [President] Xi Jinping hasn’t been accused of raping women and doesn’t talk about grabbing people by the genitals,” a magazine writer in Beijing told dpa, asking for anonymity to avoid repercussions.

Experts say the Chinese government also worries about the risk of political turmoil that a Trump presidency might bring.

“Compared with Hillary, Trump is more unpredictable and more likely to start a revolution. China worries about this uncertainty the most,” Yu Yingli, an Asia-Pacific studies expert at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told dpa.

“Trump’s win will infect not only China, but all important economies in the world. It will bring great negative impact on the global economy and finance because he supports nationalism and protectionism,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations from Renmin University.

Trump blames China for stealing jobs from US citizens and devaluing its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage. In May, he had gone as far as to describe China’s trade relationship with the US as “rape.”

China is Washington’s second-largest trading partner, with the value of US-China trade totalling 659 billion dollars in 2015.

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Trump Wednesday evening, saying he hoped they could work together to boost China-US relations, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Earlier, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China expected to make joint efforts with the new US government to “maintain the sustained, healthy and stable growth of China-US relations to benefit people in both countries and across the world.”


China imposes sweeping new restrictions on lawyers

Beijing (dpa) – Human rights organisations are alarmed at new directives for lawyers in China which they said will make them shy away from important cases.

The right groups said that the new rules are effectively a gag on lawyers.

The Chinese Ministry of Justice’s new directives for the country’s lawyers came into effect on Tuesday, in what analysts call an escalation of a government campaign to gag rights lawyers.

According to two amended regulations, lawyers will be prohibited from expressing any opinions that “reject the fundamental political system” of China or that “endanger national security.”

Lawyers will be barred from “inciting” or “organising” their clients and others to participate in sit-ins or demonstrations, even if those gatherings are peaceful.

“The new Justice Ministry rules basically tell human rights lawyers that their successful legal tactics are now prohibited.

“People’s rights can’t be robustly defended when their lawyers can’t draw attention to, or even publicly discuss, their cases,” Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, said.

Susan Finder, distinguished scholar in residence at the Peking University School of Transnational Law, said the regulations may affect all lawyers and firms in China, including those that handle only commercial cases.

“The move aims to warn lawyers not to take up human rights cases,” said Patrick Poon, China researcher for Amnesty International.

He said that the amendments will require lawyers to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and to establish party branches in law firms.

Last summer, authorities carried out a campaign that specifically targeted human rights lawyers and activists in China.

Of the nearly 250 rights lawyers and activists who have been detained or summoned by Chinese police since July 2015, about 10 are believed to still be in jail, according to Amnesty International.

The director of the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Shifeng, whose company was known for taking on politically sensitive cases, was given a seven-year prison sentence in August.

At least six other lawyers await trial, and the whereabouts of Wang Yu, one of the Fengrui’s lawyers, remains unknown after she was released on bail in August.

In September, lawyer Xia Lin, who represented high-profile clients including the outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, was jailed for 12 years on fraud charges.

His supporters say the case was another example of retaliation against a human rights advocate, who had challenged the government.

However, Xia is expected to appeal.


Documentary “Hooligan Sparrow” shows how dangerous it is to protest against rape in China

Quartz – The documentary film Hooligan Sparrow begins with Wang Nanfu, a fresh journalism school graduate, introducing herself while standing on a busy street. Seconds later, she is surrounded by a group of men. They egg each other on, threatening to smash her camera and daring her to continue filming. “This is the story I captured before they took the camera from me,” Wang says in a voice over.

The rest of the documentary is even more violent, but Wang’s subjects appear better prepared. When eleven people storm into the home of a Chinese women’s rights activist named Ye Haiyan, who also goes by the name “Hooligan Sparrow” (link in Chinese), Ye deftly fights off their attacks with a meat cleaver.

Hooligan Sparrow, Wang’s first film, was an official selection of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and debuts this month on the POV series on PBS and on Netflix. The severe harassment it documents of women’s rights activists is part of a broader clampdown on civil society in China. Last summer, police questioned or detained over 300 human rights lawyers and activists. At least a dozen are yet to stand trial.

Days before the attack on Ye’s home, during the summer of 2013 covered in the documentary, Ye had organized a small protest in the southern island province of Hainan, where she held up a poster saying, “Principal, get a room with me—leave the school kids alone.” A photo of Ye with her sign went viral, raising awareness of a spate of sexual assaults in China against schoolchildren. At the time, Ye was already widely known for volunteering to work for free in a brothel in order to draw attention to sex workers’ rights.

Like Ye, Wang is from a poor village in China. Wang taught herself English and won scholarships that allowed her to study journalism in Ohio and New York. She was planning on making a documentary about Chinese sex workers when Ye invited her to film their protest.

Their Hainan protest was aimed at a school principal and a local government official, who had taken six female students aged 11 to 14 to a hotel and raped them over a 24-hour period. The men claimed they thought the girls were sex workers. They were each sentenced to less than 14 years in jail, reflecting the fact that the punishment for “engaging in sex with underage prostitutes” in China used to be only five to 15 years in prison. The “prostitute” label was a criminal classification that legal experts said shamed child victims into silence and let rapists off the hook.

In the film, Wang follows Ye and her fellow activists as police and hired thugs chase them from town to town. In one chilling scene, only the sounds of Ye getting beaten can be heard. Wang is also followed and interrogated, with her camera jerking wildly as she tries to run away. All of this happened because a small group of women were successfully raising awareness, mostly through social media, about sexual assault cases.

Anti-rape activism wasn’t always so controversial in China. Before president Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, authorities seemedrelatively tolerant of advocacy around women’s issues, compared to causes such as religious freedom and land rights.

Female activists who are currently in jail include former primary school teacher Su Changlan, who faces up to 15 years in prison on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Su is a former volunteer for the New York-based Women’s Rights in China group, and has campaigned for an end to violence against women, and assisted women who were forced to abort children to comply with China’s family planning system.

After shutting down Ye’s activism and driving Wang out of the country, authorities made an even stronger statement last year by arresting five young feminist activists, shortly before International Women’s Day on March 8. The five were planning to distribute stickers with slogans, including a call for police to arrest sexual harassment suspects, when they were detained.

“Ye can’t hold street protests anymore. She has trouble traveling because she is under constant surveillance, and her passport has been taken away,” said Wang, who is married to an American and lives in New York. “Police threatened my family and urged them to stop me from making my documentary. I haven’t tried to go back to China yet. I don’t know if it’ll be safe to go.”


China laughs off US democracy

Donald Trump’s brash and unpredictable campaign boosts Beijing’s argument that China’s one-party state system is superior to US-style democracy. 

Beijing (dpa) – On an autumn evening in Beijing, people from the United States, Canada and China gathered at a pub in the city centre to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

While nearly all the foreigners were Clinton supporters, many of the Chinese viewers had mixed reactions.

“Trump doesn’t seem that bad. I thought he’d be totally crazy, but he seems pretty smart,” said Chen Yu, a student at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Chen and his classmates laughed when Trump blamed China for stealing jobs from US citizens and devaluing its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.

“Look at what China is doing to our country,” Trump said. “They are using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China.”

In May, the Republican nominee had gone as far as to describe China’s trade relationship with the US as “rape.”

But despite his attacks, Trump counts a number of Chinese admirers. Some have even set up groups on social media with names such as “Donald J Trump Superfans Nation.”

Official Chinese media, meanwhile, have jumped onto the opportunities Trump’s scandals present to point out the failings of Western democratic societies.

In a popular editorial, the state-run Global Times called Trump a “narcissistic and inflammatory candidate” who acts like “a clown,” expressing alarm that he could become president in “one of the most developed and mature democratic election systems” in the world.

The newspaper warned that people like Trump are not only “big-mouthed,” they can be dangerous.

“Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy,” it said.

But analysts say that events over the past year – from Brexit to Trump’s rise – have tarnished the image of democracy in China, where there is no meaningful political opposition to Communist Party rule.

“Even Chinese citizens who are sceptical, who have travelled abroad, see that there are genuinely worrying events in the US.

The Chinese media doesn’t have to make it up,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese and world history at the University of California, Irvine, in an interview with dpa.

Ying Ying, a banker in Beijing, agreed: “What’s happening in the US and Europe really doesn’t make democracy look good.”

A commentary from the official Xinhua news agency earlier attacked Trump for playing the “China-bashing card” in his efforts to shore up his support, and accused him of offering no real ideas on how to improve relations.

Xinhua also said Trump’s policy ideas had “betrayed” the Republicans’ traditional endorsement of free trade.

Some Chinese are worried that if Trump wins, China’s economy will suffer. Leaders have assured citizens China will meet the government’s growth target of 6.5 to 7 per cent for 2016.

“If Trump becomes president, he would add heavy taxes to export products, delivering a huge strike to China’s economy,” Hu Die, a trade company employee in Beijing told dpa.

But many Chinese still think that even an election involving Trump is better than no elections at all.

“I hate the Chinese here who support Trump for fun

“But I understand those people who would vote for Trump to show their unhappiness with the current government. It isn’t going to solve the problems, but they have that right,” said An Ruyi, an assistant television producer.

“China doesn’t have politicians who act like Trump. But at least they have elections in the US. I would still like to have the opportunity to vote,” said Guo Guo, a product manager at a Chinese technology company.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 20:  Pokemon GO players meet at Sydney Opera House on July 20, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. The Opera House hosted a Pokemon gathering,  adding lures to all nearby Pokestops. The augmented reality app requires players to look for Pokemon in their immediate surroundings with the use of GPS and internet services turning the whole world into a Pokemon region map. The hugely popular app has seen Nintendo shares soar following its limited release in the US, Australia and New Zealand on July 6.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Pokemon Go launch in China given hope with new technology venture

A ban on Google Maps means that Pokemon Go is still unavailable in China months after being launched in other parts of the world. However, local fans may finally be able to join the craze if a new technology venture succeeds. 

Beijing (dpa) – A new venture from Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba may smooth the path for the launch of Pokemon Go in the world’s most populous country, technology experts have told dpa.

Nintendo’s smartphone “augmented reality” game, in which computer-generated Pokemon characters are superimposed onto real locations, has been a sensation this year with over 100 million downloads worldwide and an estimated daily revenue of 10 million dollars.

Nintendo’s Pokemon chief executive said Tuesday the company hopes to bring the game to China and South Korea, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the long wait has led Chinese citizens to take desperate measures to access the game such as buying expensive foreign Apple IDs or jailbreaking their phones to change their GPS location and simulate play in other countries.

“The main reason Chinese fans cannot play Pokemon Go in China [on real Chinese streets] is because the app uses Google Maps, which is blocked in China,” Kong Shan, CEO of Beijing-based app development company IT Engineer, told dpa.

Pokemon Go runs on Google App Engine, Google’s cloud computing platform for developing and hosting apps in Google data centers.

China has blocked Google products since 2010, when the US company refused to comply with the government’s censorship demands. Popular social media apps such as Facebook and Snapchat are also blocked in the country.

However, potential ways around the blocks could emerge on the back of the Alibaba Group’s announcement last month that it has partnered with 11 companies including AppScale Systems Inc of the US to help them “leverage Alibaba Cloud’s leading cloud computing expertise … to explore the China market.”

Appscale is a Google-approved open source version of the Google App Engine that gives companies the ability to move their Google-based applications and run them anywhere they choose without the need for additional software.

“Our customers have built their business success on Google App Engine. At some point, China becomes a market that these customers desire to penetrate,” Appscale CEO Woody Rollins told dpa.

“Alibaba’s AliMaps has similar functionality to Google Maps, particularly as the requirements of Pokemon Go are concerned. AliMaps would be the plug-in replacement for Google Maps.”

“We have concluded not only is this possible, it is do-able,” Rollins told dpa exclusively.

The launch of Pokemon Go in China could lead to a massive windfall for Nintendo.

There are an estimated 563.3 million smartphone users in China, and mobile gaming is a major source of revenue for Chinese internet giant Tencent, the maker of the hugely popular WeChat app.

“I hope it happens. I travelled to Hong Kong last month mostly just to play Pokemon Go. I think there would be huge demand for the game in China,” said Zhang Pengfei, 32, a Beijing-based restaurant manager.

But Kong Shan warns that it could still be difficult for foreign companies to negotiate the use of Chinese map systems.

China’s State Council announced new regulations in December that required all digital maps provided in China to be stored on servers in China, and imposes fines and penalties for violations of rules such as one that prohibits the display or storing data deemed to be illegal by the government.

“Pokemon Go makers would contract with Alibaba to use their services … similar to what they currently do with Google. It is the AppScale software that enables Pokemon to run on Alibaba,” Rollins said.

However, only third-party applications can use Appscale. Gmail, Google Maps and Google Search are all services that can only be provided by Google. They would remain inaccessible in China without the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), Rollins said.

Rollins said Appscale has not yet approached Pokemon Go executives with their China research findings and Niantic Labs, the developer of Pokemon Go, has not responded to dpa’s requests for comment.

Alibaba’s “AliLaunch Program” with foreign technology partners comes at a time when China is taking more steps to hinder foreign companies from openly competing with domestic companies in various industries.

China requires foreign carmakers to set up businesses with local partners to help boost the technological and operational advancement of the domestic industry.

China also restricts foreign movie imports to 34 titles a year out of concern that opening up completely to the foreign market could damage its domestic film industry.


Charity overhaul in China, but only with government approval

Beijing (IRIN) – The world’s strongest storm of the year slammed into China last week, just as the country was recovering from severe flooding that the government said left about 1,000 people dead. In many nations, this would prompt a deluge of donations to disaster response, but not in China, which is ranked the second-least charitable country in the world.

A new law is meant to fix this, but critics have voiced concern that it is too restrictive and will lead to greater state control.

Researchers and charity workers say people are reluctant to donate largely because they don’t trust the system. Scandals have damaged the reputation of major charities, many of which have been forced to operate in legally grey areas for decades if they do not have a government sponsor.

The national charity law, which came into effect on 1 September, includes improved fraud protection, relaxed registration requirements, and incentives such as tax benefits. The new measures may help encourage charitable giving, which is especially important in a country like China that suffers from frequent natural disasters but doesn’t generally invite foreign aid.

“It is too early to say if the law will lead to an increase in giving, but I think it will definitely push the charity sector to become more careful and accountable, and in time this should encourage more giving,” said a staff member of a government-backed humanitarian agency who requested anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to media (A media officer from the same organisation did not respond to requests for comment).

Distrust and scandal

China ranked second to last of 145 nations surveyed for charitable giving, according to the World Giving Index published last year by the Charities Aid Foundation. It was followed only by Burundi, a country in the throes of a violent political crisis.

Surveyors found that only eight percent of Chinese reported giving money to charity during the last month, while just four percent said they would volunteer.

The low level of charity in China is particularly striking since the country is producing more billionaires than ever. The murky nature of the Chinese economy makes it hard to measure wealth, but Forbes estimated the country had 335 billionaires last year (compared to the United States with 536), while the Shanghai-based publishing and market research firm Hurun Report put the number of Chinese billionaires at 568.

But the number of people supporting charities has been falling even as the rich get richer, according to the World Giving Index. And it’s no wonder people are distrustful when it’s so difficult to access information on non-profits. Nine out of 10 charitable organisations in China failed to meet basic standards for transparency, according to a recent report from Peking University’s Center for Participation Studies and Supports that evaluated 93 charities across 31 Chinese provinces.

Scandals have also hurt the Red Cross Society of China, which is not affiliated with the International Federation of the Red Cross, but is one of the biggest humanitarian groups in the country. In 2013, the organisation admitted that nearly $12 million donated by Chinese artists to build an art school and support reconstruction work after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province was redirected to other projects.

Increased transparency

Under the new charity law, organisations no longer need a government sponsor but would have to demonstrate sound governance and legal compliance before seeking funds from the public. The stated aim of the law is to “build a comprehensive regime for the regulation and management of charity organisations in China.”

Charities that gather public donations are required to keep their administrative costs at no greater than 10 percent of the amount they raise in any given year. To help prevent fraud, groups are required to post clear information on their websites or use online donation gateways designated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The law also introduces attractive new tax benefits. If a company’s donation exceeds 12 percent in one year, the balance can be deducted from the company’s income over the following two years. However, this is contingent on whether the rules are consistently implemented by local tax authorities.

“The law itself is a big step forward. It was made through a revolutionary, entirely participatory process. Many academics and practitioners were invited into the drafting process, and [their suggestions] were heeded by lawmakers,” Karla Simon, a scholar at the New York University School of Law and author of Civil Society in China, told IRIN.

Holly Snape, a Beijing-based analyst at the Tsinghua NGO Research Center, said the law is also a timely response to the explosive development of China’s mobile web.

“More people are using cellphones to shop and donate money, both in terms of numbers of people and amounts of money involved,” she said. “This naturally comes with much higher demands placed on charitable organisations for public reporting and transparency, proper auditing and so on.”

Too restrictive?

The law has its critics too.

Charities may now have their registrations revoked if they engage in activities deemed to “undermine state security or public interests”. Groups or individuals raising funds without a license will have to return donations and face fines of up to 200,000 yuan ($30,000).

“This law goes beyond what is necessary to build trust by restricting fundraising to government-approved groups only,” said Frances Eve, a researcher with the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

One group likely to be hit hard by the law will be friends and supporters of prisoners of conscience, who often put out calls for donations online, she said.

Rights groups accused the government earlier this year of planning to use a separate new Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations Management Law as part of a crackdown on critics. That law was passed in April but has not yet been implemented.

SEE: Activist arrest puts foreign NGOs in China on edge

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

Exclusive: G20 leaders to agree to join Paris climate deal as soon as possible

Hangzhou (dpa) – All members of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies are expected to join the first universal action plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change, according to a late draft of the G20 summit communique seen by dpa on Sunday.

“We commit to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement as soon as our national procedures allow,” the draft read.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly entered their countries into the Paris climate agreement on Saturday, bringing the total number of ratified countries up to 26.

The agreement will enter into force 30 days once 55 countries accounting for at least 55 per cent of global greenhouse emissions ratify it.

Activists at Greenpeace were sceptical of the agreement’s impact, saying that the “G20 summit threatens to be a flop.”

Criticizing a lack of additional commitments, Tobias Munchmeyer, Greenpeace’s political unit deputy director, told dpa that “after China and the US showed leadership, the G20 seems to not want to go forward.”

Last December in Paris, nearly 200 countries agreed to cut emissions with a goal of keeping the increase in average global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The G20 communique draft did not mention the 100 billion dollars that signatories had agreed to mobilize by the year 2020 to help developing countries combat climate change.

It also did not mention plans to fulfill a promise the G20 made seven years ago to put an end to controversial fossil fuel subsidies.

The final communique is to be released Monday evening at the close of the summit in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou.

Several leaders of highly industrialized economies were in attendance at the summit, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Xi had opened the summit Sunday afternoon with a call for the body to become “an action team instead of a talk shop.”

“It is imperative that the G20 takes the lead and blaze a trail,” Xi reiterated to the summit Sunday evening at a welcome dinner.

HOLD FOR STORY G20 CHINA HOST'S IMAGE BY CHRIS BODEEN A man cycles past a propaganda board with the words "Organize well G20, be a good host" in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. China’s hosting of the Group of 20 industrialized nations summit highlights its role as the world’s second largest economy and a growing force in global diplomacy, but also comes amid sharpening frictions over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, disputes with fellow regional powers South Korea and Japan and criticisms over a sweeping crackdown on dissent at home. China hopes to avoid discussion of such issues while using the summit in the eastern city of Hangzhou to burnish its image as a responsible major nation whose support is essential to solving the world’s ills. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Exclusive: China blocks major civil society groups from monitoring G20 summit

Hangzhou (dpa) – The host of this year’s G20 summit has “broken precedent” by denying leading civil society organizations the ability to monitor and comment on events inside the venue’s media centre, activists charge.

China either ignored or refused the requests of major international non-profit organizations to participate in the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou as observers, representatives of several such groups asserted Saturday.

They spoke to dpa on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their operations in China.

“I’ve been at the last three G20 summits but not this time. In those three years, we had up to around 40 places in the media centre and were able to provide comment to journalists,” a manager of an international advocacy group told dpa.

“Basically, there is no representation by civil society at this G20 summit,” a senior staff member of another major humanitarian group said.

He also noted that when China hosted the meeting of the Civil Society 20 (C20) in Qingdao in July, roughly three-quarters of organizations were affiliated with the Chinese state.

China did not agree to host a C20 event until late April, and at the time did not clarify when or where the gathering would take place.

“Chinese authorities have made their hostility to civil society painfully clear in recent years, such that no G20 members should be surprised at the restrictions imposed for the summit itself,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

“Past meetings have taken place in locations that generally were more tolerant of civil society, such that access was easier. But maddeningly a lot of ‘how’ any G20 is held is really up to the host – it’s not a codified matter of international law,” Richardson told dpa.

International advocacy organizations and prominent activists have appealed to G20 leaders to confront Beijing over what they call a dramatically worsening environment for human rights.

In June, authorities sentenced Hangzhou-based democracy activists Lü Gengsong and Chen Shuqing to prison terms of 11 and 10 and a half years respectively for their online essays, in a move seen as an attempt to intimidate other dissidents from speaking up during the G20 summit.

Of the more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists who have been detained or summoned by Chinese police since last summer, over a dozen are believed to still be in jail, according to Amnesty International.

Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers who fled to the United States in 2014, said silence from G20 leaders on China’s human rights would amount to complicity.

“If G20 participants only talk about issues concerning the economy, if they don’t say anything about human rights, they are helping the Chinese government to crack down on the people and civil society,” Teng told dpa.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday told a meeting of G20 business leaders in Hangzhou that China is committed to “law-based governance.”