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Danger: activism

Clamp down on Oxfam activities in universities spreads fears among civil society operative on the Chinese ground

di Olivia McConhay

“All education departments and institutions of higher education must raise their guard and together recognise and take precautions against the unfriendly intentions of Oxfam Hong Kong’s recruitment of college volunteers.”

This notification is presumed to have come from the Chinese government, according to a Times report last February 24. It was sent to several universities across China and its  specific intention seems to have been the cancellation of a programme which saw Oxfam workers from Hong Kong recruit and train Chinese students on campus.

Oxfam, which primary goals are the alleviation of poverty and the fight against injustice was surprised.

The forbidden programme is one of many that Oxfam Hong Kong has been carrying out in mainland China over the past few years. It had been run for four years with no prior problems.

Meanwhile, in the Hong Kong press, mainland rights activists were described as alarmed. In its dealings with mainland authorities, Oxfam is perceived as a very moderate, even over cautious agency.

A presumed cause for worry for the rest of the NGO community with projects in China, who are wondering whether this constitutes a small start to a much more major clamp down.

Below, the full Times report.




China’s long-standing distrust of foreign non-governmental organisations has spilled over into an accusation that a branch of the charity Oxfam has a hidden political agenda.

An official notice, attributed to the Education Ministry, called on universities and colleges to sever ties with the British-based international relief agency and stop it recruiting on Chinese campuses. It described Oxfam Hong Kong, which oversees the NGO’s operations on the mainland, as “seeking to infiltrate our interior”.

The notice branded the group’s chairman, Lo Chi-kin, a “stalwart of the opposition faction” in language more usually associated with past political campaigns.

Websites managed by the Minzu University in Beijing and Wuhan University in central China ran the February 4 notice on their job recruitment pages. However, news of the statement, apparently intended for internal use only, spread quickly into the public domain. Last night it had disappeared from all college websites.

The notice ordered schools to sever all ties and co-operation with Oxfam. It read: “All education departments and institutions of higher education must raise their guard and together recognise and take precautions against the unfriendly intentions of Oxfam Hong Kong’s recruitment of college volunteers.”

Oxfam, which has operated in China for two decades, voiced astonishment. Matt Grainger, the Oxfam spokesman in Britain, said: “This came as a complete surprise. We have been running this programme for four years with no problems. We have received no notification of any concerns.”

An official at the Hong Kong office said that Oxfam was trying to get in touch with its counterparts in China to find out if the notice had been issued by the Government and, if so, why.

He declined to comment on the allegations against Mr Lo. They may be linked to his membership of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, which advocates direct elections and other political reforms opposed by Beijing.

China regained control of the former British colony in 1997. Howard Liu, the director of Oxfam Hong Kong’s China unit, said that the agency had done nothing to challenge Beijing’s policies or laws and was interested only in alleviating poverty.

He said that the notice appeared to refer specifically to an internship programme that places undergraduates from Chinese universities at NGOs. The programme has been in place for four years, is officially sanctioned and has taken on 40 Chinese volunteers.

Oxfam Hong Kong operates in almost every Chinese province and is involved in projects that touch on sensitive issues such as HIV/Aids and safeguarding labour and human rights.

China’s Communist Government remains deeply suspicious of most independent social organisations outside its direct control and sets strict limits on the activities of international NGOs.


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