China legal aid center reportedly closed over foreign donations

AFP-JIJI

A women’s legal aid center shut down in Beijing was probably ordered to close because it took money from overseas donors, state media said Tuesday after U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton backed its founder.

Beijing police ordered the closure of the Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, which represented low-income Chinese women free of charge, the state-run Global Times said.

“The (police) request may have resulted from funds that came from overseas organizations,” it said, adding that the center received funding from the U.S.-based Ford Foundation.

The article comes as charity workers in China report increased police pressure about foreign funding, and as state-run media accuse overseas organizations of plotting to undermine the country’s authoritarian political system.

China last month detained and expelled a Swedish human rights activist who had aided Chinese lawyers, after parading him on state television confessing to breaking the law.

The Zhongze center, founded by lawyer Guo Jianmei after a high-profile United Nations conference on women held in Beijing in 1995, was seen as symbolizing an emerging civil society in China attempting to use courts to challenge injustice.

It said in a statement on its website that it was closing as of Monday, thanking supporters without giving an explanation.

Potential Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who attended the conference, said on Twitter: “True in Beijing in 1995, true today: Women’s rights are human rights. This center should remain-I stand with Guo.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s ruling Communist party has reasserted controls over civil society, detaining more than 130 human rights lawyers and legal staff in the past year.

Beijing is preparing a new law, which according to drafts would give police tighter controls over foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

In an op-ed, the Global Times said the center’s willingness to “take on sensitive cases and take foreign funds provides a perspective on this issue.”

The editorial, attributed to Shan Renping, a pen name for the paper’s editor, Hu Xijin, added that foreign aid “had a political slant and selectivity which could disturb Chinese society.”

The Zhongze center was renowned for defending Deng Yujiao, who in 2009 stabbed a government official to death after he attempted to sexually assault her. Public pressure led prosecutors to reduce the original charge of murder to the lesser “intentional assault.”