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Deported Swedish NGO Worker Concerned About Detained Colleagues in China

This undated photo at an undisclosed location provided to AFP by the 'Chinese Urgent Action Working Group' shows Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin.

Upon arrival back in Sweden, expelled rights activist Peter Dahlin, says he is concerned about the safety of three colleagues and close friends, all of whom remain in custody in China.

“I’m obviously quite happy to be back, but three of my colleagues and close friends are still incarcerated without a quick solution in sight,” Dahlin told Swedish Radio. Dahlin did not specify their names and also voiced his gratitude to the Swedish Embassy’s for their help in his case.

After being held for three-weeks, the 35-year-old says his girlfriend has been released with no allegations against her while he himself was released on medical and diplomatic grounds.

“This means that the allegations against me remain and if I return to China I will be put on trial for this crime,” he added.

Dahlin was arrested on January 3 and accused by the Chinese government of operating an unlicensed rights group in China to endanger the country’s national security and interfere in its sensitive legal cases.

Prior to his arrest, Dahlin was co-founder of the non-governmental organization Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which says it was established in 2009 to promote the development of the rule of law and human rights through training and the support of public interest litigation in China.

Unexpected release

Until his colleagues are released, they remain a hostage to Dahlin’s freedom to speak, which will make it harder to interpret the case’s significance, according to Jerome Cohen, professor of law at New York University.

Cohen, in a blog post Tuesday, argued Dahlin’s unexpected release and preferable treatment mostly reflected his cooperation in detention via a televised confession on the state-run CCTV last Tuesday.

On his TV appearance, Dahlin admitted the alleged wrongdoings of his group, which he said had paid and supported Chinese rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang and activist Xin Qingxian, the latter of whom brought the son of detained rights lawyer Wang Yu across international borders.

David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, however, calls China’s public spectacles of shaming “political bullying -- a form of punishment and ritual humiliation for the victims, and a powerful way for the party state to communicate which behaviors it finds unacceptable.”

Ultimately, the aim is to crush dissent and the supposed crimes are of middling importance relative to the act of submission itself, the researcher added.

Still room for NGOs to operate in China

Simon Chang, associate professor of politics at National Taiwan University, agrees, saying China has made its point clear that Dahlin and his other peers from foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have crossed a red line.

“The red line apparently has been drawn tighter along with tightened policies. That has a direct impact on [foreign] NGOs in the political [service] field, in particular, with relation to human rights issues,” Chang said.

“It also sends a warning to NGOs in other fields that: don’t you come meddling in our sensitive affairs,” he said.

The professor added that China recognizes the role NGOs play in public governance, which it believes complements the state’s declining ruling capacity. Yet, he said, authorities adopt a hard line when it comes to sources which they see may undermine the Communist Party’s legitimacy and trigger social unrest.

Thus, there is still room for NGOs to operate in China although some that are unregistered will be treading in risky waters, he said.

Earlier estimates by Tsinghua University showed that there were more than three million NGOs operating in China, of which only 15% were officially registered. The number of foreign NGOs was estimated to be around 10,000.

Sarah Brooks, East Asia program manager of the International Service for Human Rights, said Dahlin’s case showcases “the long arm of China,” whose influence now appears to have extended beyond its borders after neighboring countries such as Thailand assisted in the arrests of Chinese dissidents.

“You see the willingness of the Chinese public security apparatus to really disregard borders, in terms of implementing their mandate to uphold the will of the party,” Brooks said.

She said such intimidation, however, will only end up hurting China’s own development of civil rights, be it labor rights or education for migrate workers and financially-challenged children.

“Policies and laws, and frankly, outright intimidation that prevent NGOs from organizing or human rights defenders from doing their work undermines the very effort to realize the rights that the country claims to preference,” the Geneva-based manager concludes.