Parents carry a victim of the Sanlu milk scandal in a Wuhan maternity hospital, Hubei Province, on September 16 last year. Xu offered to represent all the victims of the scandal in their quest for justice.
There were 386,916 official and unofficial NGOs registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs by the end of 2007. That number only accounts for NGOs registered at civil affairs bureaus across the country. A far larger number of NGOs are either registered at local administrations for industry and commerce or not registered at all, according to Lu.
The Beijing Yirenping Center belongs to the larger group. It was visited by a police officer and two plainclothes officers from the Cultural Market Administrative Law Enforcement Office of Beijing on July 29. The officers said they received a report that the center was involved in publishing without a license. They searched the center and confiscated more than 90 copies of China's Anti-Discrimination Legal Action Newsletter.
Lu explained to them that printing documents like fliers and newsletters is a major task of NGOs. Otherwise they would not be able to publicize relevant laws and information to the public.
The newsletters were published in small numbers and given out free at seminars, not public places. Therefore they should not be taken as a publication.Revenge
Lu suspected the incident was an act of revenge on the center by someone offended by what they did.
"Wealthy and powerful people have increased dramatically in the last few years without being restricted properly," he said. "They have intensified attacks and retaliation on NGOs providing legal aid."
His concern is shared by Guo Jianmei, a lawyer who has been working for the public interest for 14 years. She considered public interest lawyers as people with lofty ideals, high moral standards and a great sense of social responsibility. The challenges, risks and pressure they face are beyond the imagination of people in other professions, according to her.
Guo founded the Center for Women's Law & Legal Service of Peking University in 1995. She was under pressure and couldn't sleep at one time, worrying how far she could go.
"Chinese NGOs offering legal assistance and consultation are like seedlings rooted in stone cracks, trying to survive in an unfavorable environment," she said.
"Society is unlikely to provide a flexible political environment within 10 years for us to speak out openly about what's on our mind. How can we develop in such a situation?"
With 14 years of practical experience, she realized legal aid NGOs often had to be run in a Chinese way for survival and development. They must open channels to government to make themselves heard, building up connections with officials, counselors and lawmakers.
"I was reluctant to butter up the government because of a sense of personal honor," she said. "I thought it was unnecessary to act according to the will of officials. However, as other NGOs got into trouble one by one, I was thinking hard and realized I couldn't distance myself from the government, but had to join the mainstream."
She came to see opening up government channels as a strategy to achieve the goal of working independently with greater freedom.
The pressure endured by NGOs was even bigger a few years ago, according to Xu. The predecessor of the Open Constitution Initiative was refused renewal of its registration with the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce in 2005. He had to re-register the organization with a new name.
"The political environment is becoming flexible, and society is moving forward," he said to the Global Times during an interview in June.
"Some reformers within the system are trying to win support from the government, while we are striving for tolerance of the authority."
Peng Jian, a lawyer with the Open Constitution Initiative, said members of the organization were considering filing bankruptcy. At the same time, he and Lin Zheng, assistant of the organization, were still attempting to represent victims of the Sanlu baby milk powder scandal.