BEIJING (AP) -- China pledged Wednesday to allow charities, industry associations and other nonprofit groups to play a greater role in society in an acknowledgement of the growing importance of independent organizations that the authoritarian government traditionally has treated with suspicion.
Civil Affairs Minister Li Liguo said that as part of the Cabinet's recently announced restructuring plan, the government will expand the scope of functions it will let other groups fulfill.
"Overall, from now on, the role that our country's social organizations will play in economic and social development will be expanded and strengthened," Li told a news conference on the sidelines of the annual legislative session in Beijing.
But the government's apparent gesture of inclusion appears unlikely to improve working conditions for organizations involved in areas officials deem sensitive, which can range from AIDS prevention to legal activism. Such groups, many of which are not properly registered, are frequently harassed by tax authorities and the police.
China calls nonprofit, independent groups "social organizations." From sheltering abused women to campaigning against smoking, nonprofit organizations have played an increasingly important role in helping underrepresented groups.
China's leaders have only recently become open to the notion that outside help is needed to address deep problems in social welfare, the environment and health, but the government has remained deeply suspicious of independent activist groups, fearing they could turn political.
Li said such groups will no longer need to find government sponsors in order to obtain the official registration that grants them nonprofit status. Such groups will now be able to register themselves directly with the Civil Affairs Ministry, he said, though he did not provide details on how the ministry would assess applications.
Li said the ministry would set up a mechanism to process registrations and supervise and regulate independent groups. Registration allows nonprofits to operate legally, raise funds domestically and become eligible for some tax exemptions.
Li said the changes would apply to charities, community service groups, industry associations and groups that work in science and technology. Those four categories seem to exclude some of the more sensitive groups, such as those working to expose environmental pollution or expand the rule of law.
The moves are a positive signal that the government doesn't see all nonprofit groups as a threat anymore, said organizer Lu Jun of the anti-discrimination group Yirenping. But Lu said China needs to open up to more kinds of non-governmental organizations, especially ones that can provide legal advice and representation.
"They are the most needed ones under the present society, which severely lacks justice," Lu said. "Not opening up to these kinds of organizations is a huge flaw."
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