National Security

China, Russia Target U.S.-Funded Civil Society Groups

Authoritarian governments crack down on freedom of assembly in challenge to West

Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin
Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin / AP

China and Russia are cracking down on civil society groups that receive funding from the United States and other countries, an escalation of campaigns by both authoritarian governments to maintain popular support through patriotic mobilization.

Russia recently added several non-government organizations (NGOs) to a list of "undesirables" that can be dissolved by its Justice Ministry for threatening "constitutional order." One prominent group targeted by the Kremlin is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. organization that is mostly funded by Congress and has allocated millions to Russian NGOs in recent years.

Other groups that have been declared "foreign agents" in Russia for accepting money from abroad include the Committee Against Torture, which has helped compensate victims of police torture, and Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group and a documenter of abuses during the Soviet era.

NED, which might be forced to halt all of its activities in Russia, said in a statement that the Kremlin’s law banning undesirable groups is "the latest in a series of highly restrictive laws that limit the freedom of Russian citizens."

"The true intent of these laws is to intimidate and isolate Russian citizens," the group said.

Russia expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2012 for supporting civil society groups.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed Western countries and any groups aligned with them as a potential threat to Russian sovereignty. Analysts say that as Russia’s economy has worsened, he has sought to maintain popular approval through nationalist speeches and aggressive actions abroad, including his destabilization of Ukraine.

Carl Gershman, president of NED, noted in a Washington Post op-ed that Putin has also sponsored repression at home against political opposition.

"The regime’s fear over its own lack of political legitimacy is apparent in the lengths to which it is going to prevent any electoral competition," he wrote. "Not only has Russia moved up the date of 2016 national parliamentary elections, making it more difficult for the opposition to challenge incumbent officeholders, but also it is cracking down on three regional parliamentary campaigns in which a coalition of democratic opposition parties are trying to win seats in elections to be held in September."

Alexei Pivovarov, campaign manager for the umbrella organization of opposition groups known as the Democratic Coalition, was arrested last month on what critics say are politically motivated charges. Some of the coalition’s candidates for local office in the large Russian city of Novosibirsk went on a hunger strike after they were denied spots on the ballot. They have since decided to lead protests on Sept. 13, local election day.

"The right for elections has been taken away from us—no more illusions—so we must hurry to make use of the right to walk through the streets before it is taken away, too," wrote Leonid Volkov, a leader of the coalition, on his website.

Boris Nemtsov, the lone opposition candidate to win a regional seat, was shot and killed near the Kremlin in February.

In China, President Xi Jinping has also targeted civil society groups and human rights lawyers amid economic woes for the country. An internal memo for the Chinese Communist Party in 2013, known as Document No. 9, expressed concern about "Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country" as well as the promotion of "universal values" such as human rights.

The Chinese government has proposed its own legislation to regulate "foreign NGOs" that receive funding from abroad. Groups designated under the law would have to be sponsored by a state agency and be subject to monitoring from police, a system that could force many NGOs to close.

There are about 6,000 foreign NGOs in China, according to reports, many with roots in the United States.

Victor Clemens, a researcher for the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), said in an email that it is unclear when the NGO draft legislation might be passed. Many groups already face a "hostile" environment under Xi’s administration, he said, and could struggle to survive if the law is enacted.

"Some groups may simply disintegrate if they lose overseas funding—a major target of the draft law—and others could close just due to increased obstacles placed in their path by the government," he said.

"If the NGO legislation becomes law as it is written, the work of civil society groups almost surely will become more criminalized," he added.